Alder Yarrow Jumps the Shark (Part 3)

wine and food pairingI have one more post in me trying to navigate the logic of Alder Yarrow’s trashing of wine and food pairing. After arguing it’s a sham because pre-modern European cultures didn’t indulge and then arguing its all subjective anyway so why bother, he gets to what I imagine is the motivation behind the whole piece—he just doesn’t get much satisfaction from pairing food and wine.

But what about those lightning strike moments, those organoleptic epiphanies that rock your world when you taste the perfect wine with the perfect dish and the heavens open and the choir sings?

They don’t really exist. Not really.

Do people have great experiences drinking a wine they love with something delicious they’re eating? Of course, that’s why we all eat and drink and pay for the good stuff when we can. But for more than 25 years I’ve been eating at some of the world’s top restaurants and getting wines paired by some of the world’s best sommeliers, and I can tell you that the times a particular combination of wine and food specifically selected by a chef and sommelier (or other non-professionals including myself) resulted in a sum greater than the parts can be counted on the fingers of one hand. With some fingers left over.

At this point we really are getting into the realm of subjectivity.  Curiously, instead of leaving matters there he insists that not only does he not experience the thrill of a good pairing—he claims they don’t exist, for anyone I suppose. But since there are many, many apparently rational people who think they do exist there is obviously an explanatory hurdle here. Are the rest of us delusional?

Lurking behind the foot stomping and hyperbole, however, there is a good point. Food and wine pairings sometimes don’t succeed. I too have eaten at some of the world’s top restaurants and I usually purchase the pairing. Some restaurants do a better job than others. Some are just going through the motions; others take it seriously. For those who take it seriously they still produce something beautiful only about half the time in my estimation. The rest are usually acceptable but not noteworthy. There is an argument to be made that such a ratio of success isn’t worth it. For me it is. YMMV. If the wine is good, part of the fun is figuring out why the pairings work or don’t work.

I suspect there is a bit of an expectations game going on. When pairings work they are harmonious and interesting because the wine and the food pull something out of each other that would not be highlighted without the combination. Is that an epiphany that “rock’s your world” or opens the heavens? No. It’s more of a quiet beauty—the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of taste are fun to explore without the fireworks.

What I don’t get is why he thinks the interest in food and wine pairing is harming the industry. Wine is more interesting because it creates synergies with food. How is making wine more interesting harmful?

I think what is harmful is the idea that wine and food pairing is easy and can be mastered by knowing a few rules. It isn’t easy. It requires a lot of experimentation and a thorough knowledge of ingredients. And there no rules. There are a few guidelines that are useful to keep in mind. But it you think that’s all there is to pairing you will of course be disappointed. Generic pairings are, well, generic.

Once again we get the wine populist’s manifesto—wine is too complex and people are intimidated by it. If we just simplify it people will ditch their cocktails and weed and return to wine. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Young people are turning to cocktails because it turns out there are lots of interesting flavor combinations available now that mixologists have learned to be imaginative and creative. Wine too is interesting because of its variations including the variations possible when paired with food. Subtract the complexity from wine and you have a commodity like orange juice or milk.

Good luck trying to sell that for $50 a bottle.

Here are links to part 1 and part 2.

3 comments

  1. Dwight, I think one of the attractions that cocktails hold for younger people is the idea that they are hand-made expressly for them by another person. This element of both human connection and personal attention is very attractive. It’s not just the flavors, but the rest of the experience.

    Wine does not offer that experience nearly so successfully.

  2. Dwight, I’m honored my screed prompted three separate blog posts, but I feel like you’ve not fully grasped my argument. I’m not leveling any criticism at all at the practice of drinking wine while you eat, or even selecting a specific wine to do so. I’m taking aim at the aspect of our wine culture which suggests that the practice is an “art” or a “science” and therefore requires significant knowledge or skill, and that an expert is better at doing it for you than you would be yourself. This aspect of wine culture creates anxiety and uncertainty for people who are beginning their wine journey, and that anxiety is a disservice to those individuals, and bad for the industry as a whole.

    1. Hi Alder,

      Thanks for commenting. I don’t think I misinterpreted your screed. Your summary here captures your meaning well and that was precisely what I was responding to. I think wine and food pairing is difficult to do well, requires a great deal of experimentation and attention to detail, and genuine experts do it better than non-experts. (Which of course is not to say that experts always succeed.) As to it harming the wine industry, I also addressed that. I just don’t get it. I don’t see how the fact that I enjoy food and wine pairings harms anyone. If a novice wine drinker isn’t interested or doesn’t see the point then don’t indulge. It certainly isn’t necessary for enjoying food and wine together and I don’t know anyone who thinks it is necessary. Does the fact that some baseball fans are obsessed with obscure and difficult statistical analyses prevent casual fans from enjoying the game? The answer to that is obvious.

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