Wine's World

Le Divorce

How wine and food have gone their separate ways.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

After a long, amicable marriage, wine and food are heading for divorce. Big, syrupy wines are increasingly prevalent while the culinary world is increasingly smitten with an eclecticism that borders on the bizarre and the idea that more is always more (more ingredients per dish, more dishes per meal). Wine and food are moving in roughly the same direction—subtlety and finesse giving way to flash and bang—yet their paths are diverging, making it difficult to bring them together harmoniously at the table.

Take, for instance, the new-wave Australian shirazes and cabernets now washing ashore. Many of these wines taste like spiked blueberry milkshakes that have been blended with a two-by-four. (The oak is, shall we say, pronounced.) If your preference is for wines that leave elephant tracks on your tongue, you probably adore them. But if asked to drink, say, an Elderton shiraz alongside a roast leg of lamb, even those who enjoy these Jerry Bruckheimer-in-a-bottle wines will probably be reaching for the Maalox. These wines aren’t fit to accompany meals—they are meals.

Likewise, today’s most celebrated and influential chefs—Ferran Adria of Spain’s El Bulli, Marc Veyrat of France’s La Ferme de Mon Pere and Auberge de L’Eridan, Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck, outside of London, to name the most renomme among them—have a wildly inventive approach that, whatever its virtues, falls a bit short when it comes to wine compatibility. What exactly do you pair with Adria’s coconut ravioli in soy sauce or his Parmesan cheese ice cream sandwich? Hawaiian Punch and Yoo-hoo spring to mind. Haut Brion does not.

Pairing food and wine is, of course, a fraught subject, and many restaurant-goers get their innards in an uproar trying to find the Holy Grail of combinations. (A smirking sommelier hovering over the table doesn’t help.) But who’s to say what constitutes a food-and-wine faux pas? If you believe that pairing a portlike zinfandel with a wasabi-coated veal loin in a kumquat and foie gras foam is a masterstroke, that’s between you and your stomach. I’m as punctilious as the next wine zealot, but when it comes to combining food and wine, I hang with the drink-and-let-drink crowd: If it works for you, it works. Never serve red wine with fish? Pinot noir is the perfect arm candy for grilled salmon.

To be sure, there are certain loose rules worth observing. If a wine is likely to have you muttering hosannas throughout the meal, the food ought to be kept relatively simple: A 1982 cheval blanc, for example, shouldn’t have to share the stage with a slab of rich meat submerged in gravy. Above all, wine should make nice with food and vice versa. But since the food is usually the star attraction, the type of wine will generally be dictated by what’s on the plate. Wines well-suited to food are elegant, restrained, even a little demure, and possessing of a good acidic backbone, vital to creating—pardon the ‘90s-ism—synergy at the table.

Yet this kind of wine is becoming harder to find. One reason is global warming. In just about every winemaking region, summers are getting hotter, which means riper grapes. The riper the grapes, the lower the wine’s acidity and the higher its alcohol content. Nowadays, wines routinely tip the scale at 14 and 15 percent alcohol; toss in the jammy fruit—another consequence of excessive heat in the vineyard—and what you get are massive, brooding wines that snarl at any food that comes near.

This might seem a result to be avoided, but in fact many vintners want their wines overripe and over-the-top and so are leaving grapes on the vine longer—”maximum hang time,” in vineyard-speak (“dude” optional)—pushing the extraction (i.e., squeezing as much color and tannins out of the grape skins as possible), soaking their wines in new oak, and generally doing everything they can to turn out cabernets and merlots that Make a Statement. This is particularly true in California and Australia, both of which pump out lots of high-alcohol wines that have the viscosity of motor oil.

Winemakers make these confections because there’s a market for them, and it’s easy to understand why: The wines are fruity, forward, and deliver a quick buzz. They are also popular within influential segments of the wine press, which is no accident—many of these behemoths are essentially pageant wines, designed to stand out in comparative tastings.

When a critic is sampling 60 to 100 wines in an afternoon, those that make the biggest impression are invariably the ones that, well, make the biggest impression. These are the wines with the most alcohol, the most extract, the most new oak, the most everything. Critics generally do their appraising in isolation—that is, without food—and do not include in their tasting notes any indication as to how a wine might fare with a meal. As a result, many wines with very limited dinner-table potential end up walking off with the laurels.

But the growing rift between food and wine cannot be pinned on the wine world alone; the culinary universe is also to blame. Any quibbling about the direction food is taking is invariably dismissed as reactionary, but this is not an argument against culinary progress. (Though whether Adria and Blumenthal and Veyrat represent culinary progress or are vividly demonstrating its limits is debatable.)  Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Trio shouldn’t feel inhibited about serving sea urchin with frozen banana, puffed rice, and parsnip milk simply because the dish does not suggest a particular wine (or any wine, for that matter). But whether you label it surrealism, molecular gastronomy, fusion, or confusion, the trendiest cooking these days is not being done with wine in mind.

The problem is compounded by price-gouging. A 400 percent markup on wines is not only a genteel form of pickpocketing, it creates a situation in which people who are not wealthy or eating on the company’s dime find themselves forced to bottom-feed. This is no hardship if a restaurant has put thought and care into its bargain selections, but that’s seldom the case, so the budget-conscious diner ends up eating a Rolls Royce meal and drinking a rent-a-wreck wine. Many restaurant-goers, by necessity, simply stop thinking of wine as part of the dining experience.

Restaurant critics, like their wine-reviewing brethren, deserve some of the blame, too. Most food critics don’t seem to know or care much about wine, and they evidently assume their readers don’t either. When was the last time you read a restaurant review that devoted even a sentence to the wine list? The last time a restaurant critic complained about wine prices? If restaurants got slapped around in the press for peddling plonk or overcharging on wine, they would surely make their wine lists more interesting and affordable, and wine would once again be a full partner at the table.

Of course, there remain plenty of wines, nearly all of them from “Old” Europe—Burgundies, Barolos, Champagnes, German Rieslings, Loires, Rhones, Bordeaux (albeit in dwindling numbers)—that play well with food, and not every chef is combining ingredients the way a 3-year-old combines finger paints. But when fireworks, in the glass and on the plate, is considered the highest virtue, few winemakers and chefs feel they can eschew the pyrotechnics and win critical acclaim.

But as challenging as pairing food and wine has become, there are harder matches to make—like wine and Botox. A participant in one of the more popular wine chat rooms recently reported bumping into a neighbor who was planning a Botox party and looking for some wine recommendations. Among the suggestions in the chat room: a Martinelli zinfandel—specifically, a zinfandel from the winery’s Jackass Vineyard. Now that’s a perfect match.