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Drinking Out Loud

What Goes with What?

Ask the dish. Or look at your guests.
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer considers his companions when selecting an engaging wine pairing.

Matt Kramer
Posted: July 5, 2017

"In the end, nothing goes with anything; it's your own taste that puts things together.”—Lucian Freud

I began my writing life as a food writer. I mention this only as a way of noting that devoted as I am to wine, I have something of a secret existence that’s almost as equally devoted to food. I just don’t write about it much.

That I have opinions about food will hardly surprise you. But what might surprise is how much I agree with—and fully endorse—the great painter Lucian Freud’s assertion cited above. In fact, I know of no other statement about “what goes with what” that expresses it better.

Freud (1922–2011) liked food and wine. A noted and hugely successful portraitist, he would reward his astonishingly patient and forbearing sitters—friends and acquaintances who were paid nothing for their often months-long time posing for him—by treating them, after a posing session, to dinner at one of several high-end London restaurants. He also liked to cook and reportedly knew his wines.

(If you’d like to get a sense of what it was like posing for him, I highly recommend Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, by Martin Gayford.)

What I so like about Freud’s assertion is its combination of liberation (“Nothing goes with anything”) and subtle constraint (“It's your own taste that puts things together”).

Note that the artist did not say, “Anything goes with anything.” Quite the opposite. Freud didn’t become a great artist because he simply slapped things together and called it good. He knew how many subtle choices are made in order to arrive at anything—a painting, a plate of food, a wine pairing—that “works.”

All of which brings us to “putting things together.” Obviously, it’s the key. Since I do all the cooking chez Kramer and, as you might expect, also choose the wine to go with the meal, I spend a certain amount of time every day deciding what goes with what. It’s a highly pleasurable daily meditation.

What have I discovered from decades of this daily meditation? Probably my biggest lesson is not to choose a wine that you like, but rather, to choose what the dish likes.

Strange as it sounds, I often anthropomorphize the ingredient I’m working with or the dish I’m making. “What wine do you like?” I ask my food. I’m sure I could get locked up for admitting this, but I usually get answers.

Typically, the answer is something like, “I know you want a Pinot Noir because that’s what you always want. But I really want a Cabernet Franc. Or maybe a Lambrusco.”

Am I crazy? Probably yes. But when you cook enough—especially if you’re really into your ingredients—strange things start to happen in a kitchen. This is one of them.

Although Freud didn’t say so, I suspect that his notion of “your own taste” somehow included the “taste” of his paints, the lighting, and the aura, persona, whatever, of the sitter. Bottom line: It’s not just you, even though it might seem so.

The preceding wackiness works in a home kitchen where you’re the cook. But in a restaurant, where you can’t converse with the dish or its ingredients, the conversation between wine and food is necessarily constrained. How, then, do you choose?

I can only tell you what I do: I look at my dining companions. What’s more—and this may shock you—I ignore what they’ve ordered to eat. In choosing wines in restaurants, the pairing, I’ve discovered, is not “what wine goes with the food?” but instead, which wines go with the guests?

I’ve long submitted that good wines can take care of themselves. Good wines can work wonderfully with any food that is remotely plausible for them. This is why the usual “rules” are, I believe, pretty much useless. Besides, these days, given many chefs’ creative approaches to even classic dishes, you don’t really know what you’re going to get anyway.

On a more practical note, I usually order a bottle of red and a bottle of white and have both served to everyone at the same time, which solves the obvious problem.

Since both wines are I hope interesting, and maybe new to everyone at the table, this approach heightens interest in the wines. I’ve found that everyone attentively tastes both wines, regardless of what dish he or she ordered.

Those of us who love wine and food are forever contemplating what goes with what. Myself, I talk to the dish. Or look at the guests. But perhaps a good psychiatrist might say I’ve got it reversed.

Your own diagnosis is welcome.

Jocelyn Boros
Pennsylvania —  July 10, 2017 8:57pm ET
"In the end, nothing goes with anything; it's your own taste that puts things together.”—Lucian Freud. I don't think truer words could have been muttered. After all, every single person on this planet has different taste buds, along with different opinions as to how certain foods can taste with a certain wine. And I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Kramer's statement about thinking of the guests rather than the dish when it comes to pairing. So many people out there, especially those striving to become sommelier's, focus so much on 'textbook' wine pairing that they can easily ignore their group of white-wine-only drinking friends and pair that rich, oily salmon with a Pinot Noir instead of what would have been a much more enjoyable full-bodied Chardonnay. Although it's always tempting to master that 'perfect food and wine pairing,' don't forget about the people who are sharing that moment with you, and what they will truly get out of the experience.
Palki Singh
New Delhi —  August 10, 2017 6:48am ET
Sir, lovely beginning. However, was slightly confused at the end. What if the consumer doesn't enjoy wine that much/or is naive and what if the wine we chose does not enhance the flavour of the dish they are eating?, but is a very good wine.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  August 10, 2017 12:29pm ET
Palki Singh: You ask: “What if the consumer doesn't enjoy wine that much/or is naive and what if the wine we chose does not enhance the flavor of the dish they are eating, but is a very good wine?”

This is, as I’m sure you know, at least two questions in one—or maybe even three! No matter. Let’s dive in.

What you ask underscores the very reason why I suggest that “In choosing wines in restaurants, the pairing, I’ve discovered, is not “what wine goes with the food?” but instead, which wines go with the guests?”

If you have a guest or guests who, as you note, don’t enjoy wine that much or are newcomers to wine, that’s precisely why you should look more at your guests than at the food.

As the wine-chooser, if you will, you don’t want to serve wines that are “difficult” or unlikely to please such guests. What that means in practice is selecting something relatively soothing and “easy” for them, such as a Pinot Gris or a slightly oaky Chardonnay or a juicy, berryish Pinot Noir served cool.

2. As for whether the wine will enhance the dish, this is why I suggest ordering both a red and a white and having both wines presented at the same time. Surely one or the other will go with whatever food has been ordered by each person at the table.

3. Your point about what’s been ordered potentially being a “very good wine” is key. As I wrote, “Good wines can work wonderfully with any food that is remotely plausible for them.” I know this to be true—but only if the wines are indeed good.

There are limits, of course. Some wines occupy extremes of taste, such as, say, a Vintage Port (sweet, high alcohol, powerful) or a Muscadet from France (delicate flavors, high acidity, a certain sharp-ish edge and a briny/salty note).

Wines at the extreme ends of the flavor spectrum can work memorably well with some dishes but definitely not others, no matter how great the wine may be. (There are dinner guests with rather strong personalities who fit this same description too!)

Most wines do not, however, dwell at the extremes and instead occupy a generously expansive mid-range of what might be called “taste accommodation”. They can play well with all sorts of dishes. I find this especially true for most Chardonnays, most Pinot Noirs, most Gamays such as Beaujolais and many other grape varieties that are neither especially high in acidity (Nebbiolo for example) nor a bit too tannic when young (Cabernet Sauvignon, for example).

I hope this helps clarify things a bit. And thanks for writing!

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