Wine, Food and the Fertile Imagination of Experts

Have You Even Tried It?

Almost all wine and food matching occurs in the fertile imagination of usually well-meaning and earnest wine and food enthusiasts and professionals. There is also some specter of "wine and food disasters" looming that can befall the poor, unsuspecting consumer if they make the mistake of ordering or serving the wrong wine with the wrong food -- see Dan Berger's piece on wine pairing disasters.

Here are recommendations for Peking Duck on a recent expert thread:

Reisling, a sauvignon blanc or Chateau Neuf-du-Pape, Oregon pinot noir, 100 percent Pinot Meunier Champagne, Alsace blends, a big ol' Pride cabernet, dolcetto and ripe vintages of Rosso di Montalcino, sangiovese, Australian sparkling cabernet, gewurztraminer, dry rose (esp. ones based upon Rhone red varieties like grenache, and syrah or Italian varieties like barbera and sangiovese), a good Portuguese wine from Douro.

Holy moly. Basically everyone just conjures up the dish, conjures up the metaphorical match and then goes to the mental Rolodex of wines they love in their heads and comes up with a match. The process is not based on any reality -- just our fertile imagination and personal wine favorites. Note there is nothing wrong with this -- just what the hell is a poor consumer supposed to do with this information???

You can bet that all contributors would defend their choices and you can bet that if it is a wine you love, it will be great with the Peking Duck and if it is not a great match, a dash of soy sauce (which is erroneously referred to as a wine enemy) and a tiny squeeze of lemon (for those who are more highly sensitive to bitterness) will set the dish right with any of the wines recommended.

Now take the information to your retailer, "I went online and am looking for a big, delicate, fruity and spicy late harvest sparkling nouveau white cabernet-pinot noir-grenache-sangiovese rose from Portugal made by an Australian winemaker with lots of not-oak owned by an Italian family to go with Peking Duck..."

When people come to my house for lunch or dinner and I get the cursory, "What wine should I bring?" question, I disclose the meal I plan and ask them to bring a wine that will not go with the dish. The wine should be something they like, but also something that would be considered a 'disaster' with the food. Most often I love to serve a delicate fish dish, like sole or halibut (red snapper or flounder when I am in Florida), and the wines that are selected are the intense reds that are so de riguer these days. Not sorta red, big and red.

The typical dishes I prepare are filet of sole a la bonne femme (paupiettes of sole -- rolled up -- poached in white wine and fish fumet with tarragon and mushrooms. The wines selected range from intense Lodi Petite Sirah to Napa Cabernet. I will invite some who have had this experience to weigh in the comments.

The results? Yummy food, wonderful wine -- the sole is delicious. The wine does not overpower the food nor does the food do anything other than make the wine more rich and delectable. The wine and food 'disaster' is all in our heads. Not one in the hundreds of people I've cooked for over the years has ever tried a delicate piece of fish a la meuniere with an intense red wine. Ever!

Same goes for steak and Riesling or lamb and Pinot Grigio. If the food is green and vegetal the imagination goes to Sauvignon Blanc. Oysters and Syrah? Ask winemaker Ken Brown -- we spent an afternoon at the Edna Valley Winery many years ago with a whole group of people slurping down fresh oysters and sucking down Syrah, Cabernet -- anything close at hand that was supposed to 'not go with' oysters. If a slight metallic or bitter edge arose, the tiniest bit of fresh lemon juice brought the wine back into a wonderful balance. There were a lot of quizzical looks -- turns out not one person in the very large group of very expert wine people had even tried the combination.

There is no natural affinity between Pinot Noir and salmon -- salmon is just metaphorically more similar to Pinot: salmon is big and red as far as fish go (not as big and not as red as a cow) and Pinot is not as 'big' and red as a Cabernet. It is an imaginary match -- and if you love Pinot Noir and love salmon chances are you will be very passionate that this is a perfect match!

A Couple of Caveats

1. The wine must be in the realm of a wine you would enjoy -- if you hate high alcohol Zinfandel, White Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio or whatever, it will suck with your food (or without).

2. The more emotionally you are tied to wine and food matching the more likely it is the imaginary wine and food matches you conjure up will work together. This is a psychological phenomenon and self-fulfilling prophecy of wine and food matching, not an experiential reality.

3. The more 'hypersensitive' you are, the more likely you are to get a bitter reaction from strong wines (high extract, higher alcohol). With foods with lots of umami -- a tiny addition of lemon and salt will cure most negative reactions, but if you don't tend to favor huge reds or oakey whites in the first place, stick to the wines you love the most.

4. The more 'tolerant' you are the more you will love big, extracted reds with whatever the hell you are eating and less likely you are to get any bitter reactions -- you just want big, red wines and you know who you are! A delicate Riesling with sushi is not in the cards for you.

5. If you love the metaphorical matching of heavy wines with heavy foods, searching for that orgasmic synergy when the wine and food elevate the experience to a whole new level, compliment and contrast the flavors and textures -- keep on doing that. Just understand that the experience is personal, subjective and mostly all in your head!

It is time that to radically address the role of enjoying wine and food together -- things are completely out of control and the misinformation, false premises and misunderstandings are at an all-time high. Go ahead -- spend a week diligently trying the wrong wine with your food, or vice-versa. You will be surprised at the success you will have finding delicious matches you never imagined.