The Perfect Wine Pairing Versus Just Good Enough

Perhaps you’ve been there: a guest at someone else’s table, presented with the good wines he or she’s provided, but so curious about the wines you’ve brought that you’re at risk of being rude. For example: My wife’s parents have just rented a place on the shore of Lake Tahoe, to bring the extended family together. L’s brother has flown in with his wife and kids from New York, L’s sister has driven up from the Bay Area with her husband and kids, and L has the car packed and the girls strapped into their seats at our San Francisco place while I’m scrambling to finish a last few runs of electrical cable in the dining room, so my guys can hang Sheetrock while I’m gone. We’re already hours late, and I’m filthy and sweaty and still wearing work clothes, when I grab an empty 12-bottle wine box and make a quick dash to fill it—a Tempranillo and two Riojas, a Tavel rosé, a Mumm Napa sparkler, an Arrowood Viognier, a De Loach Gewürztraminer, and a few others. Then it’s four-plus hours of intermittent traffic on I-80 East and finally wandering in the door of the rental in time for a quick shower before dinner.

L’s mother puts out a platter of sturgeon she’s grilled by resting them on soaked cedar planks atop the fire, and a side of sautéed mushrooms, some green beans, and potatoes. L’s father puts out a Matanzas Creek Chardonnay, and we’re off to the races with a family reunion and dinner—except for me. Because I’ve opened the rosé, the Viognier, and the Gewürztraminer, and a Valsacro Rioja, and instead of just relaxing and enjoying what’s been offered, I’m pouring myself four simultaneous glasses of wine and working my way through them, trying to figure out what sings with this meal. The Chardonnay offered by my gracious father-in-law is a lovely, interesting wine, not too heavily oaked, and with an unusually bright acid, but while everyone catches up and talks and eats, I’m quietly discarding the Viognier (much too floral for this dish) and the Gewürz (not bad, actually, but not perfect), and the rosé (dramatically closer, actually, as the hint of tannic backbone and the slight bitterness in this version pick up the flavors of the grill). Suddenly, I notice that my wife is reaching to refill her glass with Matanzas Chardonnay and I’m about to stop her and tell her that I’ve found it! I’ve figured out the right match! Oh, it’s the Valsacro Rioja, oddly, because the dominant flavors in that rich, delicate fish dish are of the grill char and the cedar wood and the pepper embedded in the caramelized crust, and also the umami of the mushrooms, and all of those are red-wine notes, and the Valsacro is such a nicely balanced wine that it echoes these flavors without overwhelming them.

Except I don’t. Or not entirely. I just sort of nudge her, and glare at my glass of red and she does sip it but mostly ignores me because this is crazy. And now I know it’s crazy. And now I’m letting everyone else drink away at the other wines and have a good time and I’m finishing the Rioja myself and taking more fish and mushrooms and thinking about Chef Joey Altman, from Diageo, who clued me in to this kind of pairing trick, and I’m also suspecting that the love of food and wine, like so many loves, has the potential to become a hiding place, an escape from more complicated feelings. And I’m also glad I didn’t completely blow it by insisting that everybody share my great pairing discovery—because wouldn’t I have raised the uncomfortable possibility that I’d found fault with the gifts of my hosts?

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