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Are You a Food-and-Wine Pairing Heretic?

I confess that I sometimes take the rules in vain
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jul 17, 2013 11:00am ET

It's blasphemy, I know, but I don't always drink the perfect wine with my food.

Forget perfect: Sometimes I don't even remotely drink the right wine. This isn't a radical idea for old wine hands, but I think it's worth restating for new wine lovers. The right wine with the right meal remains the ideal, but who lives in an ideal world?

Pairing food and wine doesn't require a master class. Our ABCs of Matching lays out the basics. Some of the concepts are fairly apparent: A big red wine like Cabernet Sauvignon is best with your steak and a crisp white like Sancerre is a must for oysters on the half-shell.

When I'm eating at a good restaurant, I follow the rules rather strictly. Why drink a wine that wastes your money and the chef's hard work? I don't care how much you like young Barolo, if you want to have it with a nice pan-seared halibut, spare us the pain of watching your crime and eat at home.

And yet there are challenges even in restaurants, particularly if you order wines by the glass. What do you do, for example, if you know that the only Chardonnay by the glass is a stinker? (There's usually at least one cash cow on every menu.)

Do you order it just because it's the "right" wine with your dish? I wouldn't, particularly if the glass of wine costs almost as much as the food. I'd go with something similar, either a lighter-bodied white like Pinot Blanc or a lighter-style Pinot Noir.

I'm more laidback about matching food and wine at home and with friends. The wine in those situations is usually more important than the food, or at least equal. There are exceptions, like Dungeness crab season on the Sonoma Coast, when it's sparkling wine only at our house.

In casual situations, even wine lovers are more apt to drink what they feel like drinking, not what they think they should. You think they only eat beef and lamb in Napa Valley? Of course not, but that doesn't stop them from drinking a lot of Cabernet.

We're red wine drinkers in our house and Pinot Noir and Zinfandel are among the favorites, with rosé a popular third place during the summer. Pinot is especially versatile, and we've been known to drink it with just about everything. If I'm grilling fish, for example, I'll open a good white, plus a Pinot to hedge my bets, particularly if we have guests.

So, I've told you one of my big wine secrets: I'm something of a wine-and-food pairing anarchist. My general rule is relax, try your best, but don't sweat it. Where do you stand on the issue? And what are some of your dark secrets?

Mark Lyon
Sonoma, California —  July 17, 2013 12:42pm ET
I'm a wine co-dependent most of the time; trying to match what others "like", and then trying to work around that with food and wine service. Of course these selections emanate from my cellars, so the deck is stacked in my favor!

I don't get worried about the wine being "perfectly matched" either. Wine is hedonism and pleasure. General rules of dry white or Pinot with fish; whereas meats and heartier preparations with reds. Only big rule I have is serving Sauvignon Blanc with salads that have vinegar base.

Finally, generally decant Cabernets, Merlots and their blends. This, I believe does improve those wines. I usually don't decant Pinot's because their aromatics are so beautiful and aeration is done in a wine glass with a big bowl. .
Katherine Cole
Portland, OR, United States —  July 17, 2013 12:57pm ET
I agree with you, Tim, but I think there's a lot of uncharted territory out there in terms of what an optimal pairing really is. François Chartier has made some really interesting discoveries in the last couple of years that upend the old axioms. For example, he recommends dry Alsatian riesling with lamb and rosemary. Sometimes we stumble upon these unorthodox-but-brilliant combinations by accident, and we have this moment of total joy, because it's something we've never experienced before. This is what wine exploration is all about. If we always drank and and ate the same combinations, the repetition would, over time, dull the pleasure of the experience.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  July 17, 2013 1:02pm ET
My basic rule is to drink something I like with food I like. Everything else is fine-tuning.

Sooner or later, we gravitate to certain wines with certain dishes, like your sparkling wine with crab. For me, it's Riesling for crab. But it doesn't make any sense to insist the other comply with our own preferences. Write that large and it's a pretty good approach to food-and-wine matching. Make it exploratory, and make it fun. No one says you have to take it seriously, but if you do, don't apologize. Just keep enjoying.
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  July 17, 2013 3:41pm ET
Thanks for contributing your thoughts. A good discussion.
Dave Pramuk
Napa —  July 17, 2013 4:21pm ET
Tim, good discussion.

We have had more surprises and serendipitous discoveries at home and at the winery via your "have anything with anything" approach. Truth be told - it's often a Zinfandel doing its chameleon thing.
I agree with your restaurant opinion - however we usually work backwards - selecting the wine first then finding something on the menu that would be an interesting fit.

Dave Pramuk
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  July 18, 2013 12:54pm ET
My favorite unusual pairing is a 100% Grenache with an asparagus/pancetta/Gruyere frittata. Man, that's the bomb!
Ripon CA —  July 19, 2013 5:25pm ET
Hi Tim
I have been a long time fan of James & have added you to my very short list of trusted reviewers. I am retired now & really fine wine purchases are limited to a few wineries. Your good value quality wine recommendations are much appreciated. Your column today hits home as I am a spicey food lover. I will follow the rules dinning out but at home it is whatever I feel like. Hard to admit but I have opened a Marcassin Pinot with enchiladas. The enchiiadas were good & the Pinot was great. Thanks for the recommendations. Keep em coming.
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  July 19, 2013 7:38pm ET
Thanks Jay, it's much appreciated.
Shauna Rosenblum
Alameda, CA —  July 22, 2013 5:27pm ET
Great discussion everyone.
I agree, there are certain wines and food that are soul mates, i.e. sparkling and crab at Tim's house. Win.
Keeping that in mind, I also love pairing the unexpected, and sometimes casual bite with wines.
One of my favorite pairings we've done to date was honey crunch corn dogs with our Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay. It was such a killer pairing that it transcended the fact that it was a corn dog. : )
Another absolute grand slam was our Grenache Rose paired with a chili-covered mango lollipop.
Oh and of course, one of my unexpected faves has to be Salsa Verde Doritos with a beautiful Cabernet Franc.
Brian Peters
Raleigh NC —  July 24, 2013 2:38pm ET
I second Harvey's rule...everything else will fall into place.

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