Contrary to what some experts claim, wine does not make everything better. Wine has the ability to lift food and dining experiences to new heights — the reason so many of us love it so dearly. I’ll even go so far as to say that I believe the pinnacle of dining scenarios would have to include wine.
Wine can create dining experiences in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but this doesn’t happen automatically every time a bottle gets opened. Forget about bad pairings — perfectly good wine matched with the wrong food. Not much can salvage those situations. I’m talking about pairings that are carefully thought-out, whether by logic, science or even some divine inspiration. They might be perfectly fine pairings — technically, culinarily — but if you ask me, sometimes wine should not even be a part of the conversation, let alone a major voice in it.
Bacon doesn’t make everything better, despite a reflex to say that it does. Chocolate doesn’t make everything better, either, despite being arguably the world’s greatest food. And cheese doesn’t make everything better, despite how incredibly awesome it is. None of these, on its own, has the Midas touch, and neither does wine.
The pleasure we take from dining develops over time and can often be connected to memories. We love certain food and drink combinations for the feelings they give us, as much as for the smells, tastes and textures we experience when we consume them. So while you could easily pair a short stack of buttermilk pancakes, whipped butter and Vermont maple syrup with a rare and expensive dessert wine, sometimes you just want to experience a meal the way you did when you were a kid.
What about that drive you took, when you pulled into a roadside stand, sat on top of a picnic table and ate the most delicious Italian beef sandwich and fries of your life? Would wine have made that better? Probably not.
Wine with fast food, junk food, ballpark food, candy and breakfast — it all makes me shrug. You can do it, and you can probably find a decent wine match for any food imaginable. But do you really want to? Do you really want a glass of wine to accompany your grandstand hot dog with mustard, onions, relish and tomatoes? Your movie theater box of Mike and Ike candy? That roadside beef sandwich with sweet and hot peppers, and a few judicious dabs of sweet ketchup and tangy horseradish?
Drinking wine with food brings a lot of baggage, a lot of connotation, and sometimes you just don’t want that — even when it’s good baggage. Sometimes you just want something else when you’ve got a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a bag of potato chips, or a sack of fast-food burgers. Even though you can find wine matches for those foods, sometimes you’re better off not even looking for them.
Every time I drink wine, I go to a place in my mind that feels like a gentle, controlled floating, as if I have just jumped out of an airplane and a wide parachute has snapped open above me. All I have to do at that point is take in the lovely view, feel the wind on my face and float peacefully down to my landing spot. I surrender a little bit to the wine each time it’s warranted.
Of course, any situation can be appropriate for wine consumption as long as you decide it is. If you want to drink wine with Good & Plenty, blueberry waffles or jalapeno poppers, you go right ahead — and have a ball with it. But I will probably take a pass.
Wacky pairings can be fun, but in my opinion, wine is much better in situations where it can offer everything it has — not just the aromas, flavors and textures, but the influence on your mind and soul too. Let it register within you — you’re dining with wine — and allow the wine to deliver the gentle, blissful descent under that trustworthy canopy, with open sky and the distant horizon seeming to expand in every direction.
Michael Austin is a freelancer.