The neglected wine pairing: food writing

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Why does so much food writing neglect wine? A lot of restaurant reviewers gladly discuss the decor but don’t discuss the wine program even though wine can easily account for a third or more of the diners’ final bill. Most food blogs don’t look to include a discussion about wine either even when they are writing for home cooks who can escape the exorbitant mark-ups of wine in restaurants. Many wine blogs, by contrast, have shifted the discussion about wine away from simply tasting notes of berries and leather and the concomitant scores to talk about pairing food and wine. Why no wine love from the foodies?

I put the question to Ed Levine who runs the food juggernaut SeriousEats.com. Ed is friends with such wine luminaries as Josh Wesson of Best Cellars and Daniel Johnnes of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants who have poured him many great wines, trying to convert him to wine’s pleasures. To no avail. With good humor, Ed told me “I’ve never had a wine that takes food to the next level. I’ve never had a wine that impresses me like a great hamburger.” He also cited cutting wine as a good way to cut calories.

While Ed just doesn’t like wine, which is fair enough, he suggested that other food writers might be intimidated by it. That may be true since there are a lot of details about wine, from the producer name, to the vintage, to the grapes and where they were grown. But that shouldn’t stop an thumbs up or thumbs down for a certain wine and why it did or didn’t work with a certain dish. A lot of food writers are all too happy to have an opinion about a hamburger and if they don’t like it, then it’s a bad hamburger. By contrast, if they don’t like a wine, I fear they think it reflects badly on them as if they should know more about it. That’s too bad.

At least food writers aren’t alone: wine is woefully underrepresented in food TV shows, and, as we’ve discussed before, it’s not likely to change on the Food Network. How about the Travel Channel? When Tony Bourdain advises his viewers about which wine goes with still-beating snake heart, then we’ll know a page has been turned in the way foodies think about wine.

What makes food writers neglect the cork in favor of the fork: a lack of interest? Price? Intimidation/lack of confidence? Rampant teetotalerism?

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24 Responses to “The neglected wine pairing: food writing”


  1. I believe most food critics don’t drink wine with their food (at least not ‘at work’) to avoid ‘discolouring’ of the food. Most food critics I am aware of drink water with their meals. Saying that, talking about wine is an art in itself. Even I – who loves wine – find it hard to find ‘colourful’ wording to praise a wine as it might deserve.


  2. We’re looking at adding a wine partner so that we can expand a bit on this aspect of food. Would love to hear your ideas.


  3. As someone that grew up with wine-loving parents and is also an aspiring food writer, I think that there are probably a number of reasons food writers “ignore” wine. First, I think you are right that it is something that is intimidating. Even in culinary schools where chefs are trained, the focus is always on the food and so rarely on wine (I’ve never understood why many culinary schools don’t offer classes in wine and pairing it with food). And given that a lot of food writers come from that culture, I think they feel they simply don’t know enough about wine.

    I think another reason is not so much that wine is intimidating but more that it is so intensely personal. More so than food even. I don’t have a single non-vegetarian friend who doesn’t enjoy the taste of bacon. But sauvignon blanc? It’s about 50-50.

    And when it comes to pairing wine with food, that can be even more subjective. Even though I consider myself to know a decent amount about wine, at a recent dinner I ordered a glass of a favorite white Bordeaux (a subtle, viscous and buttery blend of about 60% semillon with 40% sauvignon) even though I knew it wasn’t the best choice to go with the duck confit I would be eating. Why? Because I hardly ever find this wine in restaurants or in stores near me and so the chance to enjoy it was something I couldn’t pass up. Sometimes the palate wants what it wants, proper pairing be damned.

    I do think there are ways around the problem. If foodies are uncomfortable or intimidated by wine, I think more papers and magazines need to have wine writers that work alongside their food team to provide information on wine pairing. Why not a column with a double byline from a food and drink writer with each one highlighting things they enjoyed about a meal or restaurant? Also, I think the culinary establishment needs to work on its end and encourage budding culinary professionals to understand wine. Understanding it means not being intimidated by it. Finally, I think food writers need to take the plunge and realize that it’s okay to write “Here’s the wine I had with this meal and here’s why I enjoyed it,” knowing that a statement like that can be personal, subjective, and need not use all kinds of wine terms.


  4. It makes me a bit sad to read that Ed Levine has “never had a wine that takes food to the next level.” Certainly not all pairings are transcendent, but I’ll never forget a dinner during which a Gigondas ordered to drink with lamb tagine made the dish truly extraordinary.


  5. The flip side of your question, Tyler, is: “why does so much wine writing neglect food pairing?”

    Now I understand that many bloggers will mention at least something about food when they write up a wine, so this is not meant to be a broad indictment.

    I think your “impossible wine pairing” series is a commendable venue for addressing the partnership of wine and food.

    Those that have seen the Carl’s Jr. (Hardee’s east of ole’ Miss) commercial about one of their burgers paired with a “$4000 French Bordeaux” [sic] may want to join me in the following endeavor:

    Pick 2 or 3 of the best burgers in your area and pair them with 1-3 wines and write about the pairing.

    I call dibs on In-n-Out Double-Doubles (animal style, of course).

    “Food-and-Wine-Blogging Friday”, anyone?


  6. In “Kitchen Confidential,” Bourdain admitted that he didn’t know much about wine. He likes it, but his knowledge is elsewhere.


  7. Points well taken. Now, Julia Child is known as a chef, but she made it clear she enjoyed wine while cooking, let alone while eating. I can’t remember a show where she didn’t have a wine glass in her hand. And I’ve noticed some cookbooks have wine pairing information (for example, Biba Caggiano’s Trattoria Cooking published back in 1992 makes wine suggestions throughout, provided by Darrell Corti). I think you’ll see the trend quickly move in the direction of foodies having more wine pairing content, most likely by bringing in a “partner” who knows wine — yet they must really work together because you need knowledge in both areas. As for winos allocating more time to food, that’s the philosophy behind our web site, which is very much the Italian philosophy — food and wine go together and it is hard to discuss one without the other! After all, wine is a food. Anyway, consumer preferences for more wine will push/pull the foodies along. It’s coming soon and the movement should be pretty fast.


  8. I think that Arthur is mistaken in that I find a bit too much wine writing to emphasize pairing, lately at least. I may be a rarity in that I really prefer to drink most of my wine either alone or with cheeses or other bites rather than a whole meal. The exception is the all-out blow-out at a great restaurant. So what this does mean is that for the most part food and wine reviewing serves me better separately – and I consume both types in all their myriad medium. I do however see the point, particularly in newspaper reviews where I might be able, if I so desired, to put a suggested pairing to the test before the list changed. this would not be so useful in magazine or televised forms.
    But as for Food Network and wine, I think the time will come, at least I hope so. I grew up with PBS cooking, and for a time I thought that the FN was going to be the adult iteration of that childhood love. Now I find myself again happier with the PBS versions when they are on. FN has a few good shows, and I know that they must play the common denominator to maintain market. But America’s interest in wine has increased, for better or worse, and that will probably come to mean more coverage. But I don’t want to see the “semi-homemade” take on wine, nor endless revisions of supermarket value aisles. I fear the line for a good wine show will be a finer one to walk than any that of food. I think the shows will come, but I don’t know if they’ll ever be any good.


  9. Michael,

    I suppose it is a matter of what one reads that leads us to the conclusion of whether there is too much or not enough wine & food pairing addressed in wine writing.

    At the same time, I recognize that many people – like yourself – generally do not drink wine with food (or meals).

    For that reason, I will be addressing both food friendliness and stand-alone appeal of wines in my new review format.


  10. Just because i havent seen the shows on the Fine Living channel mentioned i will throw them out there:

    “Pairings with Andrea” does discuss the relationship between food and wine and is perhaps one of the best of this style available.

    “Thirsty Traveler” also brings some of this discussion to TV but with more travel channel thrown in.

    “Napa Style” while primarily a cooking show does occasionally discuss pairings. but this show tends to place more time on cooking…

    just thought i would bring these up…


  11. Just catching up now – thanks for all the great comments.

    Alyse – nice observations. In a similar vein, I have thought that it would be great if Eric Asimov, who used to review restaurants under $25, accompanied Frank Bruni on some reviews of particularly wine-worthy restaurants.

    Arthur – Many wine blogs and publications do include food as I see it. It’s getting food types to include wine that’s the hard part. As for the idea of Food-wine Fridays, I’m all for it! Pairing can be overdone, as Michael suggests, but this way is an open one where a reader can sift through a bunch of suggestions and decide what works for him or her.

    As to the wine and TV, as we’ve discussed on this blog before, it is a tough pairing for several reasons, but someone will do it!


  12. I might be stepping on toes here, but surely “food and wine pairing” as a concept is relative.

    Food is a complex thing in the same manner that wine is very complex. But when it comes to pairings, surely the beauty is in the palate of the individual?

    I’ve never really understood the reason for “professional pairings”. I can fathom that certain wines may elevate or accentuate the flavour of certain foods, but essentially eating and drinking boils down to the personal experience in the end.

    I could probably just as easily enjoy a white wine with fillet steak than any other recommended pairing, simply because of the desire of the palate, the mood and the atmosphere. Emotion obviously also plays a big part in this as well.

    Subsequently I believe food writers stick to the principle of highlighting great foods, flavours that go and settings that complement the occasion.

    Pairing a meal with wine is up to the diner.

    For me personally, even though it’s accepted manner to drink water with a meal to thoroughly heighten the flavour, it is just something I cannot commit myself in doing.

    As always, I’m open to change of opinion :-)


  13. One of the reasons for this disconnect is that wine isn’t considered a food in the US. It’s an alcoholic drink regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that was once illegal! This puritanical attitude is deeply embedded. A glass of wine at a business lunch in the US just might get your workmates concerned about a drinking problem; something that wouldn’t happen in most of Europe.

    There’s also – I hate to say – something un-American about wine in that it doesn’t fit the guts and glory spirit of innovation and experimentation. It’s more about refinement, while food seems to be getting increasingly (and wildly) innovative by the minute.

    The list goes on:
    Wine is anti-egalitarian, which is something that Ed touches on. Pretty much everyone “gets” food but people aren’t always sure about what makes a good wine.

    Wine considered “fancy” in a culture that values casual living.

    Wine doesn’t lend itself to entertaining TV. Where does Emeril go “bam” in a wine show?

    That said, a big juicy hamburger without a big tannic red wine isn’t just a missed opportunity, it’s a tragedy. How does that work? I’ll have the DB burger and a glass of water. NO!


  14. In my case it was finding the red wine that was the epiphany of pairing. I have had white wine ones too, but not as strongly convincing. That was a Rioja Reserva with grilled lamb and I have never looked back.


  15. I can’t imagine writing about food and not including wine. This is just where I ended up. I am not a fan of beer and the hard stuff is for after dinner in my world. I am obsessed with wine. Others may be intimidated by wine but there are people out there craving to read someones thoughts on wine and food pairing. Someone needs to make it fun and enjoyable to read. There is a market out there someone just needs to make a noise. We bloggers are doing a great job but we need to take it up a notch and delve into other media. Wouldn’t it be cool if your reading a fun laid back report on a particular restaurant and the writer talks about the decor and then the service moving seamlessly to the dishes and possible wine pairings. Even if the reader is not into wine the writing should be interesting enough that this non-wine loving-person can still enjoy the review while a wine lover can devour it as well.

    EvWg


  16. Henre

    As your choice of words idicates, preference and enjoyment are in fact personal.

    What is not variable and wildly different is our physiology.

    Your point about enjoying the white with a steak is a good example why Foodwine Fridays would be ineresting – but ONLY if we write about our observations and not prefrenece or enjoyment based responses.

    Those are very different and we are capable of making the distinction.


  17. Wine IS food!


  18. Amen, Dale


  19. My wife and I love Italian food, when we are interested in a new restaurant, we are also always interested in learning about their wine. We were fortunate a few months ago to attend an event at the Italian Culinary Institute where we met Frederico and Chef Jordan, two of a three man team that blog about Italian food AND wine (although most of the time they only mention wines of Italian origin). The site is called abbondanza, over at http://www.inabbondanza.com. They don’t really rate the wines, but they talk about what they had with each course and what the restaurants offer. We find this to be a welcome and refreshing change to the norm where the wines are usually ignored.


  20. One of the main reasons why restaurant reviewers don’t write about wine is because the budget doesn’t allow it. When I was features editor at the Oakland Trib, the restaurant reviewer went to each restaurant, with another person, twice before writing the review. The object: to taste more than one dish and to experience the food, service, and ambiance…more than one time. The Trib, even when near bankruptcy, paid the bill.
    From an editorial budget POV, were the food reviewer to review the wine as well, even by the glass,…well you can see where this bill is going.
    We debated the wine issue long and hard at the Trib and that was 15 years ago, long before wine had turned the corner on the American palate.
    In addition, Ed is right because the wine influences the food, too. Would the dish be as clearly correct? or better? without the wine?
    When you factor in webistes and bloggers where often there is no “take-home” pay, people have to follow their passion. And pay out of their own pockets.
    It is a reason, I believe, why people who really like wine tend to cook at home. A restaurateur never expects that you are there for the wine and, by the way, could the chef make the food match?
    What’s in the bottle is what you’ve got. What’s in the sauce can (foodies be calm!) be tweaked. And what we really want when we go to a restaurant is great service. That changes the taste of everything.


  21. The more I think about it, the more I realize that for a restaurant reviewer to critique when would be comparing apples to oranges. You see, the food tasted at the restaurant is prepared by the restaurant. The wine that restaurant serves is prepared by someone else. To critique the wine would be out of scope for a restaurant review.

    However, to critique the wine list and how carefully chosen (or not) it is would be fair.


  22. Wine has intimidated the average American for many years. People don’t realize that Europeans drink wine with almost every meal and it is just a part of their culture. I believe that it is difficult for the food critique to go out on a limb and declare … hey I liked a wine and not have its “pedigree” to back it up. It is a rare individual that says I like this wine, I enjoy the enhancement it gives my food and I don’t care if you like my choice or not.

    Wine and food pairing is an different for everyone. So relax and enjoy!

    Regards

    Denise
    http://www.WineFoodPairing.blogspot.com


  23. I think if you’re reviewing a resto and you ask the sommelier to choose the wines to accompany your meal (or there’s a set flight for a tasting menu), that should be an integral part of the review. It reflects the restaurant’s abilility to put a complete meal together – their unique take on both the food and wine.

    But it gets a bit more dicey for most food writers (I’m one, tho I write about trends rather than straight reviews) to judge a resto based on just looking at the wine list. Or, if a reviewer chooses her/his own wine and it doesn’t pair well with the food, then whose fault is that?

    The level of complexity definitely increases when you add wine to the review. It takes masterful wine knowledge to look at a wine list and judge if the list in general is appropriate for the foods offered on the menu. And even then, if you don’t actually try them all out as pairings, it’s mere speculation.

    An interesting topic, Tyler!


  24. The best solution in my eyes is LOCAL events. It’s frustrating for the average American to get excited about a wine that’s unavailable to them due to our ridiculous state wine laws. I write off the lack of wine info in national TV shows to the rampant fear of litigation… imagine a show called “Drink with Me” that encourages you to taste along, that then results in a tragic auto accident.

    I’m lucky to live in Tampa, which has a good number of tasting events on a regular basis at wine shops and restaurants.


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