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The Zen of Food and Wine

Sweat the details only if, like me, you really enjoy the exploration
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 16, 2013 5:02pm ET

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.

Richard Gangel
San Francisco, CA USA —  April 16, 2013 7:47pm ET
I'm in full agreement with you, Harvey. However, one of my great bugaboos is the food magazine recommendation that lists a specific wine brand and grape and even the vintage as if that's the only possible choice to drink with a particular dish. These food writers take us for fools if they think we don't have any idea what to drink with our dish. The writer's taste in wine may have nothing to do with that of the reader. Sometimes I suspect that the writer has a financial reason to choose what is recommended, although I hope that is not the case.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  April 17, 2013 12:12pm ET
Richard, to be more charitable, I think those particular recommendations are meant to be examples of what the writer thinks would work with that particular dish. Whenever we do offer such a wine recommendation in this publication we offer alternatives as well, and take the time to explain (briefly) why it might be a good choice.
Josh Moser
Sunnyvale, CA —  April 17, 2013 3:37pm ET
Harvey – I couldn’t agree more. It blows my mind how much time some people put into thinking about the wine / food pairing conundrum. I tell people to order the wine that looks the most enticing, or pick the wine, and then have that dictate what you eat. It is all about the wine these days.

I love to grill burgers and drink a nice California Cabernet, but I recently had some people over for dinner, and they saw a few Cote du Rhones in my wine rack that looked appealing. We popped them open and drank them with our burgers and it was great. I thanked them for turning me on to a new varietal to drink with burgers.

There is so much great wine being produced, we should all probably drink more and eat less.

Josh Moser
Founder VinoServant
Glenn Keeler
SoCal —  April 17, 2013 4:30pm ET
I don’t drink much wine without food, so food and wine pairings are something we think about often in our house. I do agree that people tend to over think it and following your rule of drink what you like with the food you like is going to work more often than not.

The goal is that the wine and food come together to create a something that is greater than the sum of the parts. That said, I guess the only part of your article that I slightly disagree is that I am sensitive to a wine overpowering the food so given the choice I would rater the wine defer to the food than the other way around.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  April 18, 2013 8:15pm ET
I wholeheartedly agree Harvey. I rarely put a lot of stock in planned pairings, only because the best laid plans go astray almost as often as happy accidents occur. So I'll think it over, but in the end, pretty much choose based on gut, and don't think twice about who I'll disappoint by doing so.

But I've also become weary dealing with the damage done to good people by various wine fascists, e.g. trying to disabuse them of all sorts of "rules" they've been intimidated with. Hearkening back to an earlier blog of yours, I find they'll reach for an ice cube for their wine and make polite (but ultimately disingenuous) excuses about doing so, until I (laboriously and excruciatingly) reassure them I do the same thing so they'll shut up and just enjoy it! I really HATE when wine becomes more FUSS than enjoyment!

The same with pairings: a lot of folks are kind of gobstruck when I recommend they ought to keep 2 or 3 wine glasses by their dinner plate, and sample around different wines to see which goes best with what part of the meal. But I AM TIRED of trying to convince people that all this is how wine should be enjoyed: whatever wine you WANT with food... with or without an ice cube! These people are downright damaged and it's annoying!

On a personal note, I know I've shared this on your blogs before, but in addition to being good with poultry & pork, a good Australian Grenache is (a little hard to find these days but) an exquisite match for virtually any kind of seafood, cooked or not, a pairing which I enjoy on a regular basis. Lucky, carefree me.
Rex Keith
Wichita Kansas —  April 18, 2013 8:58pm ET
For me the key is "to not be afraid". To not be afraid to try a new food with a familiar wine or a familiar wine with a new food. To not be afraid to say a classic pairing of wine and food is your favorite or works well. To not be afraid to say a strange pairing is what works for you. To not be afraid to open a second or even a third bottle to try to find a better match. To not be afraid to say that beer works better with this dish than wine. To not be afraid to say that life is too short or precious to eat average food or unpleasant wine.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  April 19, 2013 1:06am ET
I like the way you think, Rex.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  April 19, 2013 1:09am ET
And you too, Dan. I think the generation now in their 20s and 30s doesn't get hung up on all that stuff, and they are better for it. The future is positive for the wine world.
David Bricker
Switzerland —  April 24, 2013 4:00am ET
Experimentation is the key, as well as a willingness to try new combinations.

I was amazed (at) myself, for nearly balking at the recommendation of a Portuguese producer to try his hefty Douro red with 'baccalau', salty cod & potatoes; it was beautiful! He was right on the money when he told me, "Ok, in northern Europe you want to always drink white with fish, but at home we usually don't, so try it out." And recently two Spanish producers happily drank their Tempranillo (Rib. del Duero) with battered perch!

Yes, some wines are great with certain dishes, but thanks for your honesty.
Daniel L Schmoldt
Silver Spring MD —  April 24, 2013 10:25pm ET
When enjoying a dish that I took great care to prepared, I often open several different wines to explore a mix of different possible pairings. Locking into one particular pairing, especially when the food is special, makes little sense. Maybe I'm an outlier, but quite often I do actually follow a mouthful of food immediately with a taste of wine to explore the taste combination.

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