WINE, PERIOD. FOOD, PERIOD.
We're long past pretending America is really into wine and food, as in wine and food harmonizing with each other. Big alcohol in wine, while fine for cocktail parties and blind tastings, bowls over every nuanced flavor on your plate. Yet the country’s wine critics continue to lavish praise on such wines, and subsequently these monsters find themselves on restaurant wine lists and wine collector wish-lists. Old school customers who drank cases of buttery Chardonnays 25 years ago are now buying plush, dark, potent red wines with a big, fat palate hit. No natural wines for them.
This isn’t really news—exaggerated winemaking has been going on for some time. And even if hip sommeliers in trending restaurants have love affairs with food-friendly dry German Rieslings, Galicia Albariños and Loire Cabernet Francs, it’s still the high-priced show wine that captures the imagination and the desire among all too many American wine enthusiasts.
So if we know, and the sommeliers know most of their Chardonnays, Cabernets, Merlots, Pinot Noirs and Syrahs are too alcoholic and sexed up for most of the food on their restaurants’ menus, why do these wines dominate their wine lists?
The only plausible answer is: most of us who love wine for what it is and love food for what it is, demonstrably care less about the totality of an integrated food and wine experience. Mainly what wine does with food.
And that, in my view, limits wine drinkers from exploring all the breadth and additional pleasures that wine has to offer.
Fine wine, by implication, is about balance and nuance, not power. A thick-as-sludge superwine often impresses for its size, high pricetag, and rarity, which truthfully, can make for an enjoyable drink. But in the long run, these wines often become tiresome and tedious, not to mention offering the not-so-desirable ill-effects inflicted on us by high alcohol.
Finding the right wine for a dish has two main objectives: either providing harmony or a complimentary contrast.
Harmony in matching wine and food is where a wine seems to fold in seamlessly with the food, like turkey gravy and Chardonnay do with roast turkey.
A complimentary contrast is where the flavor of the wine is very different than the flavor of the dish, yet it offers fruit or sweetness that completes it, like cranberry sauce and Beaujolais do with roast turkey.
Sometimes it takes food to peel away the acid shell that closes in certain wines to reveal the fruit inside, as with Chianti and Loire Valley red wines with red meat, or Italian white wines with cured meats like prosciutto. Sipping these wines alone misses their raison d’être. It is by design they are made that way.
Knowing when to drink a wine, and more important, knowing how to drink a wine takes experience and experimentation to master. It’s also realistic to throw in a good measure of adventurousness and serendipity to discover a wine and food experience that you remember for a long time.
Getting the most out of a particular wine is of importance to me. That’s why we impress upon our clients the advantages of using a good wine glass, the flavor and aroma enhancements brought about by decanting and the importance of temperature-controlled storage for their wine. All of them—everyday and special occasion wines—taste better when we do these three things.
It Boils Down to Respect
It really boils down to respect. Respect of the land, respect of the winery’s labor, respect of the vintner’s art, estate and culture.
And especially respect for the wine itself.
Why should one care about a Grand Cru Burgundy, other than the fact that it is supposed to be the greatest Pinot Noir in the world? Does a restaurant who offers a too-young Grand Cru Burgundy on its wine list even know why it is a Grand Cru, or care that it got its exalted status in a distant age, long after the vineyard’s ability to produce long-lasting great wines had been established? Or that the primary fruit in the glass today isn’t even a hint of what will make it great over time?
Or is the sommelier just selling empty prestige?
This might sound snobby to some, but the world’s major wine media’s focus on wine as an entity separate from its surroundings is really robbing wine enthusiasts of some truly transcendent wine and food experiences.
Yet through all of this, there must be common sense applied to the art of wine and food.
Diminishing the Vintner’s Art
In some circles the phrase “wine and food pairing” has become parody, with some wine shops offering classes on dark chocolate and Cabernet pairing (does Rutherford or Oakville Cab express itself better with Madagascar 64% or Guiana 70%?). Taking this mania to the extreme, one Southern California wine shop drew over a hundred people to a wine pairing with Slim Jims, cheese puffs and Hostess Ding Dongs, proving there is always a market for silliness.
I’m all for mindless fun, but at some point it’s time to think a minute about what’s really going on here. If chocolate and rich red wine taste good together, enjoy them. But if you truly love red wine, for God’s sake, why would you subject the vintner’s art to such diminution?
If you have a nuanced, complex, special red wine, ask yourself if chocolate brings out its best qualities, or have you just killed and buried them? Would a simpler wine have done the trick equally well?
More directly, are you respecting your wine?