Food and Drink Pairings Are Ridiculous
But not more than any other of life's pleasures
We’re featuring Jason Wilson today, author of the newsletter, “Everyday Drinking,” one of the 11 recipients of the Substack Food Fellowship, here. We encourage you to subscribe to these publications, as they’re some of the best food newsletters around.
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For a long time, I considered the topic of what to drink with what you eat to be among the dullest in wine. Anyone who reads wine media, opens a wine app, or just talks with a sommelier knows that we’re drowning in a sea of tips, tricks, and tactics on how to pair food with wine.
It reaches a point of manic breathlessness around Thanksgiving and during the run-up to the winter holidays, when wine writers are annually dispatched to tackle the dilemma of what to pour with the turkey or the ham — a mystery, apparently, that will never be solved. This has extended to pairings articles for Fourth of July or Labor Day barbecues (spoiler: it’s usually rosé). The rest of the year we get a mishmash of hackneyed rules for pairings. Often it’s well-worn “classics”: Sauternes and foie gras! Pinot noir and salmon! Chablis and oysters! Sancerre and goat cheese! Champagne and potato chips! Just as often these days is semi-ironic advice about pairing wine with fast food or snacks or candy: Bro, look what pairs with Flamin Hot Cheetos! Filet-O-Fish sandwiches! Crunchwrap Supreme! Sour Patch Kids!
To be clear, none of this is bad. It’s an attempt to move wine communication away from talk about soils, carbonic maceration, skin contact, malolactic fermentation, or any of those other things that make people’s eyes glaze over when the sommelier comes to the table. It’s also an attempt to use food to forge a deeper connection to wine and vice versa.
What’s unclear is whether people even care about this pairing advice. More than a decade ago, I wrote about an industry survey, which found that more than 60 percent of wine consumed by “high-frequency wine drinkers” (the people who drive 80 percent of the market and buy almost all the wine over $20) is consumed without a meal. I don’t believe much has changed.
Some critics, such as Alder Yarrow of Vinography, have long dismissed pairings as a “big scam.” During the height of the pandemic, Yarrow published an anti-pairing article titled “Food and Wine Pairing is Junk Science,” in which he does not mince words: “The so called ‘rules’ of food and wine pairing are bullshit.”
Yarrow cites a 2015 study, which found that the aromatic compounds released from wine when it came into contact with saliva were statistically different across different people’s mouths. “Thanks to the more than 700 different types of bacteria living in our saliva,” he writes, “we each literally taste something different and individual.” The differences are so distinct, scientists suggest “it could be used forensically, just like fingerprints.” Can any sommelier in the world tell you what’s going on in your own mouth — or in your own brain?
Maybe what’s missing from that 1+1 pairing equation of food and drink is a third factor — the ambient, the cultural, the emotional, the human.
Last week, I decided to cook a rack of lamb and figure out what wine drinks best with it. Anyone who has read a wine label or a shelf-talker in a shop knows that “rack of lamb” is default advice for pretty much any big red wine. Barolo? Rack of lamb. Chianti Classico? Rack of lamb. Rioja Gran Reserva? Rack of lamb. Left Bank Bordeaux? Rack of lamb. Napa Valley Cabert Sauvignon? Rack of lamb. When I read that kind of pairing advice, I always imagine wine writers and marketers conjuring some mythical gastronome, perhaps wearing a monocle, dining regularly on rack of lamb, and popping open expensive bottles. In my world, I’ve eaten rack of lamb, like, twice in the past decade. I couldn’t even tell you what I drank with it. What was the fuss about?
I consulted a book called Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food and Wine, by François Chartier, a sommelier from Quebec touted for his “pioneering research on food harmonies and molecular sommellerie.” I planned to prepare my rack of lamb with thyme and rosemary and flipped through Chartier’s pages.
Because I was using thyme with the lamb, Chartier insists that I serve “red wines from the Mediterranean basin.” This is apparently because of thymol, the volatile compound that gives thyme its aromatic character and is also found as a principle flavor molecule in lamb. Apparently, the red wines he suggests are “marked by aromas of the garrigue (scrublands where herbs such as thyme are abundant).” It seemed a little bit of a leap. Also, I tend to roll my eyes when wine people use the tasting term garrigue to describe a wine from the Rhône Valley — always and only wines from the Rhône Valley. I don’t know why that one pretension in an ocean of wine pretensions bugs me, but it does. All the same, I followed the book’s advice and opened a Rhône syrah that mentioned “aromas of garrigue” on its label.
However, 34 pages later, I saw a heading that read “Rosemary, Lamb, And…Riesling.” With a dry Alsatian riesling, insists Chartier, I would find “an almost perfect link” between the “major active compounds” in both lamb and the riesling. “You’ll attain harmony thanks to the two poles of harmonic attraction,” he writes. So I also opened a dry Alsatian riesling.
The rack of lamb I cooked came out amazingly delicious — medium-rare, simple, tender, and juicy. I tasted it first with a glass of the Alsatian riesling, then with the Rhône syrah. For the riesling, its acid contrasted nicely with the fatty lamb. With the syrah, there were certainly connections between the herbal (garrigue?) notes and … the actual herbs I used as cooking ingredients. They both accompanied the meal just fine. Did either achieve “harmony?” I mean, I don’t know. It was an interesting exercise. It was meat and wine. It was fine.
Perhaps it was my mood. Like a majority of Americans, I was feeling outraged, anxious, helpless, and nagged by a feeling that things are falling apart. As I ate and drank, I was watching the news, and thinking: Does this pair with a gnawing sense of worse things to come?
Maybe the problem with food-and-drink pairing is it suggests we can direct and organize pleasure — and, therefore, anything at all. Like so many other things in the culture, declaring whether Sancerre pairs better with goat cheese or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos conveys a Main Character Energy that feels false at a time when so much is beyond our control.
I think of M.F.K. Fisher, reminiscing about what she ate and drank on a train ride to Italy in the 1930s, with her dying lover, with fascism and war looming, “knowing that escape was not peace, ever.” I, too, remember pairings that brought some modicum of pleasure as I helplessly observed current events: takeout dan dan noodles and single-vineyard grüner veltliner consumed on the couch during a disastrous election night; a funky Brittany cider and shumai stuffed with an oozing quail egg that I ate alone at a bar in Vancouver on assignment inside Trump’s Tower; a Modelo and ribeye enchiladas smothered in a spicy green sauce at my favorite Mexican spot, as I received the alert on my phone that RBG had died; an oddball Sicilian white I paired with my go-to lemon pasta recipe on an evening when everything seemed hopeless.
Pairings are no more bullshit than any other of life’s pleasures. But pleasure so often comes at times that are unexpected, fleeting, and complicated, and we recognize it mostly in hindsight.
As for my rack of lamb, there was likely no successful pairing with my despair. Or wait, maybe there was. At a certain point, I gave up on the wine and stirred myself a stiff martini, five parts gin to one part dry vermouth, a dash of orange bitters, and a lemon peel twist. I don’t know about the volatile compounds or the molecules or the harmonies. But it worked, if only temporarily.
I take pairings seriously. I do think pleasure can be planned and organized, sometimes. You seem dismissive when you discuss the quest for pairing “harmony”, as if it’s uncool, like assigning scores to wines. Both processes have value, if only to bring a level of focus and awareness to our pleasure; qualitative analysis isn’t geeky when it heightens pleasure. Forcing myself to understand why Ill assign 92 to one bordeaux, but 94 to another, and articulating the reasons is no geekier than serving great pairings, strategizing chess, or playing high level doubles. … One more thing: garrigue is of Provence, and the wines from there often work beautifully with lamb because the thyme, rosemary and lavender are in the wines and are easily integrated into lamb (no better lamb than when they graze in salt marsh of Provence). Yes, it’s been used to describe red Rhônes, but more commonly the better wines of Provence.