Thursday, November 19, 2009

The wine and turkey conundrum

Here we are once again facing the Annual Thanksgiving Wine Question. Takes me back to when I was the wine manager at Happy Herman's in Atlanta in the early '80s.

"Can you help me? I am having turkey. What wine should I serve?" Oh jeez, yer the first to ask that!

At the store we stocked anything from Boone's Farm and Spanada to 1945 Mouton Rothschild and in between. As we were one of the only stores open on Thanksgiving we also had a lot of pissed off customers who demanded to know why we did not carry Tampons and oil for their car at a tiny gourmet gocery store. But we had lots of wine! And lots of customers with different needs and views on what 'good wine' meant to them.

Even then I realized how ridiculous it was to 'match' the wine and food. People wanted something that appealed to their own sense of aesthetics, tasted good on their terms, matched their ideas of value for the money and would hopefully draw the admiration of people at the table who knew about such things. NOT a wine and food match, unless THAT was their sense of aesthetics. I guess then that this first piece will be about aesthtics vs. experience and how we all have our presonal views on the world. 'In the eye of the beholder' and all that.

I just had the honor of speaking at the WineFuture 2009 conference in Logrono, Spain, last week. Steven Spurrier, who organized the 'Judgement of Paris' in 1976 and was portryed in the movie Bottle Shock, was on our plane from Charles de Gaulle to Bilbao, Spain. He is an old friend that I have known for maybe 25 years. We rode to the hotel together with Kate, my wife, who spent the ride talking to the driver about her crusade to establish airline regulations so passengers are not stranded on the tarmac for long periods without food, water, toilets and fresh air. Steven and I were catching up - hadn't seen each other for more than 10 years. We pulled up to the Marques de Riscal Hotel in Elciego.

"Oh, my god!", said Kate.
"Oh, my god!" said Steven.

They were different "oh my gods." Kate's OMG was filled with awe. Steven's OMG verged on contempt. Both were right in their PERSONAL assessment of the architecture. Kate loves color and off-the-wall, daring design. Steven was appalled that the huge, sweeping sheets of multi-colored titanium spilling and weaving about had no function, was nothing but pointless, gaudy fluffery. Each reacted to their sense of how the world SHOULD be. It is certain that everyone will have an opionion on this building's facade!

A couple of nights later we were seated together for dinner. Huge hall - the giants of the wine industry were all there; Bob Parker, Jancis Robinson, Gary Vaynerchuk. Steven asked to describe a bit more of the work I do around sensations and how our brain processes and interprets sensory input. I babbled some more. Steven looked more confused.

I explained that wine and food matching is metaphorical and that the way a wine person's brain is wired we see lamb in a rich, dark sauce, our brain goes through its' neurological catalogue, finds an imaginary 'match' and then signals 'good'. When we try the match we are no longer actually experiencing the combination, we are just following the 'frame' our brain told us exists. He said, "dear god...", glazed over even further and started looking for another table to join.

"OK," I said, "why does this dish go with the intense red wine we are having?" His answer predictably incorporated words like heavy, protein, tannin, fat, etc. I asked him to take a bite of the lamb, clear his mind and try the wine and really pay attention. He did. His eyes literally opened wide as saucers (well, maybe those tiny little espresso saucers).

"Shit - that is horrible," he said. I fished a piece of lemon out of my sparkling water glass, squeezed a bit on his lamb, added a tich of salt and said "try it again." He did. Even more incredulous now. "Dear god, that's amazing. It's back to normal again."

What to serve with your turkey
A wine YOU love. Having guests that like something you don't? Ask them to bring something THEY love. Don't be shy - almost every guest is wondering what to bring as a gift. Lot's of people? LOTS of wine, and of different types. BIG red wine, SWEET white wine. Pink wine. Sparkling wine. Love to 'match' wine and food and have an aesthetic prinicple that is sacred? THAT wine.

Just make sure to put some lime juice in your yams or sweet potatoes. A touch of Balsamic in your gravy. Lots of citrus and a touch of salt in your cranberry concoctions only be aware it could STILL drive your wine haywire.