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Why Don't Food and Wine Trends Match?

Trendy menus get fattier while edgy wine lists focus on restraint

Posted: Apr 4, 2013 11:00am ET

By Jennifer Fiedler

Can I ask a question? Why does it seem that menus in young, trendy restaurants tout big flavor from fat and spice, while the dog-whistle words of trendy wines are "balance" and "restraint"?

OK, I know the word "trendy" is problematic, so here, a warning: There will be some broad generalizations ahead. To avoid putting everything in "quotes," when I say young and trendy, I mean those restaurants designed to appeal to twenty-somethings in the creative class living in urban areas, and trendy wines are on those restaurants' wine lists.

First, let's look at the trend toward supersized flavor in restaurants. I lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., which has become a synonym for hipsterdom, for 10 years. What started out as a flirtation with Southern comfort food (brunch menus with gravy, grits and biscuits) around the time I moved there has spiraled into a full-blown love affair with fat. Now, it's hard to find a dish that doesn't have pork belly, foie gras, lardo or bone marrow. (Not that that's a bad thing!)

If you want to extend the through-line of this obsession with bigger flavor, look at the excellent, but searing-hot, re-imagined Chinese food at the San Francisco and Manhattan outlets of Mission Chinese or the emergence of poutine as a legitimate thing to order.

Bartenders seem to have gotten the message. Higher-proof alcohols are popping up everywhere these days (see: Navy-strength gin). The fancy cocktail menus that are de rigueur in these restaurants are singing in harmony: When it comes to flavor, they seem to be saying, "I dare you."

Then we get to wine. Editor at large Harvey Steiman has already written in depth about the au courant movement for "balance" in wines, but when trendy young folks talk about wine, what I hear is rarely the equivalent of "more," but rather, the opposite: "Restraint," "elegance" and "purity."

So what's going on here? These trends are reactionary to separate movements preceding them. In wine, the call for "balance" is frequently viewed as a pendulum-swing away from the desire for ripe fruit that led to an increase in alcohol levels in the '90s. In food, the fat-on-fat movement (a term from the New York Times' Pete Wells) could be viewed as a reversal of course from the low-fat cuisine of the '80s and '90s.

At a glance, this divergence may look much like the simultaneous rise of modernist cuisine and international-styled wines in Spain in the 1990s, two separate trends that didn't pair well at the table. But when it comes to food-and-wine matching done right, big-flavor food and lean wine may actually work together.

Balancing food and wine by weight isn't the only rule of thumb to follow; structure, texture and the interaction of elements also matter. Might the heavy spice in Mission Chinese food best be served with a lower-alcohol Riesling? Does the pork belly ramen of Momofuku call for a simple, Gamay-based red? It makes sense that big-flavor food might call for more subdued, refreshing wines that keep the combo from being overwhelming.

At Chez Sardine, the Manhattan restaurant that inspired the "fat-on-fat" quote, the food menu lists superrich specialities such as foie-gras and smoked cheddar grilled cheese and slow-roasted pork belly topped with a runny egg, while the wine list sports not just one but three cru Beaujolais, as well as a host of Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir. Wine director Jen Sgobbo, who spent 10 years at Gramercy Tavern, says that knowing that the menu was going to be eclectic and rich had her looking for wines with versatility and acid.

You could argue that wine and food in America haven't been in tune since the steak house and Cabernet-soaked 1990s. Yes, that was big food with big wine, but that also succeeds in part because fat smooths out the powerful tannins in young Cab. And maybe that's where those big reds are hiding out till the storm blows over. As Sgobbo admitted, "I'm very much opposed to heavy wines and heavy food—unless it's a steak."

What do you think? Do trendy food and wine align, and if so, how?

David Rossi
Napa, CA —  April 4, 2013 1:35pm ET
Great topic Jennifer. I think there is bifurcation (hey I paid for the college, might as well use it)in wine styles between on-premise(restaurants) and off-premise(shops and stores). The restaurants want the wines to take a back seat to their food. That is why you see somms seeking more restraint in the wines. So the goals are really aligned- Let the Food Shine!

In shops, consumers often drink wines as cocktails rather than with food and in that venue bolder wine styles prevail. Of course these are generalities, but you get the point.

I make and sell wine and I know my more restrained wines find more buyers in restaurants and the bolder styles in shops. Just my experience.
Matilde Parente
Indian Wells, Calif. —  April 5, 2013 5:46pm ET
Bites of rich and mouth-coating foods like the ones you mention call out for wines that are lighter in body, lower in alcohol/tannins and higher in acid. Sparklers will also work well with some of those dishes. So yes, I think these two seemingly discordant trends in food and wine enjoyment are actually in alignment. Try more than a bite or two of any of those dishes with a full-bodied, bold-flavored, tannic and high-alcohol wine and you risk exposing the dish for what it is - fat on fat.
Brandon Redman
Brandon R., Seattle, WA —  April 8, 2013 8:34pm ET
I somewhat like the trending. However, another [disturbing and maddening] trend has seemingly followed what you're writing about: photographing your food. When did it become okay to whip out your smartphone and *flash!* take a photo of your plate in the middle of a dimly-lit restaurant?!? I know you want to blog about your food and good fortune, but draw the line at the picture!

Nice write-up, by the way, Jennifer.
John Lahart
NYC —  April 9, 2013 2:07pm ET
Nice observations.
There is NO trend to balanced, restrained, elegant and purity in wines. These wines have been around for ever. That is as far a the wine producers are concerned.
Consumers are parroting what a handful of wine writers have been advocating based on wine polemics and a misguided view of the wine world.
Alcohol levels in wine as perceived are often different than measured.

There's also an irony that cocktails are actually more "trendy" than wine styles. At the moment it is harder to find a 20 Year Old Pappy Van Winkle than it is a bottle of DRC Burgundy. High alcohol is ok in your cocktail but a wine with over 14% measured alcohol---Horrors!

A wine can also have big flavor and not necessarily posses high alcohol measured or perceived.

Also puzzling is that the high alcohol prohibitionists are loathe to call out wines that have high acidity. I have had Sancerres that could remove tooth enamel. Good wine is good wine. Any trait that stands out and dominates a wine to the detriment of other attributes is not good.

We pair port and sherry with food so what's the problem with a potent Zinfandel? In fact if there's a trend waiting to happen it is port and sherry!
(also Madeira).

I don't know what finesse is. A ballerina can have it and so can a 300 pound NFL lineman. Trends come and go.

Thomas Matthews
New York —  April 11, 2013 2:52pm ET

Interesting point of view, thanks.

I too like to pair Port and Sherry with food. And I too see the increasing demand for designer cocktails. But a major retailer just told me that he sees customers looking for "lower alcohol." Hard to believe it's all brainwashing. I guess there's room for all kinds of beverages, depending on consumer taste and drinking situation.

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