Monday, August 4, 2008

Wine and Food

My friend Liz suggested yesterday that I add more details on this blog about what foods might go well with the wines I review. This is kinda hard for me because I don't really match food with wines at home. I drink mostly reds (probably about 90%, though as we have had several heat waves in the Bay area so far this summer, the number of roses and whites has increased), and I have a glass or two almost every night. Since I'm the only one in my house who drinks wine, this means I'll open a bottle and enjoy it over the next few days. Meanwhile, we'll have a variety of meals in that time that don't necessarily match what I'm drinking.

Even at restaurants, I'll usually start with the wine list, seeing if there's anything I haven't had or something random that sounds interesting, and then I'll look at main menu and choose something independent of what I'm drinking.

In general, I know that some wines go better with some foods -- full-bodied cab or syrah with steak, lighter wines such as a pinot noir with chicken -- that doesn't mean you can't mix it up. Plus, just because some people say there's a right wine for a particular food doesn't mean it's necessarily true. I have red wine with fish all the time, there's no reason why that is wrong because I enjoy it. And that's the real key.

One of the best wine blogs out there, Vinography, had a post calling food and wine pairings "a big scam."

Sometimes I'll order the wine pairings at restaurants, because I really am curious about the pairings, or see it as a way to try a bunch of different wines during the course of the meal instead of committing to one glass (or one bottle). Yeah, I'm fickle like that.

But that can backfire. During a dinner at the highly praised restaurant 1300 at Fillmore in February, I went with the chef's tasting menu and the wine pairings. The wines all looked great on paper, they were a diverse group, all small production wines that I haven't seen in stores. But each one was never brought out with its intended meal, leaving me sitting staring at some yummy dishes for 10s of minutes until one of the waiters remembered that I had a wine coming. I could chalk this up to a busy night if this happened once, maybe twice, but if I recall, it happened with almost every course.

My second issue was that all the red wines were extremely warm. Like too warm to drink. When wine gets too hot, you tend to lose a lot of the flavors. You taste alcohol as it evaporates, and not the layers of flavors the wine might have. It was so bad I was actually putting chunks of ice cubes in some of the glasses.

Since I was ordering single glasses that were poured from the bar, instead of a bottle stored in their wine fridge, there was no recourse that I could see.

Finally, I've never had a eureka moment when I was like "Wow, this food is sooo much better with this wine." Sure, they might go well together, but nothing I've experienced has ever convinced me that particular wines highlight/enlighten/embolden/compliment a meal so much so that I've remembered the match and wanted to have it again.

I'm not the only one that's had a bad experience with wine pairing dinners. The Wall Street Journal wine reviewers wrote a whole column about their awful experience in NYC doing this. Basically, they were ignored by the staff, and treated like boobs who didn't know that the "T" in merlot is silent.

I don't avoid wine pairings altogether, but after my experience, and the one I read about in the WSJ, I'm much more wary about ordering it when I see it on the menu. What's more fun is trying tastes of different wines on the menu to determine which one you want with your meal.

At Five Fifty-Five in Portland, Maine, I had a wonderful experience tasting several offerings on the wine list when each of the chef's tasting menu was served. The waitress was extremely knowledgeable and friendly, and we traded ideas and tasting notes about each bottle before settling on a different glass for each plate.

Being able to sample several wines next to each course allowed me to pick one that felt right with the food, or more accurately, one that I felt like having at that exact moment.

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