Don’t Scare the Wine Drinkers, Please

A Saturday night dinner with friends at Bravas, the new Tapas restaurant in Healdsburg in Sonoma County, drove home to me the poverty of trying to explain the nuance of matching food and wine. It is a subject to which a great deal of time is spent in books, magazines, newspapers, blogs and elsewhere. Frankly very little time should be spent on this topic, and for good reason.

First, the Bravas experience. As usually happens at good tapas restaurants, the variety of plates on the table at the end of the meal are substantial. In the case of our party of 5, we moved through 25 plates. Everything was there from dishes based on mushrooms, chickpeas and steak to chicken, pigs ears and cheese. The Bravas meal was extraordinary and I recommend it highly. Delicious food. However, what the heck does a proper wino/foodie do about trying to match wine to such a feast?

The answer is nothing. The answer is you don’t even think about trying to match wines to the various dishes. The correct strategy is to have on hand a couple of good wines to wash down the good food. In our case is was a delicious and fairly profound 32 Winds 2009 Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast and a beautiful and rich Arissa Jane (Adrian Fog) 2010 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. These two wines were tremendous on their own. They matched up well with a couple of our 25 plates and were particularly unsuited for a few other dishes. For the rest they were just fine.

The fact is, probably no other subject causes so much fear among the vast majority of wine drinkers than the pressure to properly match a wine to a food. Jon Bonne recognizes this and recently talked about it in a column in which he tries to make the choice of wine for Thanksgiving an easy one. Jon is talking to the masses and talking to them exactly the way the wine-educated ought to talk to the average wine drinker…by telling them it largely doesn’t matter what you drink. I however am talking to my peers: wine trade folks, wino/geeks and wine communicators: STOP Stressing the need to properly match food and wine.

I’ll admit, there is certainly an art to properly matching a wine to a dish. Furthermore, there is science. But every time someone who doesn’t care if it is an art and science reads about the matching of food and wine, they get that idea put in the back of their mind that they should know the details of that art and science. And unless they commit to a fair bit of study, they’ll never understand it. This leads back to the conclusion that wine is simply too damn complex.

The complexity of wine in general and the complexity of food and wine pairing is supposed to be a complex subject left to be discussed among those that care; among those that have an interest in it and among those that are not just willing to discuss it but also dying to try to figure out what type of Chardonnay (Burgundy? Chablis? Napa Valley?) goes best with pigs ears. That club is pretty small relative to those willing to tip back a glass of wine. And we need to remember this.

I’m not suggesting that the work of Andrew Dorenburg and Karen Page in their wonderful “What to Drink with What You East” isn’t worthy of publishing or reading. This is great stuff. But it’s merely important to note that 1) most folks don’t care about this, 2) those that think they care about it probably get the shakes when they think they are supposed be responsible for matching a wine with food, and 3) those that do care should be very careful when and with whom they bring the subject up. After all, the idea, presumably is to bring more people to the world of wine.

I dress myself, but I don’t need to know the intricacies of exactly which fabric patterns are best suited for the winter.

I drive myself, but I have no need of understanding the importance of proper piston performance.

I  buy furniture, but I don’t need to know if mid-century modern furniture is really the right choice for an Arts & Craft-style dwelling.

If I thought I’d have to know these things I’d either dive into them or I’d avoid these areas as much as possible.Odds are, it would be the latter.

Where placing wine on the table with specific dishes is concerned, I think there is very little that needs to be driven home when the wine shy are in the room. Bonne deals with it pretty well in his Thanksgiving article. But here are some good and basic tips that can be communicated to those who don’t care for putting wine on the table with food:

1. The wine should be wet.
2. The wine should be either red or white (maybe pink)
3. Best case scenario is that you know you like the wine, no matter what is being served.
4. There should be enough wine on the table to accommodate the length of the meal.
5. Choose a wine made with grapes.

Isn’t that simple enough? The thing is this….properly and thoughtfully matching a wine with a dish can create a spectacular experience for some folks. Yet, it’s almost impossible to make a dish or a wine unpalatable due to the pairing. Add to this the fact that making folks think they need to understand this art/science is likely to push them to clear spirits or beer and avoid wine like the plague.

Lesson: Ask the people around you if they know the secret handshake before launching into your thoughts on matching food and wine properly.

11 Responses

  1. Tom Ewing - November 12, 2012

    Well said, Tom. The thing is to drink whatever it is you’re in the mood drink with whatever food it is you feel like eating. And take it all in. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to approach your experience with the sort of Rubik’s Cube analysis food pairing if that’s your thing – but there’s also nothing wrong with giving yourself the freedom to go with your gut (literally) .

  2. Kathy - November 12, 2012

    Agree, Tom. Great pairings are worthwhile but one has to start out with that goal. I talked with CIVB about this as part of its consumer education plan 3 years ago and they were shocked. Glad to see you enjoy the Dorenburg Page book. I also enjoy mom’s “Hanky Pankys” – best followed by Alka-Seltzer.

  3. larry mawby - November 13, 2012

    think bubbles. drink brut sparkling wine with anything. washes down the food, refreshes the palate, simple, fun.

  4. Betty Kaufman - November 13, 2012

    Best article ever on not obsessing about wine and food pairing. Your 5 tips at the end are fantastic. Somebody else once wrote that 10% of wine and food pairings are amazing. 10% are horrendous. The other 80% are fine. So you have a 90% chance of achieving fine to amazing, no matter what you do. Those are pretty good odds. I touted your article on my Fb biz page, whose url ending is the same as my email ending.

  5. doug wilder - November 13, 2012

    “I buy furniture, but I don’t need to know if mid-century modern furniture is really the right choice for an Arts & Craft-style dwelling.”

    Umm, you should know about this, Tom, it isn’t. Fundamental shift in aesthetic, materials and process. quarter-sawn oak to molded fiberglass 🙂

  6. Robert Joseph - November 13, 2012

    Great post Tom. I’m in China where western wine producers are trying to sell their wines on the basis of “how well they go with Chinese food”. My Chinese friends/contacts confirm a) there is no such thing as Chinese food (too many differnet styles) and b) impossible to match wines to dinners (like your tapas there are too many different dishes and c) they really don’t care (anymore than most of the rest of us).

    One said that “we like the game” of matching western foods with western wines – rather like the way we occasionally like dressing up in a Tuxedo and choosing the right bow tie.

  7. Tyrone. Twitter: @winesonlyadrink - November 13, 2012

    Good post, but I think food & wine matching’s like any activity in life. If you’re into it, get into it, if you don’t care about it, don’t care about it. I drink wine almost exclusively with food & prefer something that does n’t clash & goes well, but when advising customers I try to find out if they care. Some people do, some don’t.

  8. Nick - November 13, 2012

    When it’s good it’s really good. A great pairing can really surprise you.

    That said, we have a rule at Thanksgiving, NO DISCUSSING THE WINE. Otherwise the rest of the family / guests roll their eyes and feel left out. My dad (who loves wine) and I simply nod at each other knowingly when it works out. Subtly, an eyebrow is raised if perhaps one is corked.

  9. peter richards - November 14, 2012

    Hi Tom – nice piece, well written and interesting, even though I disagree fundamentally with your take on things.

    Wine & food matching is an easy subject to take pot shots at (journos/bloggers regularly have a go). But, as a journalist and broadcaster, I talk wine and food matching quite a bit and I tend to find that, when you talk about and treat wine like food, like just another condiment on the table, actually it makes things easier for people and removes the intimidation factor rather than exacerbating it.

    Yes, let’s not be overly prescriptive about talking food and wine. As with all things wine-related, you can get involved to the extent you want/need to get involved in it (although I do agree that some writing on the subject can be self-indulgent and pointlessly detailed).

    But denigrating attempts to make it just another stimulating and illuminating way to engage people with wine is, in my view, entirely short-sighted.

    • Tyrone. Twitter: @winesonlyadrink - November 14, 2012

      “…when you talk about and treat wine like food, like just another condiment on the table, actually it makes things easier for people and removes the intimidation factor…” I agree Peter, nicely put.

  10. Simplifying Wine and Food Pairing this Thanksgiving « Radical Barrel - November 16, 2012

    […] suitable refreshments for the Holidays. As Tom Wark over at Fermentation recently remarked, don’t scare the wine drinkers. I don’t think we should be totally blasé about wine selections, but we don’t need to […]

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