Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Matt Kramer: Free At Last

Each afternoon, Benson Marketing Group sends me a bunch of links to (hopefully) significant wine stories. The teaser that caught my eye this afternoon read: "Free at Last! Free at Last! (Wine Spectator, by Matt Kramer) - Paid Subscription Required." My first reaction: Finally, I get to read Matt Kramer's pithy observations on wine without paying for them before they are rounded up and published as a book, even though the "paid subscription required" confused me at first.

Nonetheless, I chanced it, and was rewarded at no cost with Kramer's latest essay on the frequently wayward ways of wine culture. In this one, in short, he says that the importance of "marrying" food and wine is vastly overdrawn and perhaps even perverse. I was glad to see it, and agree wholeheartedly. I've never been comfortable with suggesting that a specific wine be served with a particular dish. There are just too many potential variables involved, from the limitless ways in which a dish can be prepared, even a classic and supposedly codified dish, to the endless spectrum of individual tastes.

Then, you might fairly ask, why do I routinely ask winemakers to tell me what their favorite dish is to accompany the wine I'm writing about. Secretly, I'm hoping they will let down their guard, and tell me candidly about how they really enjoy a particular wine. The more interesting responses have ranged from "hot-tub time" and popcorn to burgers "without the rabbit food." By and large, however, when the question is popped I can hear the wheels whirling in their head as they try to remember what they are supposed to say when someone asks what food should be served with their cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel or chardonnay. You can almost hear the pages flipping through the index of some food-and-wine-pairing book as they search for an answer that won't embarass them.

But back to the original question: I ask because I'd like to put the wine in some sort of context, however casual and relaxed. What the winemaker says shouldn't be taken as gospel, but simply as a rough and personal guide to how the wine might best be enjoyed. I hope readers take it in that spirit. With whatever wine they select they should let their own tastes and experiences decide how they enjoy a pairing.

That said, I have a couple of quibbles with Kramer's observations. For one, he blames the French for this obsession with food-and-wine pairing. Historically, he may be correct, but based on anecdotal experience from recent visits to Burgundy and Bordeaux I have to say that the French approach to pairing food and wine today is more relaxed than rigid. They like to explore, and seem more intent on learning what their guests have to say about how well a wine goes with a dish than imposing their own expectactions. I saw absolutely no quibbling about whether this or that wine was a fitting complement for this or that dish. True, in both France and Italy - and the same may be true for Spain, Romania, Argentina, California and elsewhere -  local customs and pride generally determine the matching of food and wine, thus helping explain why we are expected to think that only certain types of wine should be poured with certain types of food. But the global economy is doing away with those sorts of restraints, and a more expansive and embracing awarness of what to eat with what wine looks to be taking hold. In other words, if you are working on a book about pairing food and wine, better hurry up and get it into print before it is even more hopelessly outdated.

Secondly, while Kramer introduces a new maxim to succeed the tired old "white wine with white food, red wine with red food" principle - he suggests that "good wines can work wonderfully with any food that is remotely plausible for the wine" - he then backtracks. He adds: "Obviously you don’t want to serve some massive Napa Valley Cabernet with your Dover sole." Probably not. But what if that Napa cabernet sauvignon weren't massive, at least to the palate of the beholder? What if it were lean, elegant and restrained? And what if the Dover sole were punched up rather than prepared with customary constraint? Why is bacon pushing its way into my imagined dish? And if it were there, might not the pairing work? And wouldn't then we be back to Kramer's first principle, that a good wine just might work wonderfully with an unconventional dish, however remotely plausible?

As Harvey Steiman, who also writes for the Wine Spectator, says in the comments following Kramer's piece: "The moral of the story is not to let some arbitrary rules spoil your fun. If you like a wine, drink it with food you enjoy."

And with that, I think I'll grab a glass of Vin Santo and see how the Sacramento Kings are doing. Talk about conflicted pairings.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Mike,
    Reading your observations about winemakers and food pairings I couldn't help but feel a bit guilty. Especially as I take a break from producing a hand-out explaining why I've paired this weekend's wine release with a particular dish. That being said, I do think that there are categories of wine where the food pairing is imperative. I'm thinking aggressively tannic/acidic Sangiovese in particular. While I love this particular style of wine, it really does need the acid and tannin of tomatoes to bring out the fruitiness of the wine and give it some balance.
    And I can't see the Sac Kings pairing with anything right now.
    Mark Henry

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