Since its origin approximately 8,000 years ago, wine has always had a constant companion: food. For most of European history, little distinction was drawn between the two. Wine was food. It was as intimate a part of life as breathing.
But we’ve arrived at a very different time. For decades now, the intentional pairing of food and wine—how to do it; how to do it perfectly—has been given much print.
Does it deserve to? I decided to ask around and started with a Facebook poll on my site. I asked if readers agreed or disagreed with the following statement:
Wine and food pairing is overdone. It’s more important to drink what you like and eat what you like, even if the two aren’t “perfect” together.
In a moment, I’ll share the results of the poll. But first, let me admit I personally don’t think every wine always needs to be perfectly matched to a food or vice versa. I came to this conclusion empirically, of course, but also with a researcher’s appreciation for what happened in history. A hundred years ago, did an Italian grandmother stop to consider the acidity level in her pasta sauce before choosing a wine for dinner? I doubt it.
Admittedly, she had very little choice; only a limited selection of wines would have been available to her. But it’s also true that both then and now, we sometimes choose wines as much to match the mood as the food. Sometimes maybe more so. All of this is simply to point out that wine and food don’t always have to be technically perfect together to be delicious anyway.
And yet. And yet … I say to myself: What then about chef Thomas Keller’s creamy squash-filled agnolotti with that Puligny Montrachet he once served to me? That was 20 years ago, and the perfection was so drippingly sensual, I can still taste it. It’s clear that when it comes to food and wine, the 1 + 1 = OMG 3 phenomenon most certainly does exist.
Where does that leave us?
Interestingly, 71% of respondents to the poll said yes—wine and food pairing is overdone. And yet many made the case that even despite thinking so, they nonetheless believe that extraordinary experiences can be had when the marriage works perfectly.
Said chef David Katz:
“If you stay away from hard rules, there is plenty to teach about the physiology of taste, and why classic pairings work for most people most of the time. The most important question wine professionals and culinary professionals forget to ask is, “What do you like to eat and drink?” We can use that to guide folks to pairings that tend to work for them, not for us. Otherwise, it is gobbledygook of the highest order.”
Food scholar and writer Russ Parsons wrote:
“Most times [wine and food pairing] is overrated. But then it’s done right, it’s mind-blowingly good.”
SpitBucket blog author Amber LeBeau said:
“I think the concept of getting the “perfect pairing” is overdone but the way wine and food play together is magical. Truthfully, I think we need to be talking MORE about food and wine pairing—especially in the US. The biggest pratfall in our culture (and lasting remnants of our Puritan/Prohibition heritage) is that we separated thinking of wine as a compliment to the table. [Wine is] a palette of flavors that are their own ingredients that interact with our food and enhance our enjoyment of both.”
My favorite comment came from Nick Perretta who wrote:
“Pairing [wine and food] is like dancing. A perfect pairing is when it looks like the dance was something the couple choreographed. With an optimal pairing, you get the sense the couple knows how to dance. And when you just want to enjoy what you want to enjoy, it’s like two people staring awkwardly at each other across the dance floor. They’re in the same room. Just not dancing.”