The Dirty Little Secret

Never mind the pairing. Who are you going to serve it to?
Dec 21, 2010

"When's your next web column coming out?" asked my wife. "December 21," I replied. "Oh good," she said, "you can write a holiday piece."

That suggestion brought forth a snarl of contempt. Used to such responses from me when the subject of the holidays is broached, she quickly moved out of earshot, leaving me to fume. “Holiday piece," indeed.

Don't get me wrong. I really don't mind the holidays, although the enforced cheer can get a little grating. What irks me about the holidays is all the entertaining. Truth to tell, we do less of it all the time. But because of what I do for a living there's an expectation on the part of our guests that they're going to be served some pretty swell wines. "After all," they say to themselves, "he's got a pretty good–size cellar, and who better to serve it to than us?"

Which brings me to my dirty little secret. As I mentioned in my previous column ("Free at Last! Free at Last!"), I really am unconcerned about pairing just-the-right wine with just-the-right dish. But now I feel obliged to reveal the dark side: I care a great deal about who gets served a certain wine.

I realize that this makes Matt less than a generous, all-embracing soul. And in my defense, it's got nothing to do with money. Instead, it's got to do with my conviction that there's no sense squandering a great wine—or even a carefully cellared minor jewel—on somebody who could care less about what's put in front of them. Never mind congenial food. The real art of "pairing" lies in the right wines for the right guests.

Nobody likes to mention this sort of thing because it makes you seem snobbish or even churlish. Yet I know I'm not alone in these dark, semi-unsociable feelings. A.J. Liebling memorably recorded in his masterpiece Between Meals the observation by a French bon vivant that, "Last week I had to offer my publisher a bottle that was far too good for him, simply because there was nothing between the insulting and the superlative."

Now along comes the holiday season, and everyone is expansive with good feelings and, I might note, your cellar. "Bring out the good stuff!" they chortle. Here's my advice: Don't do it. If you're like me, you've carefully sequestered all sorts of wines bought lovingly over the years, never mind how cheap or expensive they were. And now, all of a sudden, you're supposed to open these jewels because a few eggnog-besotted friends drop by urging you on to holiday cheer?

"The more you drink fine wine, the more awestruck you become about the uniqueness of [it]. You want to share that expression with like-minded guests."

No one likes to talk about the pairing of wine and people, but really, this is the most important—and delicate—dance of all. Take my beloved Marquis d'Angerville Volnay Clos des Ducs. I own more of this great red Burgundy than any other single wine. And I don't mind saying that I'm not going to haul it out for just anyone. You have to have like-minded guests who have at least an inkling about what they're drinking.

A passage in the thriller The Eiger Sanction captures this perfectly. The protagonist orders a bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild. His guest, Jemima, asks, "Is this Lafite something special?" With that, the host summons the wine steward and changes his order.

“Why did you do that," Jemima asked.

"Thrift, Miss Brown. Lafite is too expensive to waste.”

"How do you know, I might have enjoyed it."

"Oh, you'd have enjoyed it all right. But you wouldn't have appreciated it."

Jemima looked at him narrowly. "You know? I have this feeling you're not a nice person."

All right, fair enough. I can live with such an accusation. But I don't mind saying that this business of pairing the right "who" with the right wine goes on all the time. No one talks about it, of course, for obvious reasons. But most of the real wine lovers I know are not so much calculating as careful in deciding which wines they're going to offer to which guests.

The reason for this care is reverence. The more you drink wine, especially fine wine, the more awestruck you become about the uniqueness of one or another wine expression. You want to share that expression with like-minded guests, people who might not necessarily know all that much about the wine in front of them, but who share a similar awareness of how truly rare—in the best sense of that word—the world's most expressive wines really are.

Price has nothing to do with this. Recently, I brought some wines to a restaurant to serve to a very close friend who simply doesn't care about white wines. As far as he's concerned, they're just something that gets in the way of reaching the reds. So I didn't pull out my bottle of Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Grande Garde 1996 from Boullaut et Fils. It’s one of the finest Muscadets I've ever drunk. Why waste it?

So this holiday season, allow me to offer a little well-meant advice: Lock your cellar. Don't get caught up in the spurious good cheer of the holiday season in which everybody tells you what a good pal you are and by the way, is there any more of that Clos des Ducs lying around? Be resolute. Save your treasured wines for, well, ... yourself.

And to all, a good night.

Opinion

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