By John M. Imperiale
I consider myself to be a wine expert in spite of having no credentials at all. It is part of the joy of drinking. Forty-five years of enjoying something should qualify one as an expert on any subject, so I take the label proudly. I do know this, having the perfect wine for every situation is a skill the “certified” experts never really teach you. But I can.
I have found that most people, especially casual wine drinkers, are in the simple “red” or “white” category. They either like one or the other and know little and care less about the difference between a malbec and a sangiovese, or a chardonnay and a chablis. They are either red drinkers or white drinkers, and that is all there is to it. And that’s fine for them. Simplicity in life is a beautiful thing.
Then there are the “red with meat, white with chicken or fish” folks. They know a cabernet sauvignon will overpower a chicken dish and a sauvignon blanc will taste like water when paired with a steak. They act discriminatory and fancy themselves sophisticates. And they are! You can sound really smart and also a little pompous when you tell the waiter to wait while you decide on your main course before choosing your bottle. And who doesn’t want to sound smart and act pompous? Those can be wonderful feelings, especially to yourself.
And then there are the real experts and the wonderfully helpful web-sites that can describe the intimate characteristics of nearly thirty grapes and make sure you know what to have with a rich lamb dish or a veal scallopini. Having venison tonight? A shiraz is clearly called for.
But what about regular folks who want to try different wines but are not sitting down for a duck dinner every night? What exactly goes with a peanut butter sandwich? Unless you can answer that question intelligently, you may be forever depriving yourself of the joys of sampling every imaginable grape variety. And, believe me, there is joy in finding out that you really like a good Brunello and can actually taste the difference between that and a merlot.
My research, and trust me it has been exhaustive, leads me to recommend a nice pinot grigio for that peanut butter sandwich, especially if there is jelly involved. You see, pInot grigio is a light, citrusy wine and the lemony aspects of the grape make the peanut butter tingle on your tastebuds. Oh, and it just sounds good: peanut butter and pinot grigio. Try saying it and see if your mouth does not water as you head to the wine cellar. Or fridge.
So take this as a good first lesson in wine pairing on your journey to enjoying all the varietals: if it sounds cool together, then put it together! Peanut Butter and pinot grigio. Zinfandel and zucchini. Chablis and cheese. Amarone and macaroni. It works.
Drinking wine is a pleasurable and healthy way to go through life, and one needs a reason to sample the vast varieties of grapes or else you will never get to them all. So another strategy to broaden your world might be to pair a junk food with a wine that sounds snooty. For example, when, I might ask, would you ever try a good Barbaresco, a medium bodied wine from the nebbiola grape, if you were not aware that it goes great with mozzarella sticks? Also, think of how impressed your friends at the local bar will be when you make that request of the barkeep.
Chicken wings will probably be next up at the bar, so before ordering a “white” or a chardonnay, consider the spiciness of the chicken wings and order up a nice gewurtztraminer. At this point the bartender may ask you to leave, so just tell him that you’ll settle for a beaujolais, if you have to.
Match a pinot noir with a pizza and you are in heaven. If it is a plain cheese pizza, that is. Add mushrooms and you need a Burgundy (I don’t have to tell you why. Or rather I can’t). A sausage pie and it’s a grenache. It does not get much snootier than that.
Some wine pairings are easy. Chianti: liver and fava beans (you should not have to ask why!). Barbera: anything you eat with a woman named Barbara. Riesling: veiner schnitzel, of course. Sangiovese when you want a Chianti but are out with someone who is anti-immigration. Sauvignon blanc is perfect on any summer afternoon and it only needs to be paired with a beach chair.
Choosing a wine at a fine restaurant is a little trickier, simply because you run the risk of seeming foolish to the waiter, or, God forbid, the sommelier. So here are a few simple rules: at an Italian restaurant, just order a barolo if money is no object, a Chianti Classico if you are being fiscally prudent, and a cabernet sauvignon if you can’t afford the restaurant in the first place.
At a Mexican restaurant, everyone else will be ordering margaritas or mojitos, so outclass them a bit and ask for their best bottle of rioja. It sounds great. I once ordered a Pouilly-Fuisse at a French restaurant and you would have thought I summered in Paris. At a steakhouse, I would ask for a hearty red blend, and then add “perhaps something with a little cabernet franc to soften it.” Talk about dazzling the crowd! Chinese restaurants will require some imagination, so that may be the time to have a scotch and wait for desert and then have any port they carry.
The true genius in wine pairing is in finding out for yourself just how much pleasure there can be in discovering a new varietal that you never even thought of before. So go ahead, have a glass of Champagne with a grilled cheese sandwich, or, better yet, make it a Prosecco. Have a syrah with a burger, or perhaps a petit sirah with a frankfurter. Try a tempranillo with a taco. Try. Try. Try. Anything. You will find, as I did, that wine is best enjoyed when it is fun. Making up your own pairing system is much more fun than listening to the experts tell you that you absolutely must have a St. Emilion Bordeaux with your stew.
And isn’t fun what wine, and life, is all about?