As fascinated as I am with the glorious things that can happen when wine and food make a seamless match, I have always argued that we need to prevent it from dominating our wine choices. In particular, we all need to keep in mind that most of us drink most of our wine without benefit of food. Therefore, my first rule of wine-and-food pairing is this: "Drink what you like with food you like. All the rest is fine-tuning."
I admit up front I am as avid a food-and-wine wonk as anyone. I just don't buy into the notion that we should compromise on any of the aspects we love about wine just to make the match better. You like big, bold reds? Fine. Don't feel guilty about drinking them with grilled chicken, because we consume only a small fraction of the wine after a bite of food. You like crisp, tart white wines? Go right ahead and drink it with the lamb. It can work well, as demonstrated in this pairing of lamb with Sancerre, from a noted sommelier.
I have taken a lot of flak for this point of view over the years. But I have stuck to my guns, mainly because the danger of making the wine-and-food match the top priority far outweighs the elusive benefit of scoring that perfect pairing. Far better to get comfortable with what we like about wine and not get frantic about whether it fits oh-so-perfectly with the food on the table.
As I was preparing to give a talk tonight on wine-and-food pairing to students at San Francisco State University, I came across a report that vindicates this idea. A survey of core wine drinkers, a group the researchers say represents more than 82 percent of total wine sales in the United States, reports that we drink 60 percent of all wine apart from mealtime. Even more if you focus on over-$15 wines.
The survey, conducted by Wine Opinions and sold to the industry at $495 a pop, calculates that 14 percent of wine is consumed while preparing a meal, 19 percent with snacks, 23 percent after dinner, and another 13 percent at other times entirely.
So what am I going to tell the students tonight in Colin Johnson's class, "Food, Wine and Culture in California"? First of all, a wine in your glass and the food on the table can create magic in your mouth. If you drink a wine you like with food you like, it will always be an enjoyable experience. (Worst-case scenario, if they clash, take a sip of water or bite of bread in between, and enjoy the wine and food separately.)
But it's also fun to home in on pairings that can achieve that magic. Just as mashed potatoes taste so good with roast beef and soy sauce adds a natural touch to sushi, certain wines do have an affinity for certain foods. It should be fun, not a chore, to seek those out. And I will offer some principles, such as trying to match wines and foods by impact and intensity, and specific examples to demonstrate why they work.
The last thing any of us want to do is hamstring the potentially joyful experience of drinking a good wine by weighing it down with shoulds and shouldn'ts. It's just a matter of perspective.
Joseph Kane — Austin — April 4, 2011 4:00pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — April 4, 2011 4:41pm ET
Alison Ivey — Chicago, IL — April 6, 2011 1:22am ET
Stephen Lima — Wakefield, RI — April 10, 2011 12:50pm ET
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