Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Wine Spectator manages to screw up pairing wine with steak

I've seen some weak articles on wine and food pairing, but I think one in Wine Spectator's Nov. 15 edition about pairing wine with steak -- the food nearly every red wine maker seems to want on the menu for its wine-pairing dinners -- is the worst ever.

Here's why.

1) It's completely worthless to the reader for practical advice.

2) In four pages of copy, only three wines are mentioned, costing $175, $70 and $90 retail.

3) The article emphasizes failure, i.e., "None of the three had the balance or grace that were needed." So buddy -- pick other wines! Maybe one that costs $20?

4) It's a product placement for Del Frisco's Restaurant Group, which is the only steakhouse mentioned in all four pages. Explain to me again why the FTC wants bloggers to divulge freebies, but not magazines.

This article is an extreme example of what's wrong with many food-and-wine pairing articles: not enough care about the reader. Instead, as with this article, many writers just want to brag about their own experience.

Moreover, they make it seem as if there's only one wine in the world that can possibly work with a dish, and that other wines are simply failures.

I don't want to go to the other extreme. Wine pairing matters, and you can easily prove it to yourself with some goat cheese, a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chardonnay. One wine will taste good with the goat cheese; the other will not. (Hint: if you can only afford one, get SB).

But that is a carefully chosen example of a food with an extreme taste-texture combination that isn't friendly to many wines. Most foods are not like this.

Steak is certainly not like this. Go to Bern's Steak House in Tampa, Florida, home of perhaps America's best wine list, and chat up one of the sommeliers. The last time I was there, I was in an aged Cab mood, but they convinced me to have Burgundy instead and the wines were lovely. Our neighbors were drinking Petite Sirah; others in the room had a Merlot. I'd have a hard time saying any of those is a lousy match. (Maybe that's why I'm not at Wine Spectator.)

My favorite local takeout place is Good Frikkin' Chicken, which makes a superb rotisserie chicken with Middle Eastern spices. Since I eat this relatively often, I have had great matches for it with Chardonnay, Viognier, sparkling wine, sake, Pinot Noir, Grenache, rose, cider, Chateauneuf du Pape, Albarino, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and other alcoholic beverages I'm probably forgetting. Maybe my all-time favorite pairing with it is slightly toasty, non-malolactic Chardonnay with decent acidity. But as you can see, I don't start weeping if I don't have such a bottle chilled.

Here's the thing: People reading about wine and food pairing are, generally, anxious. Maybe they're having a dinner party and they want it to go perfectly. Maybe they are just learning about wine.

It's no service to these readers to increase their anxieties. People writing about wine and food matches should tell us what works, in general terms -- not like Wine Spectator claiming that only a specific $175 wine goes with filet mignon. Are Del Frisco's steaks really that unforgiving?

Writers should also tell us what doesn't work. Sweet foods and dry wines, that's troublesome. Salty foods and high-alcohol wines is another toughie. There, that's more useful advice in two short sentences than Wine Spectator doled out in four product-placed pages.

Too often, I read some star-struck writer who got a free meal somewhere say, "The single-vineyard Gewurztraminer (only 24 cases made) with the river fish flown in from Japan in a sauce of wild-picked chanterelles was divine!" As if that's going to help someone who's planning to cook trout and wonders what bottle at BevMo will go with it (hint: try a floral and/or fruity white).

This article goes down a similar route: the food expert showing off. Here's a paragraph:

Many things influence beef flavor, including breed, feed, cut, marbling and aging method. Always check a steak's marbling, the fat within the muscle of the meat; more fat tends to mean the meat is more tender, flavorful and juicy. Another consideration is whether the steak is wet-aged or dry-aged. Wet-aged meat is put in vacuum-sealed plastic bags and aged in its own juices. Dry-aged meat is exposed to air for weeks, while enzymes in the beef break down the muscle fibers, tenderizing the meat and adding distinctive mineral and game flavors. The meat loses about 20 percent of its weight in the process, contributing to the higher cost of dry-aged steak.
That would be really helpful if the writer would tell us what kind of wine goes well with dry-aged steak -- but he doesn't. Instead, all it does is make me worry that if I don't know what the cow was fed, I can't possibly choose the right wine.

Articles like this are a disservice to wine and food lovers. Thank you for reading my rant.

Wine on Foodista


Jeff said...

Hilarious dude. Is there a red wine that doesn't go with steak?? Personally, I'm partial to something like Gigondas or CdP. Sure, some are gonna go better than others, but WTF? It's why I don't subscribe to Wine Spectator. It isn't based in reality. Mainly seems like "wine-porn" to me most of the time. As in, people living vicariously through James Suckling, et al, reading about wines they can't have because they can't track down, or they don't have deep enough pockets.

Jack said...

Wait a minute...the Wine Spectator making anything to do wine more difficult or mysterious or Per-PLEXing? I'm shocked, shocked I tell you. Completely totally shocked. In a shocked-like way. 99 pts of shockingness.

It's hard to think of another huge-circulation consumer magazine more anti-consumer than the WS.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks guys. I actually like the Spectator's wine news reporting, and I think their point scores are less histrionic than some others out there. But their idea of a reasonably priced wine is not all that far from Robb Report's.

Alder said...

And this is precisely why food and wine pairing as a so called "Science" or "Art" is completely bunk.

Down with anxiety

Anonymous said...


It seems to me you have misread Sam Gugino's article.

You say, "the article emphasizes failure," but Gugino actually wrote, "while some wines showed best with a certain cut of beef, in general we found that steaks cooked simply and served medium-rare were excellent accompaniments to a wide variety of wines."

Then Gugino tried to narrow the matching exercise. He tried specific steaks, each representing a different set of flavors and textures (corn-fed filet, grass-fed strip, Wagyu) and sampled particular wine types with them, in collaboration with Del Frisco's wine director, a very experienced and knowledgeable sommelier, David O'Day.

If this story were simply a "product placement for Del Frisco's," as you assert, would Gugino have concluded that none of O'Day's suggested matches with the filet "had the balance or grace that were needed"?

We asked Del Frisco's to serve as a laboratory for an experiment, and they were game enough to agree. When they didn't serve the cut of beef we requested, they found it from outside sources. When we didn't like the wines they chose, they didn't complain. I don't know if you have ever eaten at a Del Frisco's, but in my experience they offer excellent quality beef and a serious cellar. They seemed like a logical partner to explore matching steak and wine.

Far from playing on readers' anxieties, as you claim, the article hoped to help people think about the nuances of wine pairing and to exercise their own palates. As Gugino concludes: "Our tasting gives you but a peek at the many steak possibilities for restaurant and home dining, as well as at the numerous wine choices to go with them. Give yourself a bonus, and enjoy."

Thomas Matthews
Executive editor
Wine Spectator

W. Blake Gray said...

Thomas: Thank you for taking the time to respond, and nice pun about being "game enough."

As I commented above, I respect your magazine's reporting, which is why this article is so disappointing. I wouldn't bother to rant about a publication that doesn't know wine -- but you do.

If you say Del Frisco's is not a product placement, I believe you.

However, I think the choice of deferring to Del Frisco's instead of writer Sam Gugino grilling up some steaks at home added to the elitist, forbidding feel to the article.

For example: Del Frisco's refuses to carry grass-fed beef because it's "inconsistent," though as Gugino points out, it's healthier. Since fully 1/4 of the article is about grass-fed beef, and on that page Gugino also rejects the wines Del Frisco's chose, I don't see why he needs the restaurant at all. But there are four quotes from Del Frisco's executive chef on that page about cooking a type of beef he disparages and doesn't carry.

Then we learn one wine "got lost in this match" and another "cried out for more fat." As with the filet mignon, only one wine in the entire world -- a $70 Super Tuscan -- is named as being "just right for the lean strip steak."

I don't see this kind of writing as inviting readers to experience the joys of food and wine pairing; to me it warns them of all their possible mistakes.

You may not agree, but I hope you will reread the article and see how someone could read it my way.

I would like you to answer this question: Why only 3 wines named, when you have thousands of wines available? Why no Bordeaux, no Burgundy, no Australian or Chilean Cabernet, to name just a few? And why no wines under $70?


Anonymous said...


The goal of the article was not to give a laundry list of wines that pair well with steak. As Gugino notes (and your commenters echo) steak matches well with "a wide variety of wines."

The particular wines mentioned in the article were chosen by O'Day as representative of distinctive wine styles: an earthy super Tuscan, a fruit-forward Australian Shiraz, and so forth. Each style was then matched against a different kind of beef. The idea was to look for category matches. Since the Aussie Shiraz was a superb match with the Wagyu, readers can look for a Shiraz that fits the flavor profile in a price range they are comfortable with.

When it comes to grass-fed beef, Del Frisco's executive chef, Thomas Dritsas, explains why the restaurant doesn't carry it, then offers good advice on how to cook it. I think that was sporting of him, and don't see why you think it was disparaging.

This article tried to explain the different characters of different types of beef, offer guidance on cooking them, and explore how different types of wines matched with the various steaks. It was really more about the beef than about the wine; Sam Gugino is first and foremost a food writer.

Everyone involved offered some opinions, put those opinions to the test, and we reported the results. I just don't see the article as "elitist" or "forbidding." It's pragmatic and playful. Instead of taking pot shots at us, why not replicate the experiment yourself, and report on your results? What wine would you serve with Wagyu skirt steak?

Thomas Matthews
Executive editor
Wine Spectator

guren said...

An Argentinian Malbec was referred to several times in the article, but it doesn't seem to have been named. Any reason for the mystery?

W. Blake Gray said...

Thomas: Thanks again for commenting. Sorry you think I'm taking pot shots; when I wrote the rant, it felt more like letting rip with a machine gun.

I think we're not going to agree on this. I don't see the article as pragmatic -- the average person can't afford these wines, and maybe can't even find them. And we've got very different definitions of playful. Matt Kramer is playful; sometimes James Suckling is too. Show me the laugh line in this piece.

You're making better points than the article did, but I don't agree with some of them. Do you really think a reader can generalize from Mollydooker Carnival of Love Shiraz to other Aussie Shirazes?

All writers have articles they're not proud of. I don't want to mention mine, but some are still available on the Internet, and I took my lumps when I wrote them. I think this is one of those for Wine Spectator. You guys usually do better work than this.

Re Wagyu skirt steak: I'm sorry, but you're making my point. It's not up to me, the reader, to do the work for this article. I know I can't cook as well as Sam, and I don't have a cellar as deep as yours. You reviewed, by my count, 577 wines in the same issue. I want your stable of wine experts to choose some wines to go with steak, in all price ranges. Please note that I have never disagreed with your choices; I just don't think there are enough of them. You can say it's a food article, but you're Wine Spectator, not Food Spectator.

That said, if Sam came over and cooked up some wagyu for me, I'd probably try a Bordeaux, maybe a St. Emilion, preferably about 10 years old, so the tannins would have softened some and the fruit would still be vibrant. I'm still surprised Sam didn't try anything at all from France.


Gerald Wright said...

I've always been amused by wine writers getting so perplexed over the annual "what to serve for Thanksgiving" recommendations. Inevitably they advise serving Beaujolais or Gewurtztraminer. (I like Gewurtz - but for a whole, long, holiday meal?) My strategy has always been to drink the best wine in the cellar. In my case that usually means some old Bordeaux that I bought years ago but never seem to find the right occasion for. Sure it may not match with cranberry sauce, but the wine serves to stimulate conversation in its own right.