Are your wine and food pairings ready to commit?
When people find out I co-created a wine education website, they often assume I can suggest good wines for them to drink. But everyone’s palate is different. And, assuming you’re drinking wine with a meal, your pairing really hinges on what food you’re eating.
Recently, I met a young woman who told me she loved Cabernet. That was it. She loved Cabernet. Not Cabernet from a particular region. Not Cabernet with a particular food. Just Cabernet.
While we all have our predilections for certain varietals, when someone makes that sort of pronouncement, I want to say, “Do you love Cabernet with fish tacos? Stir-fry? Steamed Mussels?
My response comes not from any malicious intent, but from years of my own personal pairing disasters and the notion that you are going to be drinking wine with food.
Rick Small, one of the winemakers featured on VineStories, says at the opening of our Woodward Canyon video “I don’t think I know everything yet. I hope I don’t. I don’t want to ever know everything. Part of this journey is in the pursuit.” While he was referring to growing grapes and making wine, it also applies to pairings.
At VineStories, we are definitely pursuing when it comes to trying out food and wine combinations. Of course, part of our pursuit has included a lot of mistakes.
Here are a few of the worst wine and food pairing blunders we committed in the early days of our wine journey:
1) Prosecco and Salami: The saltiness of the salami drained all the fresh, crisp joy that is Prosecco right out of the glass. All that was left was a metallic taste. Later, we read that sparkling wine often doesn’t go well with cured meats. Who knew?
2) Zinfandel and Tomato Sauce: This was a disaster. We sat down to enjoy a big, powerful California Zin (that we’d had many times before and enjoyed) with the family pasta sauce recipe. Nightmare. All we could taste was astringency in the sauce. It completely nullified the wine. The lesson—red wines without enough acid don’t pair well with foods like tomato sauce. You need something that can stand up to the acid like a Barbera or a Sangiovese. Live and learn.
3) Cabernet Sauvignon…with a lot of things: Before we had made any attempt at educating ourselves about wine, we reached a point where we had a little discretionary income. We started buying Napa Valley Cabs because—well, that’s what our friends and parents did. When there was a party or big occasion, out came the Cabernet. We didn’t yet understand that certain wines have distinct characteristics that inform you about good food matches. Acid, tannin, residual sugar. Unfortunately, the cabs we purchased often didn’t go with the food we ate: Chicken Piccata, Salmon, Sand Dabs, Turkey Meatloaf. Thank God (and The Wine House education department) that we got help. With a basic framework for understanding the fundamental elements of wine, our pairings quickly improved.
4) Syrah with Baked Trout: Years ago I had a friend who chose his first wife so badly that his therapist told him, “you could have walked out on the street, picked the first woman you saw, and made a better match.” That was this pairing. Nothing wrong with the rich Central Coast Syrah whose upfront fruit and white pepper notes we had savored previously. Nothing wrong with the trout fillets. They just had no business being together.
So as you taste and test and try, it helps to understand some basic wine pairing guidelines—but play around as well. There have been times we’ve opened a wine that, on paper, shouldn’t have paired well with our meal. But the chemistry was there. Sometimes, it can turn out to be a match made in heaven.
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If you’ve got a pairing disaster, or a nice surprise, we’d love to hear about it. For a fun read on wine pairings and other aspects of this pursuit, check out The Wine Avenger by Willie Gluckstern.