RECENTLY, I CHECKED IN WITH MY dentist for a cleaning and checkup. As usual, Mary Ann, the dental hygienist, chatted with me as she cleaned my teeth, and inevitably the conversation (punctuated by my silence due to scraping, irrigating, flushing and spitting) turned to wine.
When it comes to wine, Mary Ann, whose Italian-American parents made their own, knows what she likes. “No Chardonnay, no Zinfandel; it’s got to be Pinot Grigio.” I asked her if her favorite wine works with all of her food choices, and she said, “Absolutely.”
Then Dr. Vivian came in to have a look at my teeth and gums. “Doc,” as she is known by her staff, is a walking advertisement for dental health because she has such a beautiful smile. Mary Ann asked, “Doc, what’s your favorite wine?” Without missing a beat, Doc answered, “Whaddaya got? I just love wine, all wine!”
I realized at that moment that there was only one wine geek in the room, and it was the guy in the dental chair. Mary Ann and Doc are true wine lovers: One loves her Pinot Grigio, and one just loves wine, and they both enjoy wine and food without pretensions, without rules. I was humbled by Mary Ann and Doc’s instinctual passion for wine.
I spend a good part of my professional life teaching and writing about wine. Perhaps the most important part of what I do as a wine educator, author and journalist is to explain how to successfully marry food and wine so that each wine enhances each dish and vice versa. In my classes at The Culinary Institute of America, where I have taught thousands of aspiring food and wine professionals over the last 20 years, wine and food pairing takes on special significance. Because our wine courses are geared to professionals, I teach my students to pair wine and food not solely for their own palatal pleasure, but for the pleasure of others (specifically, paying customers). The dynamic pairing of food and wine in a restaurant environment is an important part of a guest’s dining experience, and directly impacts the reputation and financial success—or failure—of any restaurant, whether it’s an informal bistro or chain restaurant, or an upscale white tablecloth restaurant or hotel dining room. But I also point out that in their own lives, there is no reason to remain conservative when marrying wine with food. Really—if you’re pairing a wine that you like with food that you like, how badly can you screw up? Take a chance, live a little. If the pairing doesn’t work, you can learn from that experience, too.
The United States is on its way to becoming the number one wine-consuming nation in the world by the end of 2009 (based on total consumption). Americans in virtually all socioeconomic strata are becoming comfortable with wine—the Olive Garden restaurants sell more wine than any other U.S. restaurant; the discount chain Costco is the top wine retailer in the nation. That’s a good thing because a glass or two of wine with dinner is an affordable pleasure, a small reward at the end of the day for all of us.
Right now, the consumer is king or queen—as good quality wines have never been more accessible or less expensive. Further, Americans have become confident in their wine choices. Gone are the bad old days when wine was intimidating, when people felt that they had to know how to talk about wine (using jargon that has, thankfully, bit the dust). We don’t have to know everything about the food we eat to enjoy it, and the same holds true for wine. It’s a bonus that so many of us are interested in knowing the source of our food, how and where it’s grown and by whom. Remember, wine is a food, too—it happens to be fermented and sits in a glass. Perhaps more than any other food (with the possible exception of cheese, another fermented food), wine can express its sense of place, and that place can be local or international.
However we think about food in general, wine can be thought of as another flavor, another texture, a spice, a sauce, a refreshing counterpoint. A bite of food, a sip of wine, it’s all one meal.
So, forget the “rules” of wine-and-food pairing. The only rule should be eat and drink what you like, and do so responsibly. White wine with meat? Sure. Red with fish? Absolutely. Rose with a Whopper? Knock yourself out. Bubbles with everything? A no-brainer.
Thanks to Mary Ann and Dr. Viv for helping me see the light (and for trying so hard to get that red wine tannin residue off my teeth and for saving my enamel from white wine acids). I’m going to continue to taste professionally, and to teach aspiring professionals how to successfully pair food and wine for paying customers. But in my own life at home, with friends, with family, I think I’ll adopt Dr. Viv’s carpe diem approach. Whaddaya got?