Dancing Lessons: matching food and wine

By Craig Camp
Monday, October 20, 2003

IT'S LIKE the Tango; precise and intertwined.

Maybe it's is more like a waltz; stately and controlled.

Some think it's like a Salsa; all energy and movement.

There are others that think it is a folk dance -- all costumes and traditions -- and others that think it should be modern dance with no rules at all.

Whatever dance it is, it requires lessons and practice. This foot after that; lead this way and follow that way. It requires concentration and agility to dance well.

We're always trying to dance perfectly: the dance of which wine goes with what.

There are those that argue for contrast, others for harmony, and still others that demand flawless synchronicity. Many others are bound by legend and tradition or, worse, by reviews and fashion. The debate makes knowing the next step seem like your first Tango lesson.

Thirty years ago, Le Francias, in a northern suburb of Chicago, was the ultimate restaurant in the United States. Chef/owner Jean Banchet was on the cover of every American food magazine and the private planes were arriving at the nearby airport every night, where limos were waiting to whisk the passengers to the pleasures of his tables. The sommelier there told me the story of an older gentleman who would come in once a week to dine. He was always alone and would always order the same thing: an old bottle of Chateau d'Yquem and a steak -- finishing every piece and drop of both. The sommelier loved serving the old man because he loved the steak and the great sweet wine equally. "It was a pleasure to serve someone having such pleasure," he told me.

Pleasure, after all, is the only rule that counts.

When I was converted to wine (conversion in the religious sense is the proper reference point for those new to the wine sect), I set off to convert the heathens. The first and easiest target is your own family. At Thanksgiving I served the best Beaujolais Cru I could find. When Christmas dinner overloaded the table I opened fine Bordeaux and Burgundy. They always politely nodded and said "very nice" when I was obviously waiting for them to comment about the wine. Then Easter came and through an oversight I forgot to buy the white wine and, out of necessity, served a cheap California chardonnay. The response was overwhelming. They couldn't say enough good things about the wine. I had to soak the labels off for all of them so they could buy more.

This shook my faith in the true religion. They were experiencing more pleasure from the inexpensive chardonnay then they were from the Lafon Meursault I had served them at Christmas. Personal preference had reared its ugly head to confront all my certainty, not only about what was good or bad, but what was right with the food I was serving.

What really shook me up as an old hippie was that I now felt a certain kinship with Richard Nixon, who would serve his guests domestic wine while he was drinking Chateau Margaux out of a napkin-wrapped bottle. Tricky Dickie seemed somehow more human to me after that.

Believe me I know to what depths this all can take you. I admit it: I am a recovering match-oholic. That's right I was obsessed with matching exactly the right food and wine. More than once the restaurant's kitchen would close before I had even gotten through the first 150 pages of the wine list. I was getting ulcers trying to decide if this Sancerre or that Chablis would be exactly right with the first course. At first it wasn't bad. Most meals followed classical formulas, but then with the onslaught of "new-American" restaurants picking wines soon became a nightmare. During the same course one person could have pasta with a tomato sauce, one spicy pot stickers, one foie gras, and another six types of fresh oysters. What was the perfect wine for all of those things? The answer is simple: there wasn't one. After a few meals like this I was on the road to recovery for match-oholism.

The truth is that wines are much more adaptable to many types of foods than many wine experts would like you to believe. It is far safer to stray from 95 point wines and the safe choices of the world than you think. Few matches are really bad.

This is true. While there are some matches that really sing, most of your options fall into the more than acceptable "pleasure" category. This is great news unless you are more obsessed with ego and conspicuous consumption than about pleasure.

Let's look at a line-up of California wines -- assuming each bottle is of high quality. One bottle is a cabernet sauvignon, one merlot, one zinfandel, and a syrah. Now imagine we are sitting at Morton's and the waiter has just deposited almost two pounds of sizzling aged steak in front of you. Which wine is better with the steak?

The answer is clear: it depends. If you return to Morton's four times and have only one of the wines with your steak your perception will be much different than if you only went once and served all the bottles at once. The fact is they all go very well with the steak and on their own will give you a very high pleasure score. The differences in the wines are what make wines interesting, but the reality is that they all enhance your $30.00 steak with about the same dexterity.

To match wines with foods you only have to break them down into basic categories and find your preferences. Big wines go with big foods; sweet wines go with rich and sweet foods. Delicate dishes need delicate wines. Spice needs some sweet and hates tannin. Most of all you just have to experiment. You will find many matches that you just love and your friends don't. The main thing to remember is this experimentation is not dangerous. Few really disgusting matches imperil your palate although there is some danger to your pocketbook.

This is not to say there are not great matches. There are certainly harmonies of texture and flavor that are broadly appreciated and for good reason. Elegant and complex cuisine matched with just the right wine raises dining to an art form. When faced with the financial risks of ordering wine in restaurants great sommeliers are there to guide you to these gustatory summits. Sommeliers like Mark Slater at Citronelle in DC, Robert Bansberg at Ambria in Chicago, and George Cossette at Campanile in Los Angeles can introduce you to great experiences with wines you have never heard of and that don't require you to tap into the kids' college funds -- if you are open to the experience.

One of the great pleasures of food-and-wine matching is what I call elevation. Often when dining at home alone on some re-heated leftovers I'll open an extraordinary bottle of wine. While the match may not be classic, the wine itself elevates the entire experience of the evening. In this instance the wine matches the person more than the food. To me this is the most important aspect of matching food and wine. There is no arguing taste. If you like Chateau d'Yquem with your steak or Marcarini Barolo with your poached sole your are within your rights: even if you are wrong.

So we conclude by answering that ageless question: which wine is best with popcorn? The answer: the coldest one.