By Dick Snyder
Tis the season for wine writers to force their wine recommendations to fit some vaguely conceived theme — holiday table, turkey wine, stocking stuffers, etc. And my favourite: sparkling wines that are “sure” to bring joy/sparkle/magic to your dreary family festivities.
Is there anything really “sure” in the world these days? Yes. That the annual efforts of wine writers to come up with fantastical ways to describe how perfectly good normal wines will somehow transform into the “ultimate” match for your various festive affairs.
Man, it’s so boring to read. And it’s not entirely the wine writers’ fault — at least not in the mass media such as the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and various syndication outlets. It’s often the fault of wine-ignorant editors. I’ve worked at the major newspaper, and — sadly — the editors who decide what to run in regard to wine and food are generally ignorant of the fine points. Here’s a recreation of how a typical editor-wine writer weekly story meeting might unfold:
Editor: “Ok, it’s fall. What have you got?”
Writer: “Perhaps we round up some of the best interesting red wines from around the world, and guide our readers to the best values, and also off-the-beaten path wines. You know, help readers expand their palates?”
Editor: “Can you write about the best wines under $9 to go with Halloween candy?”
Writer: “I’d rather not.”
Editor: “Great! Have it to me by Wednesday. And for next week, let’s do the best premium Bordeaux wines that go great mixed with Sprite. I read about that somewhere, I think it was Vice. It’s big in China.”
Our younger readers may have forgotten how much trouble this kind of crap can cause, as it did in 2017 for Toronto Star wine writer Carolyn Evans Hammond. In her column on what to drink while watching the Oscars, she suggested pairing a “smooth, dry, understated rosé” with the Oscar nominated “12 Years a Slave,” as the wine will help offset the movie’s “searing cinematic discomfort.” This incredibly tone-deaf faux pas was analyzed by the Columbia Journalism Review, who contacted Evans Hammond:
Initially, Evans-Hammond told CJR it made sense to pair 12 Years A Slave — “a hard, tough, important movie to watch” — with “something that goes down easy.”
And she didn’t think the column was a problem. “What was I going to do otherwise?” she asked. “Omit that film, I think that’s less scrupulous. It’s a very important film to watch. I could have said a shot of whiskey, but I’m a wine writer.”
There was a time when mainstream wine writers were allowed to just cover the best wines on the shelves or at wine agencies. A short paragraph describing the wine (using less than 15 flavour descriptors, preferably), and some tidbit about the winery or how to serve the wine — and some insight into the value-specialness quotient. That’s all anyone needs. This kind of wine writing lets the reader evaluate how the wine will work within their own framework of food choices, occasions, preferences, etc. I submit that it is far more useful to the inquisitive wine consumer.
But for those wine writers who insist on perpetuating the seasonal pairing trope, how about something that goes with Christmas day leftover Chinese food? Or a jambalaya? Or, a Teen Burger combo from A&W? Or some hot wings? What about eggs benedict, Szechuan noodles, jerk pork, seafood Pho, chana masala, lentil soup, egg salad, fried tofu or a tuna sandwich… ? You know, how real people eat. Or, how the majority of Torontonians eat, say, all the non-WASPs? Wine goes good with celebratory food from non-white cultures, just saying. But you don’t see much of that in the mainstream media — or even on social media, come to think of it. Though, I will recommend a few Ontario wine professionals who I think are doing great work in this arena: @beverlycrandon and @winewanderin and @crazywineasian — I’m looking for more, so please add suggestions in the comments below.
Most wine writers and the majority of vinfluencers on social media that I have come across have zero to little professional wine-and-food matching experience. I know I don’t. I do experiment a lot, and rely on true expert sommeliers. Sure, I’ve got a diploma from WSET in wine and spirit knowledge, but I’ve never worked on the floor of a wine-oriented restaurant. Sure, I’ve read books such as “The Art and Science of Food Pairing,” “Tastebuds and Molecules” and “Wine Pairing for Dummies.” (Or, I’ve read some of some of them…) But I’ve never poured wine for anyone other than friends and family. I’ve never sat with a chef to design a menu, and then tasted through multiple wines to really discover what works best. I suspect that most of the mainstream wine writers and vinfluencers haven’t either. Especially all those vinfluencers whose bios indicate they are “candidates” in various levels of study.
Though I write a lot about wine and food, I try never to be declarative about pairing recommendations — unless ordered to do so by my editor — and I certainly try to never state firmly that some wine will be “perfect” with anything. There is no perfect. It’s more useful, I feel, to state what occasion a wine might work best with, or a range of styles of food. Say, spicy, fresh seafood, earthy, tomato-based, etc. Or, as Nadia Senchuk, co-owner of Niagara’s Leaning Post winery, said as we discussed this topic: “How does it make you feel?”
Getting back to your holiday table and festive snacking… chances are there is going to be such a mish-mash of stuff that sweating the pairings will be futile. Just drink what you like. And even better, buy some wines you’ve never tried before, and open all of them. Or, just go with sparkling.
Several years ago, Rick van Sickle posted a hilarious (to me, anyway) video pillorying the annual glut of Thanksgiving wine pairing recommendations from all the usual wine writers. And in full disclosure, he notes that he had done the same, back when he wrote weekly columns for the papers. “What goes with turkey,” he asks. “Everything goes with turkey ’cause turkey’s so bland.” His conclusion: Drink whatever you want. There’s so much stuff on the table and on your plate that “it doesn’t matter.”
I encourage you to watch this — and do watch the very end, as it’s hilarious and useful advice.
And ignore everything anybody tells you about matching wine with your holiday festivities.