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Announcing the end of the wine-and-foor pairing dictatorship



Perhaps the most refreshing development in the world of wine is the gradual rejection of strict wine-and-food-pairing do’s and don’ts, in favor of “Don’t worry about it, if you like it, just do it.”

This liberating thought struck me as I was reading through this article in yesterday’s Napa Register which paraphrased MW Tim Hanni as “vehemently eschew[ing] wine pairing as a concept in both the East and the West, and encourag[ing] consumers to drink the wines of their choice with Chinese foods.”

We’ve gotten so used to mandatory wine-and-food rules that it’s hard to understand just why we adhered to these arbitrary injunctions for so long. I suppose it all started long ago, in Old Europe, although I don’t think that, in the 19th century, the esthetic tastemakers of wine were as ideological about pairing as were more modern, mainly American writers. Once Prohibition ended and a spate of wine books appeared on the scene, the rules were elevated to near-sacred status, with writers declaring with Papal infallibility what to eat with what to drink. That tendency towards rigid ideology in taste seems peculiarly American.

The inflexibility persisted well into modern times. I think the first book I can recall that began to bend—not break—the rules was “Red Wine With Fish,” David Rosengarten’s and Josh Wesson’s 1989 tome, which began to loosen the shackles. That book made a dent, but only a little one: the field in which I worked, wine writing and reviewing, helped to keep the old walls from tottering, for the simple reason that our editors expected us to recommend foods with the wines we wrote about, and it hardly would have been suitable for me to write, “Drink this Pinot Noir with anything you friggin’ want, because it really doesn’t matter.” I mean, that would have been a good way to lose your job!

Hence, I’d sit there, after the review was finished, and rack my brain to discern what foods I thought the wine would be magical with. Sometimes I’d browse through my extensive collection of cookbooks for ideas. And I was perfectly serious and sincere.

Yet, as the years passed so pleasantly, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable making such restricted judgments. In my own personal life, off-stage and in the non-visible comfort of my home, I tended to drink just about anything with anything else: Chardonnay with a hamburger, Pinot Noir with brown rice and tamari sauce, Zinfandel with sole, Sauvignon Blanc with lamb chops. I enjoyed it all, and, while I felt vaguely guilty about being so dogmatic in my published writings, didn’t really worry about it.

How refreshing it is to reach a point where America has become a mature wine-drinking country where people don’t feel the need to adhere slavishly to somebody else’s rules. Having said that, I’m sure that somebody is going to write in and say that wine critics themselves are obsolete dinosaurs imposing their ivory tower pronouncements on the plebes below. I don’t agree. 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. At this rate, we might, here in America, reach a point where wine critics are anachronisms. We’re not there, yet. But I’d be perfectly happy to see that day arrive.

  1. Hi Steve and thanks for the shout out. To reiterate, I would sincerely love to have you over for lunch any time – and bring some friends! I promise a really fun time exploring the historical timelines of wine and food ‘pairing,’ drilling into the sensory research I am conducting and a lunch demonstrating simple principles that can be personalized and applied to getting the most enjoyment out of every glass of wine.

  2. Thanks Tim. I don’t drink and drive. But if you’re ever in the East Bay would love to have coffee or lunch or something. Thank you.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Red wine with fish? Read on . . .

    From The American Association for the Advancement of Science
    Science Now Website
    (October 22, 2009):

    “Why Fish and Red Wine Don’t Mix”


    By Phil Berardelli

    For ages, diners have been told that drinking red wine while eating seafood can produce an unpleasant fishy aftertaste. THE RULE OF THUMB HAS BEEN RED WINE WITH MEAT, WHITE WINE WITH FISH. But the rule is not hard and fast. Seafood can taste fine with some reds, whereas some whites can ruin the meal. What’s the common factor?

    Researchers at Mercian Corp. in Fujisawa, Japan, a division of which produces wine and spirits, decided to find out. They conducted an experiment with seven experienced wine tasters who were offered 38 varieties of red and 26 types of white. Over four sessions, the volunteers tasted the samples, along with pieces of scallops, the seafood most likely to produce the fishy effect. Then the researchers chemically analyzed the wines for a possible link to the aftertaste.

    THE CULPRIT APPEARS TO BE IRON, the team reports in a recent issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. When the element’s content rose above 2 milligrams per liter or so, the seafood-dining experience turned sour. The team double-checked their results by soaking pieces of dried scallops in samples of wine. Scallops dunked in vino with low iron content smelled normal, but pieces soaked in samples with high iron content reeked of fish.

    The researchers report that they haven’t yet isolated the compound in the scallops that reacts with the wine, but they suspect it’s AN UNSATURATED FATTY ACID, which COULD BE BREAKING DOWN RAPIDLY AND RELEASING THE DECAYING FISH SMELL WHEN EXPOSED TO IRON. How much iron a wine contains depends on the amount in the soil where the grapes were grown, as well as other factors such as how the grapes are harvested and processed. Red wine tends to have a higher iron content, hence the admonition against mixing it with seafood.

    “We were surprised in our finding,” says research chemist and lead author Takayuki Tamura, “because we thought that polyphenols or sulfur dioxide [produced] the unpleasant sensation.” These components represent a larger percentage of wine content than does iron. He explains that because iron does not “induce color change, accelerated oxidation, or cloudiness,” vintners tend to ignore its potential role as a meal-spoiler. But the new findings, he says, offer winemakers the opportunity to reconsider the downside of iron contamination.

    The paper’s science is sound, says enologist Gordon Burns of ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, California. Still, he says, there are better reasons to avoid red wine with fish: Any robust red wine, regardless of iron content, would likely overwhelm the delicate, subtle flavor of many seafood dishes. Red wine, he says, often pairs better “with a big stew or a hearty chunk of meat.”

    (Bob aside: volcanic soil has high iron content. What wine producing country has been formed through volcanic activity? Italy.)

  4. Bob Henry says:

    Excerpts from Jancis Robinson, M.W. Website
    (December 31, 2001):

    “Matching Food and Wine: The Paradox”


    Am I the only person in the world with a cellarful of red wine and a preference for white wine food?

    Here’s the paradox. To judge from what’s in our glasses, the world’s wine drinkers increasingly choose red wine in preference to white. But to judge from our plates, we’re less and less interested in the sort of food that red wine has traditionally been drunk with.

    . . . modern eating patterns show a distinct move away from chewy dark meats towards fish, pasta, vegetable dishes and, of course, the ubiquitous chicken. Yet according to traditional food and wine matching advice, all of these are better washed down with white rather than red wine.

    Maybe the time has come to tear up traditional food and wine advice. After all, when it was devised, red wines in particular tasted very different. Tannins were much more aggressive. Acidity was often more pronounced. And wines of all hues were generally lower in alcohol. Certainly young red wines made before the 1980s demanded food as chewy as red meat to make their own very obvious tannins seem less unpleasantly chewy.

    But most modern red wines taste much more supple. They may have a quite respectable tannin content, but the tannins themselves are much riper and less aggressive. Velvet rather than sandpaper is more typical of modern red wine texture. Put them together with a steak or a slice of rare roast beef and you have two quite different, not complementary, sensations.

    Modern red wine has become, if you like, liquid chicken: inoffensive, versatile and hard to avoid.

    In fact, you can drink modern red wine quite happily with almost any food, so long as it’s not too sweet. I mean sweet as in chocolate, rather than sweet as in so many supposedly savoury dishes today. Incidentally I would maintain that while red wine has been getting steadily riper, the food typically offered around the world – certainly in many restaurants – has become progressively sweeter. Consider the California style of cooking, Pacific Rim cuisine with its liberal lashings of relishes, fruits and nuts, and the rise of the sugar- concentrating confit.

    But the sweet tendency is as nothing compared to the increasing spiciness of the food we are offered in the world’s restaurants. I use the term spicy in its most general sense and of course the range of spices varies enormously, but wine today is being drunk with all sorts of things that the traditional wine and food advice would not countenance. In my opinion, one of several great side-effects of the Asian wine boom has been an increasing willingness everywhere to experiment with matching wine to a wide range of Asian cuisines. Indeed my only complaint about this phenomenon is that it is not even more widely practised. I would love to see the gastronomically fastidious Japanese, for example, abandon completely the theory that with French wine only French food should be served.

    (French cuisine is an exception to all that I have said so far. The French live and eat in virtual isolation from international food trends. The closest most French chefs get to a dalliance with anything spicy, Roellinger of Cancale being an obvious exception, is to put an occasional pinch of curry powder in a creamy sauce.)

    My own position on the tricky and extremely popular question of wine and food pairing is that (a) it is very difficult to get it completely wrong and that (b) it is very, very rare to get it completely right.

    The only place I expect to encounter an absolutely perfect food and wine combination is in a classical three-star French restaurant. Here the menu changes only two or three times a year and part of what one is paying for is surely that the sommelier should know exactly how each dish tastes and which of the wines in his or her care – at several different price levels, please – provide a perfect match

    In a more informal establishment, where dishes may come and go overnight, it may be difficult for waiting staff to offer such tried and tested advice. And in our own homes, life tends to be just a bit too hectic to do in-depth comparative tastings before every meal.

    The truth of the matter is that it is perfectly possible to drink more or less any wine with more or less any food. No thunderbolt strikes down the diner hapless enough to drink classed growth red bordeaux with sole or Zinfandel with oysters. We all experiment with this sort of thing in the company of our nearest and dearest; it’s only when we are entertaining that we feel we have to follow certain rules and that we will be judged according to them.

    All it takes is confidence, the confidence to flout the old rules and know that so much has changed on the gastronomic landscape since those rules were drawn up that we really shouldn’t care a hoot.

    . . .

  5. Ding dong the wicked pairing witch is dead. I just had a very beautiful King Salmon on the Weber and my wife likes the Oregon Pinot Noir and I liked the pinot from NZ.
    The only rules I have here at the house is….no rules. Yes Mr Steve drink what you like. Rose and ribeye, Cava oysters and single malt. Cheers!

  6. Dear Mr. Tim, not only that, but maybe somebody likes Sauv Blanc with the salmon! Or Zinfandel. Or Riesling. It’s a new day in America! Free at last!

  7. If there are truly “no more rules” in food and wine pairing, would James Bond have been prepared for the evil Spectre Agent Grant (played by Robert Shaw) in the film From Russia with Love? Obviously, villains order red wine with fish!

    Seriously, as a person who cooks Italian food regularly, there are certain traditions, serving particular pasta shapes with particular sauces that work well together. I see these Italian food traditions as something that has stood the test of time, just as certain wine traditions, red wine with beef and lamb, white wine with fish and other white meats (generally, depending upon the preparation) as meaningful traditions that pair well together.

    And yes, I’m substituting the word ‘tradition’ for rule.

    Travel to Puglia and the cuisine isn’t global, it’s traditional, regional, local marked by certain pasta shapes and sauces. Rosato is one wine that is often served throughout a meal in summer, but generally, white and red wines are served with particular foods for a particular reason. The reason? They are complimentary and traditional.

    As someone who observes wine behavior, plenty of people add ice to their red and white wines in the Central Valley when temperatures rise above 90 degrees and many of the red wines they add ice to are over $75 a bottle. If there are truly “no rules” in pairing wines with food, are there no rules when it comes to how one drinks their wine? Live and let live, right? The opposite is also true. Plenty of restaurants serve wine at temperatures above 80 degrees in some cases, which is a disservice to every wine, white or red.

    As a Bay Area guy Steve, I somehow don’t believe that Henry’s Hunan Diane’s Meat Pie will ever pair well with a single-vineyard Cabernet. Just not going to happen. Cabernet and a Hunan Meat Pie sound like hipster territory.

    All of the above aside, if you wanna purchase my Cabernet, put it on ice and drink it with petrale sole, be my guest…the customer is always right!

  8. Bob Henry says:


    Dan Berger cited the following in one of his weekly Los Angeles Times wine columns: Robert Mondavi (himself), always a champion of Napa Valley Cabernet (starting with his own), would add ice cubes to his glass of Cabernet when quaffed outdoors on a hot Summer afternoon/evening overlooking his vineyards.

    (Source of the anecdote: either Michael or Tim Mondavi, as told to Dan.)

    I think modern-day imbibers can go one better.


    (1) chilling the bottle before consuming it;
    (2) adding “whiskey stones ice cubes” to the glass to prevent diluting the wine; or
    (3) make ice cubes (from the identical wine) and add to the glass to prevent diluting it.


  9. Good find on Robert Mondavi.Luckily, icons like Mr. Mondavi made it look ‘cool’ in a black and white photo somewhere to have ice in his wine. If Steve McQueen put ice in his wine, it would have been totally cool!

    Thanks Bob.

  10. Bob Henry says:

    “Rewriting history” . . .

    I got the anecdote wrong.

    I had forgotten Dan’s earlier e-mail to me on this subject. I quote:

    “Actually, the tale was a speech by Michael Mondavi at a financial symposium on wine, in which Michael opened the discussion by adding a handful of ice cubes to a red wine, and making the point that people drink wine in many ways, and who are we to tell them how?”

    Related article:

    Excerpt from the Napa Valley Register “Food & Wine” Section
    (August 24, 2004, Page C5):

    “Pairing Wines with Summer Heat”


    By Dan Berger
    “On Wine” Column

    . . .

    When I’m having a patio meal with barbecued meats as a main ingredient, I often pick a heavy zinfandel and simply add an ice cube to my glass. I know, it sounds awful, sort of defiling the winemaker’s art. But to me, it makes sense. Most zinfandels these days are 15 percent alcohol or more, and though the flavors of these wines can be attractive, the heat in my mouth makes them taste scorching, and that detracts from the food.

    . . .

    [See next posted comment.]

  11. Bob Henry says:

    Excerpt from the Napa Valley Register “Food & Wine” Section
    (August 27, 2009, Page Unknown):

    “A Wine Taboo Exposed”


    By Ed Schwartz
    “Out of My Mind” Column

    Let’s commit bold heresy this month and delve into the most taboo wine subject of all (shhh!): wine over ice — yes, even red wine! For summer, the idea of an ice-cold red wine would be wildly popular. But what mortal could take the stings and ridicule of wine aficionados, wine snobs, or smarmy wait staffers flailing their arms, or dropping to the floor in a dead faint at your asking for some ice for your juice of the vine?

    . . .

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