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A Monday meander

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On Christmas Day, Maxine made eggs Benedict for brunch, and then for dinner Marilyn served honey baked ham with all the trimmings (including scalloped potatoes) and so I had about a year’s worth of fat and calories and cholesterol all in one day. But what the hey, it was Christmas, a time to cast care to the winds and not worry about anything. Maxine and Keith drank coffee laced with Kahlua for brunch. I refrained from the Kahlua, because I had to drive to Marilyn’s afterward, over the beautiful but treacherous Santa Cruz Mountains that separate San Mateo from the sea, and there was a good-sized rainstorm coming down. Two good reasons to keep my blood alcohol level to absolute zero while driving. When you crest the mountains via Sharp Park Road, all of a sudden the Pacific sweeps into view, with Pedro Point to the south and whitecaps smashing up against the coastal rocks, and it can be hard to keep your eyes on the twisting road. After all these years of living in California, I still think, “There’s the edge of the western world.” In other words, to paraphrase Dorothy,  I don’t think we’re in The Bronx anymore.

Anyway, I made up for my abstinence once I got to Marilyn’s, where I would be spending the night. Started off with a couple flutes of champagne. On her dinner table there was more champagne, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, and I think there was a Cabernet in there too; I wasn’t really keeping track. Nor did I care what I drank with what, which puts me fully in agreement with Matt Kramer, who made some waves a few weeks ago with this column, in which he basically and properly argues against getting too mental with the wine and food pairing thing.

The day before, my L.A. friend, Howie, had called to ask for my suggestion of what wine to serve some friends he and Athena had invited for dinner. Howie knows as much about wine as I know about his profession, producing hip hop music, which is, essentially, zero. I patiently told him to please not stress, to just open whatever seemed likely to work with whatever, and to refrain from calling me in the future with lame questions. (We go back a long way; I can speak frankly.) Wine writers do get asked these kinds of things all the time:

Which is better with the lamb chops, Cabernet or Pinot Noir?
I’m having friends over who know about wine. What should I serve to impress them?
I’m dating this girl who’s into wine. What will she like?

I mean, in most cases these questions have no answers, and even if they did, they can’t be answered in the abstract anyway. There are three reasons why people ask us writers questions like these:

1. Their insecurity.
2. Their perception of us as gurus.
3. The Frankensteinian myth manufactured by the industry that there are certain rules about wine that only barbarians ignore.

As with most things in life, there’s some truth to all three, but there’s also a lot of hype. People are insecure about wine. Why wouldn’t they be?  Even professionals are insecure about wine. Sommeliers try their best to get the food pairing thing right and they still strike out often as not. So it’s understandable why people would turn to writer/critics for advice, especially if they happen to be old friends. We have been portrayed–or we portray ourselves–as more knowledgeable than most people, which happens to be true, as far as truth goes. As for rule #3, we’ve all grown up with the “red wine with steak, white wine with sole” thing, and there’s some truth to that, too.

But I think the reason why writer/critics sometimes get a little impatient with the questions is that we get asked them all the time, and we sense, behind the questions, in the minds of the questioners, a level of anxiety that’s antithetical to the spirit of eating and drinking and having a good time with friends. If you’re paying $200 for a meal at Masa’s (for one; double for two) the wine pairing damned well better be perfect, assuming you can tell the difference between perfect and merely good. But that circumstance is the exception to the rule for most of us; you can’t bring the level of scrutiny and heightened expectation to a home-cooked meal, or to a meal at an ordinary restaurant, as you do to Masa’s. Instead, you relax your standards, lower your expectations and enjoy. I think that’s the biggest difference between the European and American approaches to wine. We make such a big deal about it; they don’t. If there’s some Bordeaux left over from the roast beef and you’re onto the fish course, you don’t freak out and demand Sancerre or Muscadet. It’s not the end of the world. The wine-and-food-pairing Gestapo isn’t going to bang down the door and haul you off to the foodies’ concentration camp.

Late at night at Marilyn’s, as we watched a truly bizarre movie called Exit through the Gift Shop, I drank some of the Sauvignon Blanc, which was from Napa Valley, with vanilla ice cream and a scoop of leftover stewed fruit Marilyn had prepared as a side dish for the ham. I don’t think any sommelier would pair Sauvignon Blanc with ice cream and stewed fruit, but you know what? It was delicious, I didn’t care, there was nobody to impress, and it was so good that despite the calories and fat and cholesterol that had proceeded it I marched right into the kitchen for a second bowl. And another glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

  1. Lowered expectations — the secret to enjoying life!

    It’s taken me a few years (40+) to figure this out and I still struggle with it everyday, but when I can take a breath, consider the upside/downside to being *exact* about something (oh, let’s say…wine), I generally find I enjoy things a lot more when my expectations are not quite so elevated.

    So I strive to keep the expectations reasonable to the circumstances and use my powers only for good, not for evil. With a great palate comes great responsibilities –

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