Monday, January 17, 2011

Food-wine pairing apps: tyranny in your pocket

New column photo: like it?
I get emails every week inviting me to write about some new wine or food related app. Recently one listed several of its recommended food and wine pairings.

I disagreed with them, not because they were bad, but because they were prescriptive and unimaginative. Porterhouse steak -- Cabernet Sauvignon. Thank you, I needed to spend $2.99 to learn that.

The thing is, I prefer Pinot Noir with steak, and not because I'm weird; it's a pairing first recommended to me some years ago by a sommelier at Bern's Steak House, an institution that should know a thing or two about the topic.

And that got me to thinking about the whole concept of a food-wine pairing app.

There are two extremist theories of food and wine pairing. There's the "perfect pairing" theory, espoused by many glossy magazines. Here's a recipe, and with it you should drink not just Sauvignon Blanc, but Loire Sauvignon Blanc -- and not just that, but this one particular Sancerre.

And there's the diametrically opposed "anything goes" theory, usually espoused by people fed up with the "perfect pairing" theory. This theory says if you want to drink Cabernet Sauvignon with steamed crab, go right ahead.

As is usually the case, the truth is in the middle. Most foods will be good with a wide range of wines, but not an unlimited range. With crab, I recommend Chardonnay, Viognier, sake, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Muscadet, my list could go on and on ... but it would never include Malbec or Syrah or any other heavy red.

However, a great chef could take that as a challenge and could make a Syrah-friendly crab dish if she really wanted to. I was reminded of that last week at Skool restaurant in San Francisco, where chef Toshihiro Nagano had been tasked to come up with pairings for Tamas Estates Central Coast Zinfandel 2008.

It wasn't a great assignment for a seafood restaurant -- come up with foods that will best showcase a $10 Zinfandel. When I saw the menu, I thought it would never work.

One dish was Coca Flat Bread with Aji-Himono, Caramelized Onion, Goat Cheese, Sun Dried Tomato, Ume-Olive Tapenade and Local Greens. Aji-Himono (dried horse mackerel) is very fishy; I love mackerel and other fishy fish, but it usually isn't great with red wine, and goat cheese doesn't help.

Another dish was Sauteed Local Black Cod with Tamas Zin Reduction and Japanese Mushrooms. Black cod is so delicate, I was sure the wine -- and maybe the sauce -- would overwhelm it.

The only sure-fire semi-hit was Washugyu Beef with Tamas Zin Reduction and Flash-Charred Brussels Sprouts. Beef and Zin, sure; I only doubted the sprouts.

Of course I was wrong about all three. The black cod dish best showed the Zinfandel, brightening its fruit. The flat bread was delicious and brought out more body and texture in the Zin. And the beef made the Zin taste murky -- but the Brussels sprouts were fine with the wine.

Which brings me back to my point. Can you imagine a wine-pairing app that would show "Black Cod -- Zinfandel"? It worked because of the sauce and the mushrooms, and because the chef tasted this particular wine. It might not have worked with a more expensive Zinfandel that might have been heavier or spicier.

But the nature of apps isn't to put Evan Goldstein by your side when you order, asking you how much salt is in the dish or whether or not the wine is barrel-fermented. It might irritate the iPhone user, but all this stuff matters.

Instead, you get "Risotto -- Barolo." Well, what if the wine list doesn't have Barolo? What if you don't like Barolo? Can you dial up another choice?

Food and wine pairing is mysterious and counterintuitive and, despite the title of Evan's book on the topic, rarely perfect. Psychologically, that's the reason some people obsess on it, because the success rate isn't great. We are intermittently reinforced with something like goat cheese-roasted beets-Sauvignon Blanc that works so beautifully that we keep trying to recreate the magic.

I don't know if the medium of apps can deliver this message. I would trust the chef or sommelier of a restaurant to choose a pairing rather than any wine or food expert I know who hasn't tasted the dish in question.

When cooking at home, you can start with the simple principles, there for a reason: fish/white wine; red meat/red wine. But you quickly pour on the complications: sauces, spices, more or less fat, different styles of wine.

I rarely write about food and wine pairing because it is so complicated, and because I don't have a comfortably extreme view like the two theories above. When I want to showcase a wine at its best, I try to pick the right food for it; recently I opened a bunch of Mourvedre-based wines with cassoulet because they're both earthy and a little gamy and the Mourvedre would bring some nice spice. Was it perfect? Of course not. If I had a test kitchen, I might make 10 different Mourvedre-friendly dishes only to learn that some went best with one wine, and others with another.

All I'm saying here is that if you have a pairing app that tells you One Dish -- One Wine, immutably, with no wiggle room, it's a tyrant in your pocket. It's time for your own revolution.


Casey said...

The new photo is just okay. Your just a hard guy to make pretty.

guren said...

Nice leather jacket, Blake. I am 94 points on it.

King Krak, I Rule the Game said...

Like it not I do.

tom said...

Nice jacket; the model, however, has to go.

On food and wine pairing, palates are like fingerprints--everyone is different. What works for me likely doesn't for you.

Maitre_T said...

I first had a red wine and fish pairing in Nice some 20+ years ago. Cod in tomato sauce with black olives paired with a light bodied, local red wine. It worked great.

Always, always drink what the locals recommend.

jo6pac said...

New column photo: like it?

No but at lest I don't think I've already read this story;)

This goes along with I'm to busy to learn about wine so I'll buy a CD to teach me. I know thats not much of a bottle of wine for 2.99 but if I save my money up I could 15 before I know it and maybe find a 50 bottle on sale at 15. The price it should have been all long.

Matt Mauldin said...

It's tough to beat the 'bewildered look in front of the barrels' pose.

deb lapmardo said...

I surprised the heck out of myself (and my guests) when I poured a full-bodied Zin with spicy sauteed Calamari. I guess it was the spice and pepper in the Zin that made it work. And I, the hostess and chef, looked like a genius!