One of the side jobs that comes with becoming a winemaker is the position of chief of all family wine questions and situations. As someone who just plain loves wine, I’m not always the best suited for this job. When a family member does a bit of research and tells me, “Oh, let’s hold off on the Chardonnay right now because I heard that you can’t drink it with the salad dressing I used.” I can tell that they really don’t care, that they are just worried that I will look at them scornfully as they serve me the evil mixture of wine and vinegar. As if people expect me to fly off the handle yelling, "How dare you ruin the sanctity of my wine that I perfectly crafted. This meal is RUINED!" Instead, I usually reply with something like, “You know, that might be technically true, but who cares. Never hold off on drinking wine, bad pairings can be just as fun as a good one. You can see what difference the food makes in the way the wine tastes." This is a great way to truly understand food pairing.
Wine's relationship to our palates fascinates me endlessly, so I’m not one to dogmatically follow the rules of food and wine. Like most trained scientists, I feel there is just as much to learn in failure as there is in success. Sadly, my offhand dismissal of hard and fast rules just makes everything more confusing for my family.
These situations always get me thinking about why wine can be so confounding to those first exploring it. I think people are scared that they will demonstrate some form of wine ignorance by flubbing a basic rule. Well, rules like these are meant to be broken indeed. The world of food and wine is so complex, simple rules should only be the roughest of guidelines. As an example wines are often described as being "food friendly". I guess this is said implying that some other un-named wine is unfriendly or just plain rude. Since wine is so completely intertwined into the culinary experience, this has to be one of the harshest critiques possible of a wine. The problem that immediately comes to my mind is this: What does the critic in this case mean by "food"?
When I lived in San Francisco, a typical 8pm question was, “What should we eat tonight?” I know this is a common problem in homes throughout the world, but the seemingly endless choices made available in my neighborhood invoked that same feeling of hopeless confusion as when choosing a toothpaste.
Anyway, here is just a sample of the choice of restraunt styles that were within a 4-minute bike ride of my front door:
American, New American, Southern, BBQ, Californian, Cajun, Seafood, French, Italian, Vietnemese, French-Vietnemese, German, East German, Hipster German, Pizza, Southern Indian, Northen Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Nepalese, Cambodian, Thai, Ethiopian, Senegalese, Moroccan, Spanish/Tapas, Peruvian, Nicaraguan, Mexican, New Mexican, Tacos, Burritos, Vegan/Raw, Cuban, Japanese, Mediterranean....(Man, now I need to spend a week eating in the Mission)
The idea that there is some formula out there that x and y features of wine make it good with "food" seems totaly absurd. I don't care what the pH, TA, tannin, alcohol, balance, ten-cent wine descriptor, you can find a food that works for you with pretty much any wine. I've met people who swear by sushi and whiskey! Not my ideal pairing, but if you love it, anyone who tells you otherwise can take a walk. When one combines the entire spectrum of sustenance with all the styles and characteristics of wine, then throws in the full range of human taste and experience, I think you’d have to be a Numberwang champion to figure out all the possibilities.
So take this as a challenge to disregard much of what you’ve read or heard and just go exploring. Eat at places that are passionate about what they serve and express a unique point of view. That passion will lead them, and in turn you, to all sorts of interesting and unexpected places that simply following “the rules” would steer you away from. The role of the experts should not be to confuse you and limit your choices, but instead be a role of expanding and leading you to try something you might otherwise avoid. Any sommelier will tell you the greatest triumph in pairing is the success of the unexpected. Don’t be afraid of failure or of some snobby upturned nose at a bad pairing. Try anything and everything with the full confidence that failure and success are both wonderful outcomes when it comes to wine and food. This more than any book, video, magazine, or blog will lead you down the path of understanding your unique palate.