Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sorry Sydney, most people don't care about food-wine pairing

I'll make them drink Cabernet with their spicy Indian food
I felt like Snidely Whiplash on Monday: an international villain. I woke up in Brazil to discover I was being mocked in Boston for saying Japanese sake is better than American (sorry, it is). More significantly, I am now the poster child in Sydney, Australia for the idea that food and wine pairing is unimportant.

I wish a big paper like the Sydney Morning Herald had taken the trouble to spell my name correctly, but copy editors are always the first to go in layoffs. I don't want to insult the great city of Sydney by "correcting" its unusual first vowel, nor do I want to retaliate by adding a "u" to morning, one of my favorite times of day. So I'll just call the paper The Harold and move on to the real issue:

Does food and wine pairing matter to anyone other than food writers?

The answer, unfortunately, is usually not. And arrogant food writers are part of the reason why.

Don't do what The Harold did and mistake the messenger for the message. I care about food and wine pairing; I don't ever ignore it. In a restaurant, before ordering any wine I chat with the sommelier, and if she seems to listen to and understand my tastes and budget, I defer to her choice more than 90% of the time. She has tasted the wines and the food; I haven't.

But I'm a food writer, so food and wine pairing matters to me. What I wrote that offended The Harold, and am here to restate, is that it does not matter to most people. Ask any sommelier and she will tell you of many instances in which she recommended, say, dry Riesling with a crab dish and the customer said, "We don't like white wine," and ordered a Cab.

These consumers are the norm, not the exception. Cabernet Sauvignon might be the world's least food-friendly wine, and most Napa Valley versions of it are intentionally made these days to be the least food-friendly of Cabernets. Yet Cab is the most popular red wine in America, Napa Cabs are the most-sought wines in the land, and the few food-friendly Cabs left in Napa fetch less than a third the price of the others.

The same is true to a much lesser extent of Chardonnay; it goes well with some dishes (I love it with rotisserie chicken), but it's nowhere near as food-friendly as Riesling or even Sauvignon Blanc, yet the sales for the latter two combined don't begin to approach King Chard, America's favorite wine.

Food writers deserve some of the blame. As I wrote in my original article, I laugh every time I see some food piece that says you should drink this one particular wine -- the '08 vintage, not the '07 -- with this dish because of its saffron and olive oil base. Blah blah blah. Or, from the reverse angle, that this Syrah is great with lamb rubbed with marjoram, grilled medium-rare, and covered with a fig vinaigrette reduction.

It's too specific, and thus not helpful. That kind of pairing advice is great from a sommelier when the actual dish in question is coming to your table.

But look at any recipe website. Few people make the original recipe: they delight in substitutions. That changes the character of the dish and makes any specific wine recommendation moot.

And besides, we don't have an open marketplace for wine. I can't easily buy the '09 Pfalz Trocken Riesling that was so good with the food writer's pork recipe. Even if I make the recipe exactly, I have to make do with the wines in my refrigerator at the time, or if I'm ambitious, at my corner store. Food writers are being arrogant if they think a reader is not only going to follow their recipe exactly; he's also going to shop around the entire country via wine-searcher to find the exact wine recommended.

There are plenty of food writers like Ray Isle who understand the way to help readers with their wine questions. You give a range of wines, which is the truth anyway: very few dishes only go well with a single type of wine. And you acknowledge that your specific recommendations are chosen because they're a good one for that type; i.e., "a full-fruited, complex Sauvignon Blanc without many herbal notes, like the Grgich Hills." (Grgich Hills Fume Blanc, yum.)

But be real about your audience: Most of your readers are going to ignore that and drink what they want. We educate them a little at a time, but breaking people of Cab and crab is going to be as hard as weaning them from white Zinfandel or teaching them that nigori sake is for beginners.

If somebody wants to argue that disinterest in food-wine pairing is an American thing, and the majority of consumers in your country do care, go for it.

That said, The Harold writer ended up undermining his own point at the end, with his stinging conclusion of saying someone ought to send a particular bottle of wine to me.

Great! I'll take it, I love Australian wine.

But, um, are you also going to send me the lamb dish that it came with? Or are you just going to let me drink it with whatever I feel like eating, as the overwhelming majority of your readers are already doing?

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DBrane said...

I agree. The best-selling wine in a popular Japanese restaurant here in Singapore is a big bold Aussie Cabernet. Go figure.

John M. Kelly said...

Blake you have hit on a thing here that I have been formulating for a while. When you say consumers "don't care" about food/wine pairing you imply a casual disregard. I think it is more than that.

It's not just that most consumers don't value food/wine pairing. I believe that most simply don't get what we are going on (and on, and on...) about. To take your example: one likes crab, and Cab; it does not matter one little bit that these clash on your palate, or mine. This large group of consumers simply does not connect the two experiences.

You and I - and the rest of us that pay attention to these things - were drawn to what we do, and therefore together, because we DO connect the experiences. We can talk amongst ourselves, but to the rest of the wine drinking world we sound just like the grown ups on the old Charlie Brown specials.

Anonymous said...

I think it is the sommeliers duty to explain the reason for his/her suggested pairing as long as they are no pompous about it.

jim silver said...

Blake - thanks for pointing out one of the most glaringly obnoxious aspects of this entire industry. Food and Wine pairings are at the heart of what every amateur of wine hates about the subject.

Teach someone about the flavors created in a wine by geography and climate and they will understand. Ask them to apply a hypothetical combination of theoretical and subjective wine flavors to variable and potential food flavors and they will go glassy-eyed every time.

I have been in this business for 23 years, and seven as a sommelier for the Four Seasons, and I can assure you that there are exactly two (!) types of wine and food matches: The inoffensive and the offensive. The offensive pairing (Cab with Oysters, etc.) is easy to figure out. The inoffensive pairings are quite a bit easier, and have as much to do with mood and atmosphere as anything. A sommelier, like a doctor, has a duty to "first do no harm" when s/he makes a selection for another human being.

Are there magical food and wine pairings? Of course there are - there are many and more are being discovered all the time. But I will insist that they are more often accidental than they are planned.

Any attempt to codify people's tastes and expectations when there are infinite conditions to take into account is useless (and arrogant) prattle - but I will take a moment to share how this industry professional pairs his food and wine: I drink complex wines with simple foods and I drink simple wines with complex foods. The competition created by complex foods and complex wines is like trying to watch two good movies at the same time.

Anonymous said...

what are you doing in Brazil?

Eric V. Orange said...

I think that more average consumers would find heightened interest in food/wine pairings if they just once, experience that ‘magic’ that happens when it is done perfect.

It seems to me that the average consumer at a restaurant so rarely gets the ideal paring, regardless of the Som’s suggestion because it doesn’t account for variables such as the olive/rosemary bread they are noshing on, or sharing across plates, etc.

For those who attend a specific wine and food matched dinner where the chef tasted the wines and created a menu based on the flavors and aromas that he or she gets from the wine (and nails it), I believe the concept can take hold. Especially if one is lucky enough that the chef nails every course/wine in the dinner (a rare magic I have only experienced 4 times out of hundreds of dinners).

catenians said...

I love the cartoon:

"I'll make them drink Cabernet with their spicy Indian Food".

Here is my post and embedded video on "Matching Wine with Spicy Food"

Donn Rutkoff said...

Hey-ho, Blaik. I went to a new years eve dinner recently, at a very nice sushi place. Before we even all sat downe, plop, a Stag Leap District Cabernet hits the table. De rigor for the SF area, you know. (I brot a Meursault and a Chablis).

And I would venture to say that the job of a somm is 50% to match the food & wine, the other 50% is to judge the customer and approach the customer in the friendly way for that customer. Which 50% do you think counts for 90% of the customer having a good time???

PS Come on down to S Diego and try the new little wineries in the new Ramona Valley AVA, east of S Diego. Some very good wines. Very very. Jumped out of my shoes in a cuppla cases.

Dave McIntyre said...

Great post, and I agree about the silliness of wine recommendations in recipes and cookbooks. But why then do people (and I mean real people, not us wine writers) keep asking what goes with this wine, or that dish? I think many people realize that food/wine pairing is important, but perhaps we haven't succeeded in reducing the intimidation factor. Some have given up. And unfortunately we haven't convinced a lot of people that sommeliers aren't just trying to sell up to a wine with a bigger profit margin.

SteveG said...

I think *jim silver* above is spot on. While I have always actually enjoyed food/wine pairing, I have come to understand that the divide is between those for whom wine is "an alcoholic beverage that can be politely drunk with dinner" and those like myself for which wine is food (including alcohol), and thus part of dinner, entitled to similar concern as saucing the pasta.

As for those ridiculously precise wine pairing suggestions, you are probably correct that they harm the cause of wine-pairing promotion rather that help, although I personally give them wide leeway, and just try to pry out whatever useful information they contain. Often in my own wine notes, I will report on the match with the chosen food, but then my notes are written to assist my own memory, and the wines are from my own closet.

Donn Rutkoff said...

Dave McI. is right too. In the large grocery where I work in the wine aisle, once people got to trust me, they come in and ask for matching with dinners all the time. Having repeat customers in a grocery is different than dining out, because you rarely go to the same restaurant 2x a week for 3 years, but your grocer, you are there all da time.

W. Blake Gray said...

Donn: Retailers like you are serving the cause of wine education. I learned much of what I know about wine and food pairing exactly as you suggest: going to the same store over repeatedly and asking the same people I trusted for recommendation.

John: I've gotten to hearing the Charlie Brown adult voices when I read certain bloggers rant on and on about high-alcohol wines. Not that I like high-alcohol wines, but I think you know what I mean.

Jim: That's an interesting theory: simple/complicated. I'm going to put it to the test soon. Thanks for it.

Eric: Yeah, we always ignore the sides and nibbles. I don't care how great your wine pairing is, put those pickles and peppers in your mouth and it's all over.

Warren: If only I'd had space to type "heh heh heh."

Dave: We gotta keep at it. I learned as an editor that you might not think somebody's absorbing a message, but they just might hae.

SteveG: There's another post I might write some day on the dichotomy you point out. I often hear wine writers proclaim "wine is food," period understood. But for some readers, it's not.

Anon: At the moment, lying in a hammock typing.

SteveG said...

W. Blake, test jim's theory right away! I drink my absolutely most interesting, complex, constantly-evolving wines with...roast chicken! For me, all a great wine needs is something savory to eat between sips, something good enough to be delicious, but so simple that the wine is always the star. Red, white, rose, off-dry, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Barolo, Rioja, Savennières, GG Mosel usw, they all shine.

Mac McCarthy said...

This is dead on.

There are two factors here: One, which I've complained about, is that Americans drink what I call "cocktail wines," wines best imbibed by themselves, not with meals. There is a place for that kind of wine.

But you've totally nailed the other major, critical factor: completely worthless advice larded out by wine reviewers. I laughed out loud at your example of a hyperspecific food pairing - that is a perfect example!

Far, far better would be to point out the kinds of foods that would go well with this particular wine, and why: "This light white wine, because of its nice acidity, will go well with spicy Asian foods as well as greasy foods." That's advice you can actually use.

But us wine reviewers are writing as often with an eye towards our peers in the reviewing business, the wine trade, and the refined-drinker crowd, as to the ostensible general public. We're idiots.

Peter Conway said...

Yes, I do agree with you. I am on a constant mission to enlighten the world of the joy of good food and wine pairing. Among my friends and contacts, most have no clue. They are delighted when they have the experience but that does not often change their habits. But we soldier on.

Paddy said...

Mr. Gray, this is the first post I read on your blog. It is brilliant. I work in the US on-premise trade. Rich chard, extracted Pinot and fruity, oaky cabs (and RS in all these wines)are the by the glass wines which sell best. A wine with an exclamation point is what most consumers want an use to justify their purchase.

I look forward to reading more of your entries. Well done.

Unknown said...

I'll have to wholeheartedly agree with you on this. No many how many varietals and vintages they have in storage at a restaurant, at the end of the day, who's going to afford a different glass of wine for every course that comes to the table!