Vino Veritas: In Defense of Wine
The other day I was listening to a radio show that featured an editor of a popular food magazine. When asked about pairing wine with a dish, he scoffed and said, “absolutely not!” He went on to say that he didn’t buy any of the “notes of raspberry and gravel” nonsense and that diners, when picking wine, should just pick something they like. The in-studio audience applauded.
Excuse me as I step onto my tiny Fishbowl-shaped soapbox.
I believe that it’s the responsibility of those with the power of communication to do so with respect to their subject matter. Those whose jobs are to share history, myth, or news with the public should do so with the knowledge that their positions, whatever the forum be, are those of power and therefore render a certain responsibility.
It’s true that the Style section of a newspaper or a magazine built around the luxury of adventurous food don’t shake the journalistic world, but it doesn’t change the responsibility of the communicators. I’d just as soon expect to find an excellent article on the conflict in Syria or opinion piece protesting the Olympics in Russia as I would discover a well-written movie or restaurant review (though in fact I’d be more likely to find mediocre examples of all mentioned). The fact that food and wine and culture writers are often dismissed as subject matter deserving of excellent literary merit creates a readership that never expects anything of substance, which means those subjects never earn gravity, which means we dismiss the discussion of the creative parts of culture which means we dismiss the expression of creativity.
That said, when creative fields dismiss one another, it does nothing to elevate the status of that specific art, only undermines the whole. It’s cannibalistic.
So when someone responsible for communicating excellence and respect on the subject of food then dismisses the whole fundamental principle of wine pairing, what good does it do? It’s true, consumers who are insecure about their own knowledge will listen to a cocky voice on the radio declare that it’s nonsense and pretentious to identify flavors in wine, but in my experience, consumers are genuinely curious. In our shop, folks would constantly come in asking about what wines went with whatever they were eating, be it an elaborate multi course dinner party or take out pizza. Does the desire to drink something good, affordable, and complementary make them a snob? If they signed up for a food and wine pairing class and tell their friends that they began to understand why certain foods and wines are built for one another, does it mean they’re making it up?
I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. I’m pretty sure what that comes down to is another problem, which is that those who are responsible for communicating the edible part of our culture don’t understand it. I brought this up to my husband, sheepishly admitting I felt an indignant, self-righteous fire begin to burn as I listened to this guy on the radio, and he joined in my frustration. “Food and wine aren’t trendy,” he said. “The table is eternal. The semi-literate farmer a few hundred years ago understood their relationship, but the slick editor in designer jeans can’t figure it out.”
I guess there can be a certain degree of “fancy” relegated to wine culture, but like we’ve said here before, the production of wine has a lot more to do with dirty fingernails than white tablecloths. In France and in Italy, places synonymous with wine and food, there was nothing special or fancy about making or drinking wine. It was functional, meant to aid digestion, and because they were all coming from the same place, they were natural complements. I’ll guess they didn’t talk a whole lot about raspberries or gravel, but it doesn’t mean those things weren’t present.
Somewhere in the evolution of tribal to national identities, cuisines were mashed up with traditions from cultures all over the world, which means food is more complicated (ideologically, anyway) and pairing wine requires a little more thought. The best pairings for me are usually still regional (wine and food from the same place), but there are anomalies that are equally pleasing: Thai food and German Riesling. Champagne and sushi. South African Chenin Blanc and chicken tacos (that was an old favorite of mine, born by necessity and perpetuated by pleasure).
The point is that to identify specific qualities of flavor and weight in food and finding their match in wine is a honed skill now, but probably began as simply as the coincidental presence of both goats and Sauvignon Blanc vines in the Loire Valley: nobody sat down to create a cheese both high in acid and fat to work with the naturally high acid and sharp grassiness and minerality the grape picks up from the soil, but that’s what happened anyway.
So here’s my promise to you: as long as I’m writing these little articles, as fun and frivolous as they may seem, I will work to give you the best, clearest information I can. It isn’t nonsense, it’s not about being trendy, it’s about finding some magic in little corners of life you’d otherwise miss. If you have any specific questions or would like me to elaborate on any specific subjects, comment here and I’ll start a list. I’ll keep up the tasting notes. We’ll raspberry-and-gravel our way to all sorts of gastronomical adventures.
Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.