The Price of a Proper Match of Food & Wine
Last night at a dinner celebrating my father-in-law’s birthday, a couple glasses of a nice, refreshing Vinho Verde quite nicely got me through a three course meal of Caesar Salad, a three meat stew which "clearly calls for a robust red, my good man," and dessert of Tapioca and sorbet.
It was a nice restaurant in Sonoma: La Sallette. Had the wait staff been inexperienced or the company I was with any way inclined to "demonstrate" their gastronomic knowledge, I’d have likely been chastised for that second class to go with the meat stew. But it reminded me that even as a marketer of wine who uses allusions to food to help sell wine, I really don’t know and am certainly not convinced that little notes here and there in different venues about the "correct" food to serve with wines is in fact a good idea at all.
First, let me tell you my personal strategy for picking wines-by-the-glass at a restaurants. The first thing I do is try to evaluate the talent of my server (let’s leave the issue of sommeliers alone for the moment). If know the servers is really a talented and experienced connoisseur of food and wine, then I’ll simply tell them to bring me something to go with each course. Let them pick it. However, in most cases I don’t know this about my server and I don’t want to distract my server from the task of bringing me my food while it’s still warm.
But sometimes, if they they seem like experienced multi-taskers, I’ll talk to them briefly about the wines on the menu and what I’m having and ask for their suggestion. You can tell pretty quick if the suggestion is one that results from experience and a knowledge of the Food & Wine Sciences, or if they are just winging it.
If it’s the latter, and the server looks a tad befuddled, suggests the most expensive wine on the list or, to their credit, says they aren’t sure, then I’ll simply pick the most interesting wine there NO MATTER WHAT food I’ve ordered.
I almost always do the same at home when I pick a bottle from the cellar to to have with a meal. I’ll almost always choose a wine that I’ve been wanting to taste or drink no matter what is being prepared. Call me lazy, but for me the cost in time and effort to pick just the right wine doesn’t match the level of satisfaction of a good pairing. Furthermore, the pleasure of trying and drinking a wine that currently intrigues me almost always outweighs the satisfaction I get from a wine matched will with a a particular food.
I often wonder if the pre-occupation that the professional foodies of the world (chefs, servers, wine and food writers, wine and food marketers, etc.) have with calling out good matches of food and wine is in fact to most people’s benefit. It has always seemed to me another layer of understanding that non-foodies feel they "should" know but, to their own personal failings, don’t know.
I’ve written so many back labels of wines, products sheets, ads and other marketing materials that explain to the consumer how "this wine SHOULD be paired with" some specific food I can’t even count them up. And yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen any good confirmation that this approach to selling wine is any more useful for selling the wine than an emphasis on what the wine tastes like, a humorous anecdote or a funny picture of an animal.
I’m in no way suggesting that there exists excellent theory on how to match the right food and wines together or that a really good match can improve both the wine and the meal. But I think I might be suggesting that most folks don’t really care about this kind of alchemy and that it might be detrimental to the sale of wine when it is used on marketing materials.
My little Vinho Verde was entirely satisfying last night. So was Caesar, meat stew, tapioca and sorbet. Neither detracted from the other. Would my wine and food experience last night have been any better if I struggled to make just the right match of food and wine? Or would it have been one more thing to think about instead of paying attention to the family at the table, the importance of the occasion and the important discussion of what really good science fiction can be found on television today. I think the latter. (the answer by the way is Battlestar Galactica…served of course with a nice Caprican Red.)