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Demystifying Food & Wine Pairing

October 4, 2021

If you took a poll of wine writers that asked which annual topics they dread the most, I am certain that the winners would be “Pairing Wine and Chocolate” and “What Wines to Drink With My Holiday Meals.” For the record, chocolate pairs with Cabernet Sauvignon like antifreeze pairs with Gatorade. I love chocolate and I love wine, but, like my parents, they’re better off separated. Chocolate makes Cabernet taste more bitter than a politician’s concession speech. But let’s chat a bit about wine and food pairing.

Decades ago a famous Los Angeles chef (now relocated to Napa) said to me, “The secret to food and wine pairing is to have really great food and really great wine. Beyond that, no one cares.” There’s more truth in that statement than we like to think. But cynicism aside, there are some basic things to consider when thinking about what wine to pair with your meal.

When I was a sommelier it seemed like every day a wine salesperson would say about a wine they were trying to sell, “It’s really good with food!” If I’d been an organ grinder they’d have said, “It’s really good with monkey.” Just once I wanted a sales rep to say to me, “This wine is delicious, but it really sucks with food.” The problem with all of this is that wine is an enormous category, and food is an enormous category, and the more you savor both, the more enormous you become as well. Where do you start when thinking about food and wine?

Here’s a start: Tannins, the acid in wine that makes you act like a dog with peanut butter in its mouth, bond with protein. I’m simplifying what is a complex chemical process involving tannic acid and your saliva, but basically when you take a bite of, say, a steak, chew it thoroughly so I don’t have to Heimlich your sorry guts, and then swallow it, you are left with a mouthful of protein. By taking a sip of your red wine after each bite, a 2016 Symmetry I hope, you allow the tannins in the red wine to bond with the protein in your mouth. Removing the tannins from the wine via that protein allows the fruit in the wine to blossom; the wine shines. Meanwhile, you’ve cleansed your palate of protein so that the next bite of your gorgeous steak will taste as good as the first bite of your steak, and nothing’s better than the first bite of a steak! (Vegans, forgive me, imagine it’s a perfectly grilled Portobello mushroom.)

Now think about how you’ve seasoned the meat. If you covered it in herbs, you may want a red that’s more herbal in character—a bottle of our Alexander’s Crown Cabernet would be splendid. If you used spices, you want to reflect that spiciness—Rodney Strong Reserve Cab is calling to me. There you go, look at you, you’re food and wine pairing.

White wines have virtually no tannins (some tannins may be absorbed from oak barrels, but not much). But think about seafood. Much of it is oily, or we cook it in butter or cream sauces. Tannic acid clashes with that. White wines have more citric acid, more lactic acid, more malic acid, acids which will cut through the butter or oiliness or cream and refresh the palate.

In other words, pairing red wine with meats and white wines with fish (and there are some exceptions) isn’t about snobbery, isn’t about tradition, isn’t about superstition, it’s about chemistry.

I wish all of you better living through chemistry this upcoming holiday season.

Ron Washam, Sommelier/Wine Educator

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