Chow Town

Wine advice: It’s all about you so follow your own tastes

Updated: 2013-05-03T01:33:19Z


I think it’s generally rude to go after another wine writer, especially one who seems nice and clearly intends to do no harm. Moreover, it was Mark Twain who said, “Never get in a fight with a guy who buys ink by the barrel.”

So I should give Will Lyons’ wine column in the Wall Street Journal on April 18th a pass, but I can’t.

His sins (at least I shall call them that) are merely to repeat the received wisdom about food and wine matching. I’m sure he received it in all good faith — the information was sent in error however.

For too long, the wine world, particularly the European wine world, has repeated the same “rules” of food and wine over and over again, but repeating them ad nauseum does not make them true.

We have learned a good deal about how the mind and the senses interact with the environment in recent years — the wine industry too often acts wholly ignorant of these changes.

Lyons’ good intentions are up front: “. . . my advice has always been to trust your own palate.”

But he appends a note to that, “. . . as long as you avoid too much salt with white wine, and vinegar with red.”

I’m not sure what evidence he has for those statements. Salty foods such as popcorn can be delightful with white wines. The saltiest of foods, briny shellfish straight from the sea are remarkably delightful matches with virtually any crisp or aromatic white wine.

But he has something against vegetarian dishes and wine. “Asparagus is a notoriously difficult customer, leaving white wine tasting a little metallic.” Yes, it does, but only for some people.

The great fallacy in all this rule making is that it only applies to a subset of people.

He says, “A partially ripe tomato can strip a red wine of all its charm, while spinach, artichokes and even sweet carrots can cause problems.”

Again, Lyons may be speaking of his own experience, but like so many other writers, he assumes that it is a universal and that is demonstrably false.

Each of us has differing sensitivities to flavors and aroma. It’s why we exhibit such differences in preference.

Yes, it’s also based upon the foods that you were raised to enjoy, but the nature versus nurture discussion leans heavily upon the nature side of things: regardless of what your siblings eat, you probably have foods you like which they don’t like.

It’s not that you’re rebellious. It’s that your experience of some flavors and aromas is slightly different. I like liver. You probably don’t.

You may like Brussels sprouts — lots of other people don’t. It’s all personal and so too is the choice of wine, and ultimately, the wine you choose to go with a dish.

Lyons has his own set of rules, such as, “but woe betide the wine lover who attempts to pair dry roasted peanuts with wine.”

I have no idea what he is talking about. I enjoy peanuts and wine quite frequently. Maybe he’s put off by the seasoned salt on some nuts. So maybe it has nothing to do with the peanuts.

More importantly, it’s personal and Lyons’ personal preference shouldn’t be presented as a truth.

Later Lyons’ states, “Strong spices inevitably lacerate the taste buds and are best avoided if you are thinking of opening that special bottle.”

I suppose that a mouthful of habanero peppers might cause pain but lacerations? And “spices” is a broad category. Is Lyons saying that edible amounts of allspice or black pepper would lacerate the taste buds?

There is certainly no evidence for that and indeed those two spices in particular are flavors frequently found in red wines. Lots of chefs, and writers such as Lyons, speak of linking flavors in foods and wines together in order have a standard methodology matching. By those rules, spicy foods and big reds would be delightful together.

But I hasten to point out, Lyons has perfectly good intentions.

“The flavor of neither the wine nor the food should overpower one another,” and this seems unassailably sensible.

But again, the issue leans to the personal: I might drink a lot of big, bold red wine, so my idea of a particular wine “overpowering” the food will necessarily differ from the experience of someone who rarely drinks big, bold red wines.

It’s a subject that will be revisited in these blogs because it’s as complicated as human beings, and may be as varied as fingerprints.

Drink what you like with whatever you like to eat and, as Lyons cautions, “the objective isn’t to intimidate your guests with overly complicated rules and prescriptions, but to simply make sure the two complement each other.”

Start by having the wine “complement” your own tastes and preferences. It’s all about you.

Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant who for decades has happily educated the public about all things drink. He is one of only three people in the world to have earned the coveted titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes a monthly wine column for The Star’s Food section.

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