Problems with Wine – Food Pairing Dinners (WFPDs)
by Elliott R. Morss
Many of us enjoy wines and want to learn more about them. When we attend WFPDs, we have three objectives:
- Learn more about wines;
- Learn about how the wines being served pare with the foods being served;
- Socialize – discuss the wine and food pairings with other attendees.
Restaurants like to hold WFPDs at “slow” times in the season to bring in more people. For vintners, wholesale distributors and retail wine shops, WFPDs are used to increase wine sales. Unfortunately, these pairings are rarely done properly. The common mistakes are discussed below. My remedies follow.
1. The Single Vintner
Vintners travel around looking for opportunities to showcase their wines. A wine-food pairing is perfect for them. If they can find a restaurant partner, they will provide the wines at little or no cost for the event in hopes of making some sales. The problem with such WFPDs is that the customers – the people paying for the event – don’t learn much. Typically, the vintner will bring a couple of whites and maybe two or three reds. They are so different there is nothing to compare.
Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule. I recently attended a great WFPD with five wines provided by a Chilean vintner. Four of them were 100% from the Carmenere grape and one was Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes were grown in five different valleys. The Carmeneres tasted differently (one was a Rosé) and it was interesting to compare them with the Cab. But sadly, this was the exception to the rule. Most vintner-sponsored WFPDs feature uninteresting wines that are too different to compare.
2. Seriatim Pairings
Typically in wine-food pairings, you get one wine with one food, then a second wine with a second food, etc. This makes no sense. The customer wants to compare one wine with another. And the customer also wants to try different wines with different foods. Why are the wine-food pairings pre-determined? Why is a presentation sequence used that prevents the customer from making inter-wine and wine/food comparisons?
How Pairings Should Be Done – The Morss Principles
1. Limit Wines to Interesting Comparables
There is no point in comparing a light white with a heavy red. They are obviously different. The wines have to be similar enough to make comparisons interesting. For example, I believe interesting tastings can be made if all the wines are in one of four groups: Light Whites, Light Reds, Heavy Whites, or Heavy Reds.
Consider heavy reds as an example: Shirazes/Syrahs from Australia, California, Argentina and the Côtes du Rhône make for some interesting comparisons. Another interesting comparison – try the same grape at different price points. I recently did a wine tasting of Malbecs at prices ranging from $9 to $50. Three of the eight blind tasters preferred the $9 bottle. Interesting! Another heavy red comparison worth trying: Cabernet Sauvignon vs. Shiraz vs. Malbec vs. Merlot at the same price. See what people like and whether they can tell the difference.
2. Limit the Number of Wines to be Tasted
Likert and others have concluded that humans have difficulty comparing more than 5 items at any one time. For my own food-wine pairings, I normally taste 4 or 5 wines.
3. Food Selection
Foods should be selected to highlight how they taste with the different wines. The restaurant chef and distributor/vintner should work to develop some interesting comps, but the customers should be able to taste each wine with the different foods.
4. Presentation – Allow the Customers to Make Their Own Comparisons
As suggested above, the way food and wines are normally presented at wine-food pairings makes little sense. Why should the restaurant and wine providers decide what foods go with which wines? Customers want to compare the wines one against the others. They also want to taste the different wines against the different foods being offered. Let the restaurant and wine providers decide on the foods and the wines. But then let the customer to try all the wines with all the foods.
5. Acceptable Restaurant Compromises
The restaurant chef might argue that for logistical reasons, the foods have to be offered seriatim. OK. But then at least have all the wines available to taste with every course.
Conclusion: Wine – Food Pairing Customers – A Call To Arms!
It is time for wine – food pairing customers to assert their rights. They should insist that wines be close enough in taste to make comparisons interesting. Further, the foods served should highlight differences between the wines. Most importantly, all wines should be available throughout the dinner. That way, they can be tasted with all the courses served.