There is little more confounding than the quest to find the best pairing, the marriage, the perfect food to go with the perfect wine. First of all, the subjectivity scale is pegged on what good food is. Some would demand an extra teaspoon of sherry in the consomme in order to proclaim it worthy of consumption! Combine that principle with an almost exponential variable of what people think a good wine is, and you get subjectivity on steroids.
When I was a youngster in the wine business, age-old texture-oriented rules were established; red with red, white with white and pink with anything. The notion was white wine delicacies would not overpower lighter fare, and, conversely, the muscle of a red wine would stand up to the muscle of a beast. This was an attempt to make a science out of an art, but it was at least a start. Other norms had everthing to do with the occasion, such as sparkling wine being the beverage most associated with some sort of celebration. Gustatory regularity and the age-old custom of having something sweet to end the evening led to dessert wines being consumed without necessarily any food counterpart.
Oh, it is quite vogue now playing Cupid with wine and food. You can sign up for quarter-long accredited classes at universities now on the subject of wine and food pairing -- for all I know, they offer a doctorate degree in it. Chefs at fancy restaurants wax poetic about how the dry Gewuerztraminer and the Beating Frogs Heart on a bed of biodynamically grown Arugula Confit with Organic Crenshaw Melon/Wild Albino Sea Cucumber/Mako Shark Fin/Balsamico Blanco Drizzle need to get a room they are feeling the love so much.
To hell with flawless home furnishings and hygiene; the apex of complements arrives only upon a discerning guest giving the verbal equivalent of a standing ovation by saying: "A perfect match!"
However, to go higher on the compliment scale, you have to take chances. People applaud a gutsy, take-no-prisoners approach. Even the Village Idiot can cook a steak and open a bottle of Cab. But what if your guest brings plonk to go with your perfect dish?
At the dedication of the Prosser Wine Library Room in the late 1970s in Washington's Yakima Valley, wine aficionado, Baron Roy Andries De Groot, told a story about how to improve bad wine with food, thus making an acceptable match. While in Italy, a host vintner exposed the Baron to some god-awful wines. The restaurateur then presented hot bread from the wood-fired oven and mixed fresh free-run, extra virgin olive oil, barrel-aged red wine vinegar, smashed garlic, loads of cracked pepper and fresh-cut basil in a big, wooden bowl.
"We ripped off hunks of bread, sloshed it around in the bowl of vinaigrette, consumed it, and the wine didn't taste too bad." Redemption.
Like you, I often get asked what my favorite foods and wines are. Let me give you an example. It was 1977 when my winegrower friend Maury Balcom and I traveled to meet a young upstart in the wine business, Dick Erath. His winery at the time, Knutsen Erath, was housed in a pre-fab log cabin in the oak and conifer rolling hills of Dundee, Ore. After about, oh, three minutes of business, we started tasting Dick's wines while he cooked designer German sausages in his fireplace on a grate over smoldering side-by-side, foot-thick oak logs. He brought out new cheeses this continent had little experience with at the time, Jarlsberg and Brie, not the Velveeta and Cheeze Whiz that Maury and I normally ate.
Dick's Riesling was like biting into a Granny Smith apple, his lightly toasty Chardonnay was crisp with a sexy vanilla note, and his Pinot Noir was akin to taking a tablespoon of strawberry jam. The sausages were oaky-smoky, and my eyes rolled back in my skull when dashed with a spot of Dick's homemade Coleman's sweet-hot mustard. As we slithered out superlatives in gluttonous quantities over the way the food and wine made our senses dance, I soon realized that the magic was in the occasion more than the match. I have a surprisingly detailed recollection of this occasion only because of Dick and Maury, my friends.
Let me say that every time I have had a glorious food-and-wine experience, there was a third irreplaceable component: buds. The food-and-wine duo become a trifecta with the necessary component of emotion supplied by friends. Folks create an umami in the mind, and people you like make it a hat trick. I challenge you to drink your consomme, with or without the teaspoon of sherry, knock back your Semillon, and like it as much alone as you would if you had a BFF with whom to share the experience. Go forth to earn your Ph.D in Quantum Nano Gastrophysics and Applied Organoleptic Pairing Science, but don't forget the people when you break bread.
Matching food and wine is an enigma wrapped in a conundrum, existing well more in the mind than in the reality. A toast to your gallant attempts to get the bravo you deserve in an environment more subjective than a figure skating competition. Here's to you preparing delicious foods and drinking great Northwest wines with your pals -- in moderation -- frequently.
Coke Roth is an attorney who lives in Richland, Wash. He is an original member of Wine Press Northwest's tasting panel. Learn more about him at cokerothlaw.com.
This story was originally published December 20, 2012 3:30 PM.