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Free at Last! Free at Last!

You should get a divorce from the marriage of food and wine

Matt Kramer
Posted: December 7, 2010

Now that the Thanksgiving feast is finally digested, it’s a good moment to bring up the miserable matter of marrying food and wine. “Marrying,” the preferred term, is itself full of Freudian undercurrents, not the least of which is the subtext of the formulaic “till death do us part.”

Few aspects of what might be called the “wine life” are more burdensome and less fulfilling than this business of pairing the just-right wine with the just-so dish. What’s more, never in the millennia-old history of wine has the idea of such gustatory calibration been more inappropriate, indeed more futile, than today. Allow me to explain.

This whole fussy issue of choosing the “right” wine for a certain dish came from the French. So if you’re looking for someone to blame, they’re it. Now, it’s not as if the French, in some dastardly fashion, somehow calculated to make the life of the table an unending tribulation wherein the treachery of choosing the “wrong” wine could upset everyone’s equilibrium, to say nothing of embarrassing the host or causing prospective business partners to question your powers of judgment.

Instead, the idea came from the extreme fractionalization of France’s vast local-food differences allied with—let’s be honest here—a certain French exactitude in ritual matters, of which the table is famously their altar.

Keep in mind that for centuries, the French drank only their local wines and ate only their local dishes (and still do, in large part). Knowing this, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how, over a lifetime spent eating, say, boeuf bourguignon and washing it down with your local Burgundy wine, you’re going to become pretty choosy about which red Burgundy goes best with grand-mère’s boeuf bourguignon, especially given the French penchant for delineating and codifying differences. (You didn’t think that the elaborate structure of appellation contrôlée came out of a slapdash culture, did you?)

Inevitably, these considerations about which local wine went best with which local dish congealed into a prescribed absolutism, never mind that folks in Provence wouldn’t have chosen a red Burgundy with their local daube de boeuf on a bet, while the Burgundians probably didn’t even know of the existence of, say, a Bandol, let alone thought to pair one with their version of beef stew.

Fast-forward to the late 20th century. We Americans especially (but by no means exclusively) looked to our culinary betters for guidance and insight in matters of the table. That clearly did not mean the British. And, regrettably, until very recently, it didn’t mean the Italians either, much less any of the great Asian food cultures. It was France, front and center.

That is how we all found ourselves entrapped—that’s the only word—in the matchmaking madness of marrying the right wine with the right dish. Let’s face it: It worked when you had, say, 25 dishes and a comparably limited number of wines, both of which evolved from an isolated regional culture with an equally isolated and narrowly defined palate.

"Good wines can take care of themselves if seated next to a food partner that’s the least bit sociable."

This explains the oft-cited suggestion that you can never go wrong with choosing the local wines for a local dish, e.g., a high-acid Barbera or Nebbiolo with one of Piedmont’s magnificently rich dishes, which welcome those wines’ palate-refreshing acidity to knife through their richness.

The haute cuisine level, for its part, was little different, with a small number of “prescribed” great wines (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Sauternes, a few select German Rieslings) orbiting around a group of equally luxurious dishes.

So what’s a 21st-century wine lover to do? What I’m about to propose may sound radical, even philistine, but I assure you that a) I’m serious and b) what I’m proposing—if you’ll forgive the expression—works.

Here it is (suitable for framing): Good wines can work wonderfully with any food that is remotely plausible for the wine.

That’s it. Obviously you don’t want to serve some massive Napa Valley Cabernet with your Dover sole. But you already knew that. The reality of food and wine today is that there are far too many good wines—I emphasize that because it’s critically important—and far too many dishes from too many cuisines to fuss about a just-right pairing.

Good wines can take care of themselves if seated next to a food partner that’s the least bit sociable. Want proof? Think of the classic pairing in Alsace of that region’s delicious dry Riesling or Pinot Gris with choucroute garnie—sauerkraut with chunks of sausages, pork and potatoes. Now, would you have had the guts to do that pairing yourself? Well, would you? Enough said. It works because the wines are so damned good.

All universal laws—“Good wines can work wonderfully with any food that is remotely plausible for the wine”—admit a corollary. In this case it’s that the more extreme the dish or the wine, the less sociable it is.

Gewürztraminer, for example, is a wonderful white, but like a fascinating but oddball dinner guest, you can’t seat it next to just any dish (onions, by the way, tame the wine wonderfully). Sauternes is another example. Famously, it goes well with foie gras, which itself is pretty extreme stuff. So, yes, there are some “marriages” that call for prearranged matchmaking. But sometimes no amount of matchmaking is worthwhile. Sardines, anyone?

And what about all those writers and sommeliers who devise elaborate pairings and rationales, you ask? I’m not unsympathetic. Everybody’s got to make a living. Besides, if they can convince you that such precision is essential, well, they’re golden, aren’t they? That way you need them. Your insecurity is their meal ticket.

In today’s 21st-century food-and-wine free-for-all do you think that all these oh-so-particular pairings are anything other than entertainment? Is this Grüner Veltliner really the “ideal” partner to that hamachi with horseradish velouté? Does it really make a difference? Or is it all just a much of a muchness? You tell me.

Mace D Howell Iii
fremont,ca,usa —  December 7, 2010 12:49pm ET

I will post something that is obvious to me, but would be a sin in the wine world you guys live in. I like Washington state Syrah and Napa Cabernet. I do not want to drink anything else. I also want to eat what I want to eat. Why not clear your palate during a meal before taking each sip? We drink our wine before our appetizers and with them if they work. If not, we wait till we are finished and take a bite of bread with olive oil and salt and continue drinking our wine until our main course. We then repeat this process. We drink what we want, and eat what we want.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 7, 2010 1:37pm ET
As I write in this web site's ABCs of food and wine: "The moral of the story is not to let some arbitrary rules spoil your fun. If you like a wine, drink it with food you enjoy."

I often say, as Mace suggests, the worst that can happen is you might want to take a sip of water between tastes of food and wine. The worst sin is to drink a flawed or insipid wine expecting that it will be better with the food. That's a longshot on any odds chart.

On the other hand, if you're in the mood, it's fun to experiment. There ARE differences in how wines will show with different dishes. I prefer to enjoy the differences without worrying about what's perfect.
Michael Schulman
Westlake Village, CA —  December 7, 2010 2:51pm ET
Very interesting that this post comes today. Last night I wanted to try something out, and it worked just great. A rich Santa Barbara Grenache with a plate of French washed rind cheese, five-year aged Gouda, a mix of cured olives, and fresh pear. A lot of fun seeing how the flavors affected one another in a positive way.
Brandon Redman
Seattle, WA —  December 7, 2010 4:04pm ET
Great article and an assertion with which I wholeheartedly agree. If both the wine and food are great, they'll likely go together just fine. Let's not, however, overshadow the magic that can happen when the "perfect" pairing is achieved. That's pure bliss. But, that's also a rarity, but many, many "good" pairings can certainly be had.
Philip Warner
Natick, MA —  December 7, 2010 4:49pm ET
The wine I buy is generally rated 90 pts or better (not too difficult today), and I buy what tastes good to me. With a busy lifestyle, no one in my household has time to make an elegant dish on a regular basis. So I choose a wine to drink nightly, and work the food around it. I've been doing this for over a decade, and I've never been disappointed by the wine. I guess my wine, like many Americans, is single, unattached.
Michael Nappi
Staten Island, New York —  December 7, 2010 5:39pm ET
I hear what you are saying, sometimes one can take this pairing thing a little too far, almost to the point of taking all the joy out of choosing a wine. On more than one occasion I have felt the pressure of having to pick the 'perfect wine’ while out with family or friends in a restaurant. Then again, the right dish with the right wine can be magical, and maybe just worth the time and trouble to seek out. I guess the moral of this story is not to take it too seriously and just have fun with it.
William R Klapp Jr
Neive, Italy —  December 8, 2010 5:04am ET
Whew! You had me worried there for a minute. I thought that you were about to advocate sipping huge Cabernets without any food at all! You make a good point. Unless we are willing to try new pairings, we may be missing out on some terrific ones. It reminds me of the old thought, "what was the dude who ate the first raw oyster thinking?". How would we ever have known that Viognier pairs with asparagus had somebody not tried it?
Kenneth A Galloway
Paris, France —  December 8, 2010 5:19am ET
i love this article and immediately posted it on my personal and wine blog Facebook pages ... you've nailed it ! ... golden ... although my personal approach to "pairing" is "opposites attract" ... my mantra when discussing the topic with friends is "dude, pair food with a wine you enjoy, period" ... of course your deeper explanation is much more helpful than my simplistic summary to friends ... from now on, I'll add "good" both before "food" and "wine" ... you just received an unequivocal endorsement from The Grand Crew wine community ... ;-) ... cheers !
Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI —  December 8, 2010 9:56am ET
Amen, drinking wine should be a joy not a chore. Drink what you love, eat what you love and do it with gusto.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  December 8, 2010 11:21am ET
I keep telling this same thing to my friends (who aren't neophytes by the way) and they keep deferring to my judgement as to what they should serve or bring to a meal. There are some amazing pairings I've come across accidentally (Paso Grenache with a Gruyer-based fritatta is one!), but most of the time I just recommend popping open something they enjoy and haven't had in a while. I'll start recommending sips of water between if necessary!
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  December 8, 2010 4:40pm ET
Why stop with wine and food pairing? Why should we have to choose which wine to drink at all? Why not just drink vodka, which of course is the logical conclusion of Mr. Kramer's premise.

The reality is there are many levels on which to enjoy wine, including catching a buzz. But wine drinking rewards sophistication unlike any other beverage. Finding an enjoyable food and wine pairing, just like drinking a wine at the right age, adds pleasure to the experience. And no, thankfully, there is not just one formula for this.

Rob Ziegler
San Antonio,Texas USA —  December 8, 2010 4:45pm ET
I say, if you like Napa Cab with Dover Sole so be it. There should be only one rule when it comes to wine, drink what you like. Don’t be intimidated by your wine selection.
Sterling A Minor
Houston, Texas, USA —  December 8, 2010 5:22pm ET
Rules may or may not be bad. However, Matt has simply made a column out of a counter-idea. I do the same in my writings. That does not mean the writing actually contributes to civilization.
Wines and foods go together in varying degrees of perfection. Getting further along the continuum to perfection is not automatic, and it is far from irrelevant.
Marrying food and wine well is not following a set of laws, it is an art. It is an art that adds to civilization.
Patrick Frenchick
Germany —  December 8, 2010 6:03pm ET
Good thoughts Matt! I started drinking wine after being coerced into taking a wine appreciation course, where we learned the rule: The right wine is the wine you like. Then the instructor showed us that the wine you like with pizza may not be the wine you like with foie gras. But isn't that the fun of wine and food, finding out what you like to pair together? Even to the point of cooking up meals for the first time and doing "taste tests" of new and different wines with the meals. That's it, off to dinner!
Stephen Stewart
new mexico  —  December 8, 2010 7:32pm ET
Too true ,sometimes we take the food and wine pairing to seriously.
Its fun at the weekends ,but midweek there is no time for amazing pairings.Great blog.
Andrew J Grotto
Washington, DC —  December 8, 2010 9:41pm ET
Hmm...I don't get what all the fuss is about here. I actually think it's harder to find an affirmatively "bad" pairing--i.e., one that makes the wine and food taste worse than they would otherwise--than it is to find a neutral or synergistic pairing. Seriously. Lots of things have to align in a really bad way for a wine pairing to crash and burn.

But I also enjoy playing with pairings. My attitude: have fun with it. I picked up Chartier's "Taste Buds and Molecules" last month, and have had a blast playing with the ideas and concepts.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  December 11, 2010 3:46pm ET
Actually, I'm enjoying the marriage and have little reason to see a divorce as life enhancing! But each to his own.

I remember a blog Harvey S. did about some Aussie a couple of years ago. He only drank water with his meals, no wine. That way the could drink these huge oak and tannin monsters and not interfere with his meals. Each to his own.
Evandro Pereira
Sao Paulo —  December 17, 2010 8:23pm ET
Matt, I love your articles, but I don't think this one was particularly enlightening. Why all this fuss about wine pairing? Yes, anyone can have a marinated shrimp with a jammy Napa Cab...people should do what they want...but it's undeniable that some specific wines (no drama, just a general rule) enhance flavors of specific dishes. If one doesn't care about it, fine, but let's not miss the point.
Kathy Dipietro
Dallas —  December 19, 2010 10:56am ET
Matt, thanks for another great article! I work retail and am so done with customers who come in with a laundry list of the ingredients for their entree` and each side dish and want me to find the match made in heaven that will complement each and every flavor on their table. "But, will that go with the chinese 5 Spice in my sauce? What will happen when my guests eat the broccoli first, then try the steak... How will that taste?" ARGHHHHHHHH! We need a good divorce lawyer! Thanks again... KathyD
Lowry Sweney
Los Angeles, CA —  December 31, 2010 5:00am ET
My wife handles the food preparation (delicious!) & I handle the wine selection for our dinners. We have shared several "mind-blowing" experiences over the years when I had picked just the right wine, usually by imagining the taste of the food, discussing seasoning and texture with my wife the chef, and going with my intuition on the wine. I agree with the general thread that you don't have to have Cab with steak and Pinot Noir with salmon ... but to have a "mind-blowing" experience where food and wine and smell and color all come together, you do have to choose a magically right wine. There could be several right wines for a specific meal, but if you pick a wine that doesn't match, the best you can hope for is "hey nice wine, and great food too!"

More power to those who drink what they want with the food the like, as well as to people who enjoy an impressive, powerful wine at dinner by interspersing sips of water between food bites and wine sips. But the experience my wife and I are looking for is holistic and synthetic, not aggregative. That's what takes wine, for us consumers, beyond the pleasures of the tasting room and small-bites scenarios.

If you really know the wine in your cellar, I think risk-taking on any given night is great, but it should be thoughtful! Would this go with that? How? Why? What makes me want to drink that tonight?

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