Alder Yarrow Jumps the Shark (Part 1)

food and wine pairingI usually admire Alder Yarrow’s writing. But last week he published a screed entitled “Food and Wine Pairing Is Junk Science” that is a very strange amalgam of insight, non-sequiturs, and nonsense.  The insights are worth thinking about and the nonsense is worth flagging, so I think I will devote some time this week to commenting on his post. For today I will just deal with his introduction that wastes no time in getting to the nonsense.

Like the endless stream of lousy paintings sold at garage sales, or the ceaseless arguments for why climate change isn’t real, the supposed principles and rules of food and wine pairing are nothing more than bad art or junk science. Holding food and wine pairings up as the apotheosis of the gustatory experience does far more harm than good — both to consumers and to the wine industry — because it turns wine from something universally simple and essential into something special and specialized that requires knowledge and skill to fully appreciate.

And that, my friends, is a sham of epic proportions.

Enjoying wine with dinner has been one of humanity’s greatest pleasures since forever. So how in the world did it end up being a source of panic attacks and the fodder for hundreds of books and scores of useless smartphone apps?

The first sentence I agree with wholeheartedly. Principles or rules for food and wine pairing are nonsense. Food and wine pairing is not science and “principles” or “rules” have no place in art or food and wine pairing. Any generalization you make about what goes with what will be subject to so many exceptions that formulating the pairings one enjoys as an embodiment of a rule is a non-starter. So no disagreement there.

But then the post just goes off the rails. I’ll get to food and wine pairing as the height of gustatory experience in a later post. But the idea that taking it seriously is a sham because it takes something simple and turns it into an activity requiring knowledge and skill is preposterous.

He rightly points out that throughout most of history, people consumed the food and wine they produced locally, and there was no choice to be made about what to drink. You drank what was available. This is still true within those cultures in Europe that have an indigenous wine tradition.

Fine.

We no longer live in a world where choices are so limited, but traditions die hard and If people prefer to limit their choices and keep it simple there is no harm in that.

It does not follow that people who prefer to make considered choices about what to drink with their food are engaged in a sham. Consider this analogy. Since early humans began making sounds in ordered sequences, music has been part of the communal lives of ordinary people. Folk music, most of it reasonably simple, has always expressed the feelings and aspirations of a people and hopefully will continue to do so. People get together to play music and it doesn’t much matter if the music is good or not—it knits their community together via bonds of shared sentiment.

It does not follow that Beethoven or Coltrane are engaged in a sham. Jesus, that should be obvious. (Yes, I know. I’m comparing wine and food pairing to musical fine arts. I’ll address that in a later post)

Traditions are admirable and it’s lovely that Yarrow feels drawn to the simplicity of “if it grows together it goes together”. (That sounds a bit like a principle doesn’t it?) But why on earth are the rest of us subject to criticism if we don’t prefer that simplicity? He claims such a concern is harmful to the wine industry. Again, a topic for another day.

For now I will just wallow in this certainty that if it was good enough for a 19th Century Lombardian peasant, it’s good enough for me.

6 comments

  1. Of course traditional foods with regional wines are a nice complement to each other. They have been hundreds, if not thousands of years in development.

    But chemical processes in our mouths affect flavor. Anyone who has ever brushed his or her teeth in the morning and then taken a gulp of orange juice can attest to that. And Alder Yarrow should know better.

    He’s right that it is not brain surgery, but there are obvious ways that wine and food interact in your mouth, and it’s fun to talk about them. It’s also appropriate to note that each person’s mouth is different, with different chemistry, and what works for one may not always work for another. But orange juice and toothpaste work for everyone. So do wedding cake with Brut Champagne. Worst wine and food pairing ever!

  2. Up here in Nava Valley, it’s quite simple. Most of the time it’s either Cabernet or Chardonnay, no matter what’s on the plate. European wines?
    Hardly ever.

    Tom

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