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Wine Taboos--Time for a Change : Restrictions Pull Consumers From Pleasures of the Grape

October 30, 1986|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

What never ceases to amaze is the enormous number of old wine myths which serve to divert consumers away from the pleasures of the grape. No other beverage is plagued by as many taboos and restrictions as to how wine should be enjoyed and with which foods it should be served.

Currently, vintners seem to be falling all over themselves in the race to proclaim their wines as food wines, whereas other brands, even those of the same grape variety, are claimed to be unfit for table use. Citing a bottle as a food wine is an ignorant, even irresponsible, claim, in my opinion. There is no wine made anywhere that does not purport to go well with some food on one occasion or another. Indeed, I have never encountered a non-food wine.

Some concerned with matching wine and food contend a wine is not appropriate for food when it shows too high a percentage of alcohol or aggressive tannin, which masks flavor. They believe that a wine can be so monstrous in structure, style and taste that pairing with food would offend the palate and may even offer health risks. What utter nonsense, in my opinion. Powerfully structured, high-alcohol wines can find a host of good food pairings. All that is required is a bit of experimentation. A super hot Tex-Mex chili, for example, is an obvious choice.

Dilemma Underscored

A recently published wine and food guide, "Wine and Dining" by Robert Bunn and Tom Budny, underscores the right taste with the right wine dilemma. The authors offer general wine recommendations for a broad spectrum of equally general foods, including appetizers, beef, cheese, eggs, fish, lamb, pasta, pork, poultry, shellfish and veal. Wine selections are indicated best choice, second-best choice and good choice. No wineries have been selected, leaving the choice to the reader with the wise instruction to find out which wine goes best by trying all three.

For neophyte wine lovers, the book can only be a guide for the exploration of new and interesting flavors. In my opinion, it would be foolhardy for vintners or other wine authorities to bring forth wines and restrict their use to only a few isolated foods. Bunn and Budny do just that when they suggest that bass should be paired with Chardonnay first, Chenin Blanc second and Chablis third. I seriously doubt that wine producers would want their bottles to be limited to only bass and not paired with other kinds of fish. There is the same problem for catfish for which Riesling, rose and Chablis are suggested.

In my opinion, the problem with these suggestions is that they are confusing to the reader who buys, for instance, a California generic off-dry Chablis for a fresh bass dinner when a dry, crisp, tart French-styled Chablis is closer to the desired taste. The distinction between the two wines is so dramatically different that without more detailed wine information, the pairing can be a disaster.

Even More Acute

For the authors' recommendations of Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Burgundy for cioppino , the problem becomes even more acute. For a new-to-wine drinker, red wine with fish stew or any fish (something which I enjoy) may be unpleasant. It is an acquired taste requiring some trial and error tasting with white wine first, and then perhaps moving on to the red, or even to bone-dry sparkling wines.

It is easy to pick at Bunn and Budny's choices, but at least they are trying to make some sense out of the multitude of food and wine pairings. A good example is the recommendation of Barbera (presumably California), Chianti and Cabernet with spaghetti and tomato sauce. Not bad choices, in my opinion.

What most food and wine pairings proponents forget is that any wine can be partnered with any food and no authoritative permission is necessary to experiment. It is always a question of personal taste, acquired or otherwise, which makes the difference between enjoying reds with fish or whites with meat. Today, too much is made of pigeonhole pairings. Indeed, consumers are better advised to simply pick up a glass of wine and enjoy it with a variety of food combinations. It's best to rely on one's own palate to make the right choice.

Because of longstanding taboos, the grape is still saddled with the ancient recommendation of white wine with fish, red wines with meat, Champagne with appetizers, and roses if all else fails. If those narrow parameters are truly old hat, why climb into another set of yet more limiting taste confines? Foods and wines are fashioned for individual tastes and no amount of current pairing caveats can resolve the question of personal preference.

Pairings Vary by Region

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