A common trope about wine pretension says that we wine folks intimidate the rest of the world with our insistence upon always drinking the right wine with the right food. I don't know anyone who does that. Do you? I gave up a long time ago believing that there's a perfect wine for every dish.
That doesn't mean I ignore the message from my own taste buds that certain wines and foods can make beautiful music together. But I stubbornly resist didactic rules. The day I absent-mindedly picked up my glass of red wine to sip with my grilled fish, and discovered how the wine just brightened up and sang more clearly, started me on a lifelong quest for similarly unexpected but terrific wine-and-food combinations.
Some of us do love to play with the possibilities, just as audiophiles might spend hours tweaking their sound systems. It sure is fun if you happen to be into it, whether it's adjusting the sound or matching wine and food. For my monthly menu published in the 1980s and 1990s in Wine Spectator, I tasted a range of wine possibilities for each dish, not so much to find a perfect match but to see how each one responded to the food. Almost always a number of different options stood out, and it was simply a matter of deciding which of several good choices would fit best with the sequence of dishes.
That's what led me to realize that we can't let a quest for great wine-and-food matches sidetrack our pleasure in a meal. My basic premise, which I repeat today to anyone flummoxed about choosing a wine for dinner: "The object of the game is to enjoy the meal. Therefore, drink the wine you like with the food you like. All the rest is fine-tuning."
That may seem extraordinarily simple-minded, but I like the zen of it. Think of all the advice you may have heard about food-and-wine matching from experts and friends. Did it make you nervous, afraid of making a mistake? Better to relax and enjoy the food and the wine as it comes. There is no right or wrong. There is only what you like.
Over the years, certain combinations have struck me as special in my tastings, but that doesn't mean they'll be perfect for others. For example, crisp Sauvignon Blancs make my eyes light up after a bite of fresh goat cheese, on a cracker or in a dish. Both the cheese and the wine boast elevated acidity, so they find a balance. Herbal flavors are dominant in Sauvignon Blanc, echoing the reason so many fromageries coat their goat cheeses with herbs.
Most people I know love Sauvignon Blanc with goat cheese. Sancerre (made from Sauvignon Blanc) and chèvre are considered a classic match in France. So if you don't like crisp Sauvignon Blanc, aren't enamored of acidity and if herbal flavors in wine turn you off, don't feel guilty about liking something else better. I make no prescriptions, just suggestions, such as trying sweet Rieslings with chèvre. I like them with almost any cheese, and you might, too.
Most annoying is the myth of food wines, the idea that certain wines are particularly good with food in general, not just specific dishes. This usually comes from those who prefer wines that are neither full-bodied nor intensely flavorful. For them, wine must defer to the food. Not for me. I want the wine to be all that it can be. Also, many proponents of food wines insist a wine must carry enough acidity to "balance" the food. That's fine if it's the kind of food that might benefit from a squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar. And if the food has some sweetness—and many modern and spicy dishes do—that can send the acidity in the accompanying wine off the charts. I will happily drink a wine with similar sweetness to the food, but if you like acidity, don't let me stop you. Just don't insist that I must agree.
Besides, most of us drink only a small percentage of our wine with food. We pour a glass of wine and have a few sips. While waiting for the food, we might even finish a glass and pour a second. Even after we get the food, how often do we always follow a bite with a sip of wine? I've watched people in restaurants, and very few sips coordinate with a bite of food. At the end of the day, does it make sense to obsess over the wine and food match when it only affects a small percentage of your sips? Better to drink something you know you like.