Archive for July, 2009
Is tasting wine, cheese or any other foodstuff something your predestined with or something you learn? The “Nature vs. Nurture” argument fits tasting so well because we know so little about people’s ability to taste. One day wine professionals are talking about “supertasters” http://supertastertest.com who have extra taste buds on their tongue which makes them super sensitive to bitter flavors and the next day (minute?) we’re teaching people what “cassis” tastes like http://www.wine-lovers-page.com/cgi-bin/lexicon/gd.cgi?w=246. Can tasting be taught if your genes are predisposed to make you a tasting flunkie?
Since I’m writing a book I Drink On the Job right now about wine from the point of view of the Wine Basics 101 class that over 16,000 people have attended over the years at TasteDC, I’ve really been thinking about how people approach taste in wine classes, but cooking classes as well. Often, people ask me how to “describe” a wine, I guess they want to better explain what they’re experiencing. My weird reply is usually that we don’t know what you’re tasting, there is no way for us to measure that – yet anyway. If I’m tasting a piece of fresh mint, I can say it tastes like “mint” and you can agree, but I don’t know what exactly is going on inside your mouth, much less your brain. Many critics of frankly wine critics argue that we can’t have a true discussion about the objective quality of wine until we can agree to the terms. If new wine drinkers are relying on the accuracy of wine critics explanations in order to form their own tasting skills, how is this possible if there is no objective way to varify tastes?
In a society where science has become our religion, some technology people have attempted to break down how we taste from the receptors in tastes buds, to various tests of the brain’s response to aromatic stimuli. I think this is exciting, but frankly missing the big point: much of what we taste is part of our past experiences. I might be able to measure your brain wave response or see which parts of your brain are stimulated by certain smells, but what I can’t do is determine how your past experiences have effected that response. I’m even going to venture a guess and say that about 90% of what we experience in taste has to do with our past experiences, and most people think about taste when they’re eating. In a nutshell, no one should discount the effect of your family background and the times spent at the dinner table with them and the types of foods and beverages you consumed. Many early wine drinkers have a sweet tooth and I’ve noticed that many of them were brought up with highly sweetened foods and beverages. This kind of tasting “history” is cultural and seems to have the influence of making dry wines often seem unpalatable to these individuals. The effect on taste is so significant that I’m not sure any change in future habits can get this person to enjoy a dry wine, a significant issue because over 95% of wines sold in the U.S. market are “dry”.
In the wine industry and some degree the food industry, we need to better understand how past experiences relate to taste. Expectations of taste may effect us more than what we’re actually experiencing in our mouth, and this is one of the reason’s that people prefer more expensive wines if they are told the price before they taste themhttp://www.wine-economics.org/workingpapers/AAWE_WP35.pdf, while in actuality, most new wine drinkers actually prefer cheaper wines by “taste” if they don’t know the price of the wine. I don’t know which will win in the Nature vs. Nurture argument, but I will be willing to guess that one of the biggest influences concerning tasting wine will for the new consumer will be time – the more wine becomes part of our regular meal and tasting experiences, the more comfortable and knowledgeable we will become relating to our tasting it – the classic reply I have to “what am I tasting” should be only time will tell..
Charlie “I Drink on the Job” Adler
They don’t stress much about drinking New Zealand wines in France – there is plenty of great wine in a French person’s backyard. So why is it Americans stress out so much about choosing the right wine with say a French dish like Ratatouille when a French wine from say the Languedoc would work fine? What is it as Americans that we expect from a wine and food pairing – a result of perfection where we can tell all of our compatriots how we successfully completed a veritably impossible task, matching the flavors of a dish with an unknown wine? Maybe we should study up on the world of wine, learn more about the intricacies of Gruner Veltliner from Austria and how it’s put this varietal on the map, or maybe we should read a few books on wine and food pairing to avoid that embarassing faux pas when we mistakenly ordered a Brut Champagne with our P,B &J when it should have been at least Extra-Dry or even sweeter? Oh, why can’t this be so much easier, why can’t they just put little labels on food telling us what goes and doesn’t go, why do we have to use our feeble brains??
That’s because the French eat French food everyday, and guess what wine they drink with it? French – their wine goes great with their dishes, eat up! This is all part of that horrifically difficult to explain “terroir”. Most of what you read and hear about terroir in wine circles relates to the location the vines were grown, but you rarely hear about the producer side of the equation, what I like to call “Pride in Ownership”. The tradition of drinking and eating local products created the pride in ownership that is part of terroir and what makes localities compete to make the best products. Just like a New Yorker will bitch to no end about how bad the bagels are outside of New York (must be the water?), a Frenchman will claim that their regions chevre (goat cheese) is better than even the neighboring villages. That cheese comes from a local goat, which was fed on local grasses and vegetation and its manure was used to fertilize the vines, or possibly it ate the weeds between the vines. The French drink French wine most of the time as do the Italians and the Spanish not only because it’s cheaper for them and readily available, but they connect emotionally with their own produced wine and cuisine. Being fussy about wine doesn’t make sense because it’s something consumed with everyday meals, normally lunch and dinner. You eat local and you drink local because you know what tastes best.
Americans are still developing our pride in our own products and sometimes it embarasses us – once I was at a French Burgundy wine tasting early in my career at TasteDC in Washington, D.C. and I mentioned half-jokingly that one of the wines might taste great with a good cheeseburger and french fries – I got a look like I had just committed a sacrilege! Wine was meant to be consumed with “real” food, not casual foods that were not worthy of their lofty reputations. I had offended the American luxury ethic – thou shalt not enjoy any luxury without tight-lipped apprehension – how dare I, Charlie Adler, a non-wine expert at the time, attempt to create an unofficial food and wine pairing! Call in an expert, food and wine pairing is rocket science, you need a degree in oenology even before you should be allowed to remove the cork!
OK, this seems a bit facetious, but if you had been consuming wine in the 90′s, you met quite a few people with sour puss demeanors. Even the idea that someone would pair wine with something as mundane as a sandwich, much less a PB&J was considered to be preposterous and very uncouth. Times have changed, wine is prevalent and available everywhere from supermarket and in some cases to the corner 7/11. You don’t need a degree to enjoy wine with food, just do what the French do – eat and drink local. So now that I’m serving Virginia ham with some local cheeses, I’ll choose a wine that..wait, isn’t ham salty and that will have a chemical effect on tannin? Well then, I better not choose a wine that’s too tannic, it will..
Charlie “I Drink On the Job” Adler
How important is wine and food pairing as part of the wine tasting/learning experience? Whole chapters have been written about this subject, even books, so one might assume that it’s mandatory for wine drinkers to understand all the nuances of food and wine pairing before they start opening bottles of wine. I mean, you don’t want to be embarrassed like the fellow above in the James Bond From Russia with Love who gave away his lack of sophistication and his cred’s when he chose a red wine to be consumed with fish – a 1960′s faux pas, definitely a sign of poor upbringing, he probably attended public schools, the shame!!
A recent article which was Tweeted to me over at “tastedc” brought new light to the subject or at least rang true to my ears -Perils of Food and Wine Matching. Essentially, this article introduces a classic wine dilemma – what if a wine doesn’t taste very good on its own, but when paired with food, it is fantastic, sort of 1+1=3? Is the wine good or bad? And what about creativity and innovation in wine and food pairing, do we want to have people memorize and repeat like Zombies rules that may be outdated like “white wine with fish, and red wine with meat”, and “Chablis with oysters”? The dilemma seems to be that people often believe that there is in fact a right or wrong wine choice, and if they get it wrong, they will somehow suffer for the mistake. It’s already difficult enough getting started consuming wine, I mean you have unintelligible foreign labels, combined with strange/confusing terminology like “on the lees” or “39% new French Oak”, plus thousands of choices, now you add the question “what food fits best with this wine?” to the equation, and frankly, I can imagine why most people skip wine and stick with beer!
I have a whole chapter on wine and food pairing in my upcoming book I Drink On the Job, but I still want to state for the record that I think wine and food pairing doesn’t matter much – yes, there are excellent pairings, but as often as not, I’ve found by breaking the rules, you can actually discover better pairings. How did I know when I opened a bottle of a $9 bottle (2000 price) Virginia Cabernet Franc that it would go excellent with my Szechuan Beef? Of course I love the traditional Sauvignon Blanc with goat cheese, but one time I had it with a very untart example, and the wine went flat. And how about a wine with a little sweetness like an off-dry German Riesling that went reasonably well with sushi, but really was fantastic when I added the pickled ginger to the equation! How many combinations of food and wine are there anyway, do we actually expect people to memorize them BEFORE they actually unscrew the cap of wine and start imbibing? I think not!
I say, break all the rules and let people start from scratch. I’m no patriot, but the stodgy old wine and food rules are just that, restraints on the individual’s right to experiment and frankly get it wrong. I say purposefully “unmatch” the food and wine, Get a big, bold red wine and pair it with oysters, eat a goat cheese with Port, try a steak with a white Burgundy, see what happens. As part of this experimentation, I taught the wine portion of a TasteDC (www.tastedc.com) class on American Cheese 101 class I put out inexpensive samples of Prosecco, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chianti and Cabernet Sauvignon and I told the audience that I wouldn’t suggest any combinations until the participants had tried the cheese and wine pairings FIRST! It may have seemed that I was torturing the attendees (I’m notorious for pushing the envelope and getting attendees a tad bit out of their “comfort zone”) but all I was trying to do was see if any light bulb appeared above people’s heads, if anyone jumped out of their seat and yelled “Eureka, this combination is Fantastico!” or if faces looked bitter and unpleasant after an especially bad pairing. Interestingly, neither happened, except for the one wine “pro” in the class who was confident of her decisions (thank you Ellen for your observations!), everyone pretty much looked to the “wine expert” (me!) for a nod of approval or disapproval.
Conclusion: Wine and food pairing is not particularly important, but because most Americans find wine to be pretty much a total enigma, they don’t trust their own senses yet. Time will tell, and hopefully with more Americans consuming wine over the coming years, we will see more interesting wine and food combinations, and for that matter, beer and food, whisky and food, and even Sake and food..Cheers!
Charlie “I Drink On the Job” Adler