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Tyranny or Anarchy?
By Marguerite Thomas
May 10, 2016
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No, I’m not talking about the current political situation here. It’s food and wine pairing that’s caught my attention just now following a recent web surfing session during which I was surprised to discover that the word “tyranny” is frequently used in conjunction with the phrase food and wine pairing.  “Wine and food matching has become a tyranny,” declares Master of Wine Tim Hanni.  "Food and wine matching should be important, but not a tyranny," writes Fiona Beckett, whose website happens to be one of my favorites on this subject (food and wine, not tyranny).  Blake Gray, meanwhile, wrote about apps on his blog: “Since food and wine pairing is mysterious and counter-intuitive, 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.”

Steve Heimoff didn’t actually use the “t” word in a recent blog post but the general drift says it all: “Consumers still need and want somebody with more time and knowledge than they have to break it down and explain the ins and outs of wine to them. What they don’t want or need are authoritarian ideologues who threaten them with purgatory if they don’t obey the pairing rules,” he wrote. “Consumers were already freaked out by wine; now they have to worry that, whatever wine they choose, it will be wrong for the food. How horrible, to pile on peoples’ insecurity with additional insecurity about their hosting capability.”

Jeez, I feel terrible. I co-write a food and wine pairing column with my husband Paul Lukacs. Actually, I just checked with Paul and learned that he doesn’t feel the least bit terrible about any of this, but personally, I never wanted to threaten anyone with purgatory, or make a person feel insecure about hosting a dinner party.

On the contrary, one of the main reasons we write Wine With is to reassure readers that there are few truly right or wrong choices when it comes to deciding which wine to drink with dinner, and that matching food to wine can be (to borrow Blake Gray’s term) “mysterious” for all of us. In fact as I see it, half the pleasure of eating and drinking lies not only in enjoying the predictable deliciousness of, say, oysters with Sauvignon Blanc or steak with Cabernet, but in discovering the surprising gastronomic harmony of an unexpected pairing.

For example, recently at Wine With we featured Albondigas, a Spanish-inspired dish of meatballs poached in a vegetable soup. Much to our surprise we found that the dish was as tasty with a classic California Chardonnay as with a briary Zinfandel, and that a hearty red wine from Portugal seemed to suit it just as well as a refreshing Brut sparkler from Mendocino.

And who knew that pasta with tomatoes, spinach and mushrooms topped with a disc of goat cheese would be equally wonderful with a Vino Nobile di Montalcino as with a South African unoaked Chardonnay? Gamay from Touraine and a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand were also unexpectedly good with this pasta preparation.

Let me cite one more of our recent examples of how surprisingly broad the spectrum of appropriate choices for matchmaking wine with food can be. By now many of us have discovered that dishes enhanced by spice are far more flexible when it comes to wine pairing than we used to suppose. Yes, Riesling and Gewurztraminer remain excellent choices here, but with a moderately spicy dish such as the chicken korma we made not long ago we found that the soft, silky texture of a not-too-sweet California Pinot Noir made this wine a very close second to the Riesling Kabinett that we described as “virtually perfect” with the dish.

As Steve Heimoff says, most people don’t have “the time and knowledge”—let alone the amount of wine—that we do, which is why the job of those of us in this field is to “break it down and explain the ins and outs of wine.” In the case of Wine With that also means that we open 10 to 15 different bottles to taste with a specific dish, from which we choose five wines that we think partner best with the food.

Of course, as with most things having to do with wine, our perceptions and evaluations are largely subjective, but we’ve been writing this column for well over a decade and have learned a few things about the subject along the way. Also, as a check against insularity, we frequently invite friends to join us for Wine With, and we give their opinion as much consideration as our own judgments. Oh, and did I mention that Paul and I don’t always agree on which are the best wines to match a certain dish? (We start by tasting the wines, with the food, without discussing any of it until we’ve gone through all the wines and have each selected our top five choices, in order of preference; surprisingly, we almost always have reached consensus on at least three or four of the top wines, but another one or two often require debate, horse trading, or some other form of negotiation.)  

There are many reasons why certain wines seem to pair stunningly with a given food--or at the opposite end of the spectrum, be a horrible match! Aside from explanations having to do with personal preference and experience, research is uncovering a lot more about the physiology of taste perception and also about the science of wine. Did you know, for example, that wines that have a high iron content make seafood taste fishier? Takayuki Tamura, the lead author on this study has said that because iron does not “induce color change, accelerated oxidation, or cloudiness,” winemakers tend to ignore its potential role as a seafood turnoff. These new findings, he added, offer vintners the opportunity to reconsider the downside of iron contamination.

But let’s get back to Heimoff’s description of wine critics as “authoritarian ideologues” for a minute. The usual advice to consumers who don’t want ideologues bossing them around is to “drink what you like.” Okay, fine—but is this really the best option? In a recent paper by Robert H. Ashton (Fuqua School of Business, Duke University) the author suggested that “one might argue that wine consumers, not wine experts, should be the ultimate arbiters of quality and that their idea of quality will be revealed by what they purchase.

There are at least two problems with this argument. First, it ignores the fact that wine consumers have budget constraints to varying degrees that limit the range of wines they purchase and consume. Thus, assuming that price and quality are positively related, few consumers will be able to sample the entire range of quality that is available. Second, it is unlikely that the mass- produced wines that sell best to the public will be judged as high quality by people who have experienced a greater range of wines.”

Another problem with the drink-what-you-like method is that, well, you tend to drink only what you like, thereby missing out on the vinous happiness that can come from trying something new, a full throttled Petite Sirah with that rib-eye steak instead of your usual Cabernet, for example, or a glass of Muscadet with those oysters instead of Sauvignon Blanc (wine importer Kermit Lynch has said he knows a winemaker in the Loire who loves Gamay with raw oysters).
Of course I’m not suggesting that any-old-random wine will be a great match with a particular dish—trading tyranny for anarchy is not what I’m advocating. All I’m saying is that if you want to live life a little fuller, at least in terms of wine consumption, why not solicit a few ideas from sommeliers and/or wine writers whose opinion you trust about some new directions you might take? “We all learn by drinking and thinking,” the New York Times’ critic Eric Asimov has said. He certainly doesn’t want you to feel bound by his suggested food and wine pairings, however. “A proposed pairing reflects only one point on the spectrum of possibilities,” he wrote, adding that his suggested wine possibilities “should never inhibit an impulse to explore.”

The Washington Post’s Dave McIntyre offers similar advice on the subject: “On the whole, I’d say don’t sweat it so much,” he advised in a recent blog, "and feel free to experiment.”

None of this sounds like tyranny to me, and not much like anarchy either.