Is Wine and Food Pairing Really a Thing?
Is wine and food pairing really a thing? Of course, it is, but is it? Art that is thousands of years old shows people stuffing their faces and washing it down with goblets of fermented grape juice. Books have been written and dinner parties have been thrown, all with the central idea of finding the holy grail of pairings. Yet many wine professionals seem to have a much more laissez-faire attitude toward food and wine pairing than in the past.
I reached out to the master, M.S. Evan Goldstein, who has written two fabulous books on wine and food pairing, Perfect Pairings and Daring Pairings, to get his take on the subject. “This is complex. I am always reticent in giving people unabashed anarchistic freedom. While I embrace the egalitarian, “It’s your thang, do what you wanna do..,” food and wine ethos, I worry that right or wrong, people are left grasping. If it works, why did it work and if it didn’t, why didn’t it? So, I fall back on my Perfect Pairings oriented sense of be armed with essential guidelines as to what works with what and why but, within said ethos, know that you have ample flexibility.”
There are certain “golden rules” of wine and food pairing. Sweet wines contrast salty blue cheeses. Low alcohol, off-dry wines work with spicy food in part because they create less heat in your mouth than higher alcohol wines. Texturally speaking, a tannic wine is going to benefit red meat.
Yet while these and others are considered a given, I wonder if they also inhibit our exploration and experimentation. I’ll go back to the time when Elizabeth Falkner and I decided to pair a few wines with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and much to our surprise, both of us felt it went best with a moderately oaky, slightly flabby California Chardonnay. Given the level of fat, we expected a higher acid wine would have paired better.
Since I don’t eat meat and haven’t since Gerald Ford was president, I often ask winemakers and importers what they would drink with their wines when I write about them in The Vinguard newsletter. Even if it is a pairing I can handle based on my sensory memory, it’s always good to get and share others’ opinions. I’ve gotten lots of helpful feedback, at least I hope it’s helpful, but I also wonder if food and wine pairing is better left to generalities than specifics.
I asked Alleah Friedrichs of Bliss Wine Imports, a colleague who I think has great instincts, for her take on it. “A lot of food goes with a lot of wine. Nobody wants to hear this because the normal consumer has a lot of romantic fun picking out a wine, knowing what it goes with, making a special meal for the wine and impressing the company.” She continued, “The daily goal is to achieve, “All is well.” The wine tastes good, the food tastes good….and bonus if the company is good too.”
This mirrors something Joanna Karlinsky said to me years ago, when she had The Meetinghouse, one of my favorite SF restaurants ever, about how it was more important to focus on making balanced dishes and serving them with balanced wines. She was pretty adamant about it and turned me onto a lot of unconventional yet delicious pairings at her place.
Another respected cohort, Paul Einbund, the owner and wine director of The Morris, chimed in, “The most important thing is to eat what you want and drink what you want! Sometimes I’m in the mood for a white wine when I’m having a steak and others I really want a red when I’m having fish. Make your palate happy first. If I’m asked to pair then I’ll stick to some rules but if I’m sitting down for dinner, mood comes first, then pairing.”
When you find the holy grails, it’s phenomenal. The first time I had that “ah-hah” food and wine pairing moment was the fall of 1990. I was working at Astor Wines & Spirits and was on my way to meet a friend for Indian food just a few blocks away on 6th Street. I was pretty new to the wine industry so I asked a co-worker what I should bring to drink since it was BYOB and he suggested a 1987 Zind Humbrecht Gewürztraminer. A fantastic wine by itself, it not only rose to the challenge posed by saag paneer and aloo gobi but sent the vegetable curry into a culinary class of its own.
More recently, I made tuna poke for a friend’s dinner party and it paired exceedingly well with the 2015 Johan Petnat rose. There have been many others in between but the reality is that on a day-to-day basis, I’m looking for a wine that is not going to screw up whatever it is that I’m eating. You might think that is a low bar, especially for someone who works in the wine industry, but I’ve also realized that wine and food pairing is something that can’t be over planned. If I’m watching the Dubs, food and wine pairing takes a back seat to my frustration over the level of turnovers. If I’m out to dinner there are other factors that might influence my culinary experience.
I know people who are pretty vigilant about wine and food pairing and if that gives you pleasure, by all means, keep on trucking. But, there is also a lot to be said for flexibility and experimentation and maybe that’s more of what I’m noticing now than in the past.
To conclude, here is a thought from Barbara Haimes, who is an instructor of Culinary Arts & Hospitality Studies at City College in San Francisco. More than anyone else, she has served as a food and wine pairing guru to me since I met her 24 years ago. “The issue for most folks is they want ‘A’ food to always go with ‘A’ wine and it doesn’t work that way. This isn’t bingo. You can’t say that steak will always be best with a Cab. Where’s the Cab from and how is it made? Was it aged in new oak or not? How’s the steak cooked? Does it have a sauce? It is just simplistic. Wine is alive and truly the most unexpected pairings are the best ones because they take you by surprise and what is more lovely than that?”