LIKING WHAT YOU DRINK OR DRINKING WHAT YOU LIKE
Regional dishes of Europe are dependent on wine to bring fruit and a perception of sweetness to the meal. Simple food coaxes out the fruit in the subtler, comparatively austere wines of Europe, and the sum then becomes greater than the parts.
Many years ago I was a guest at my wife's company holiday dinner at one of the city’s busiest Italian restaurants. I was handed the wine list because I owned a wine store and it was assumed I had all the answers, wine-wise.
“Some red, some white?” I asked around. After getting a feel for the guests’ preferences, I ordered a Pinot Grigio, a Chianti and a Valpolicella ripasso. I figured those choices represented enough variety to accompany most of the savory foods guests were ordering.
“What, no Cabernet?” the host’s wife asked.
“You prefer Cabernet?” I asked. “Waiter, bring us the wine list again,” and I ordered a bottle of Cabernet for her. To demonstrate that she was a good sport, the host’s wife sipped both of the Italian reds, but since they weren’t made to show their best when consumed alone, she was taken aback.
“Ooo, I don’t like them,” she winced. “Here, try my Cabernet.”
“Mmm,” I agreed. “This is a very tasty Cabernet.” I was thinking how good her wine could be with a broiled filet or a Dijon-crusted rack of lamb, but not with the garlicky, tomato-y Italian food being prepared in the kitchen.
When she had a choice of wonderful wines that would give her a vivid and exciting Italian experience, why would she miss the opportunity? To me, ordering Cabernet in an Italian restaurant is like ordering pizza in a Chinese restaurant.
The host’s wife seemed very satisfied with her selection and sipped it enthusiastically. I looked around the table at the other guests who by now were really getting into their Italian wines. A bite here, a sip there, lively conversation, gossip about co-workers who weren’t there, the usual holiday cheer, but sitting next to me the host’s wife didn’t touch her Cabernet while she was eating. Not one sip. She refreshed herself with her water glass a few times, but no wine touched her lips during her meal. After waiters removed her plate, she happily went back to her Cabernet and continued to enjoy it until dessert.
She was right to drink her Cabernet that way. It would have tasted astringent, simple and over-oaked with her food.
Europeans would be scratching their heads at this strange behavior at the table. After having just returned from France observing how wine functioned with French cuisine, this night I experienced first hand the contrast between the dining habits of our two cultures. It was never more evident than at that Italian restaurant that night.
A few years later I was handed a menu in a cozy Mendocino restaurant that had a dish of fresh salmon in Thai peanut sauce. I like salmon and I like sweet Thai peanut sauce, but the two together were like putting hot fudge sauce on top of a chocolate bar. There were 300 choices on the wine list but I’ll be damned if there was one that looked appealing with Thai peanut sauce. Wine was simply irrelevant, but our curious new custom demanded that a bottle of wine be served with salmon.
Well, like the host’s wife, we can always drink it before and after the meal.