There is a movement afoot – or maybe, if we are lucky, we are at the tail end of the movement – where so-called “experts” in flavor and aromas tell you what to enjoy with what.
I am all in favor of suggestions and approaches based on experience and chemistries, but when it comes down to insisting that a third-party knows what your preferences are in your mouth and in your nose, then we need to take a longer look at whose body is doing the work.
There are, of course, some natural pairings of what to eat and drink together. The big items are steak, potatoes and a big red wine, like cabernet sauvignon; or a poached fresh salmon and a rosé or light pinot noir; or just about anything on the planet and champagne.
These pairings are starting points, and, in fact, none of them are absolute. You may like olives and Dr. Pepper – have at it. You pair Diet Coke and 15-year old Scotch? Not my speed, but it’s your glass.
There are, as you well know, arbiters of good taste in higher-end restaurants. They are known as sommeliers. And at a reasonable level, they can guide you through certain decisions. What a sommelier brings to your table is a knowledge of that particular restaurant’s offerings.
Just walking through the door, you have no reason to know the details of a restaurant’s wine list, the subtleties of the dining menu, nor the real skills and product offerings of the bar area. You are on the sommelier’s turf here and listening to his/her counsel can’t hurt. The advice may be spot-on and you can be in for a real treat.
But when a somm (short-term indicating false familiarity between all the parties) puts on airs of arrogance and speaking as if from atop the mountain, then I start mentally backing off our initial cordiality and look to strike out on my own with the lists and menu items.
The big rub, from my viewpoint, is that while the somm brings knowledge and experience to the table, what he/she does not bring are my taste and aroma preferences. In other words, what I like. They have no way of knowing what flavors work for me. And while certain wines contain the right amount of fruit, alcohol, tannins and acids, I may not have an appreciation of all those aspects working together, nor may I be particularly fond of the grapes involved.
We have learned something in the beginning of the 21st century unknown to previous generations: white wines may not be the best pairing with fish; red wines and big red meat may not make the room burst into song; and chocolate and heavy red wines are not a marriage necessarily made in heaven.
The “rules” have changed because cooking styles and ingredients have changed. Wines have changed. And we modern diners have the sensual confidence of our individual humanity, not to mention the desire to control our own bank accounts.
I bring all this up because finally someone has expressed rational ideas for an irrational act, which should actually just come naturally. Bianca Bosker’s new tome, "Cork Dork" (Penguin Random House LLC, New York, 2017, 329 pages), can assist in putting all of these fleeting life-decisions into reasonable context.
I don’t think Ms. Bosker will ever again fearlessly be able to set foot in a fine dining restaurant which offers sommelier service but those are the chances one takes when exposing one of life’s inequities.
The book is direct, no-nonsense, a playground of observations, and it’s an indicator as to how much pretense can be in the equation that made it necessary for her to state the situation and make the valid points she hammers home.
The volume reinforces two of my caveats about dining out and drinking wine:
1) Many restaurants, thanks to unreasonable and outlandish price mark-ups, are terrible places to experiment.
2) Some restaurant personnel take themselves and their opinions way too seriously.
We are back to the basic truth: put in a little research work and then drink what you like with what you like to eat. If it works for you, then it’s right….for you. ‘Nuff said.
Read Happy Hour here on www.myneworleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed, as well as stored, at www.wgso.com. Also, check out Last Call, Tim’s photo-feature every month in New Orleans Magazine. Be sure to watch "Appetite for Life," hosted by Tim every Thursday evening at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 5 p.m., on WLAE-TV, Channel 32 in New Orleans. Previously broadcast episodes are available for viewing at http://www.wlae.com/appetite-for-life/