Delighted Life Wine: Walden and Other Natural Things

I was recently reading an article on millennials and how they’re not much into the whole food-wine-pairing mumbo jumbo. They generally prefer to drink their wine away from their food, or aren’t too concerned with how they go (or don’t go) together. I think the author, a millennial herself, is on to something and I can say I have seen this philosophy lived out in the lives of many close to me.

I’m not going to rush to call this error (though I lean in that direction). I will instead illustrate with an analogy that I thought up a few hours after having enjoyed a most congenial food-wine combination on a Sunday afternoon.

Ladies, think of a man of 6-7 ranking on a ten-point scale of physical attractiveness. Have someone in mind? Now you will admit that he is nice enough, but surely no one is thinking about tearing any clothes off on account of him. Skip to a new scene. Now you are at the wedding of a mutual friend and that same semi-handsome gentleman is a tuxedoed groomsman standing at the front of the church. There is a new sparkle about him and suddenly your thoughts are wandering to a less than ‘churchly’ place.

There is an undeniable synergy here. Ask yourself: What do you really want? Just men? Or, men in tuxedos? Or worse, men dressed in neon orange pants, Zach Morris high tops, and their grandpa’s sweater? Wine, wine paired well, or disaster?

Many wines, especially those coming from cultures in which wine and food are nearly an inseparable match (think France and Italy), are designed to go with food. They are made that way. Unless you enjoy the sensation of cottonmouth, who could stand to drink too much of an inexpensive Chianti on its own? But throw it with that spicy sausage lasagna and now we have easy Tuesday night magic.

I don’t always like it, but I insist on maintaining a populist view on wine. Though I choose to follow some rules, I don’t believe in a central board of wine snob dictators. You want a red wine to pair with your sushi? Internally I am going to judge you, but I am also going to try to help you get what you want in a wine. But cleanse your palate of that thought and I am going to talk about a pairing that actually works.

The wine is called Walden and it is an inexpensive red blend of Grenache and Carignan (happens to be one of my fave grapes) from Roussillon. I was looking specifically for a medium-to-full-bodied French red to pair with a beef roast seasoned with herbs de Provence and served with a mélange of root vegetables. If I could grab those herby notes from the roast, especially the lavender, all the better. Walden promised a good pairing.

As I was finishing the roast, I poured a sip of the wine to taste. From the first sniff, Walden was energetic and eager to please. A sip gave me dark fruit, spice, nice velvety texture, and a smile-producing finish. This wine and my roast were going to be BFFs for sure.

When a wine and a food are a proper match you can do the following (excuse the graphic detail): put a bite of food in your mouth and chew it up just a bit. Then take a sip of wine and let them cohabitate the space of your mouth. Suddenly you cannot help but marvel that two are better than one. You swallow and the delightful oneness stays with you. There is no competition, no offensive bitterness, no having to alternate back and forth between bite, chew, swallow, sip water, sip wine, sip water, take bite, ad infinitum.

Wine pairing is as much an art as a skill and it isn’t easy to master (I certainly haven’t). But let’s not throw it out all together as bourgeois and irrelevant. Practice, play with it, learn about it—only delight awaits, and that is reason enough.

Delighted Life Wine: Homeless French

As my coworker and I meandered through the aisles of French wine, we recited the regions as we passed them—that shelf, Rhône, that stretch of bottles, white Burgundy, and then, I said, there is this. I stopped in front of a section where no small number of bottles were assembled, standing up proud, if awkwardly. He finished my thought as he turned and placed his hand on the neck of a bottle.

“The misfits.”

These were the French wines with no big name to sell themselves nor prestigious appellation that would provide the protection of belonging. These were the loners, independents, and sole representatives. Among their mismatched group were the besmirched varietals and the underappreciated (or maybe just under-marketed) regions. Malbec from Cahors, Tannat from Madiran, and Cab Franc-heavy blends. Who cares about the little 100% Carignan Corbieres when there’s Napa Cab to be cocktailed? Why the herby, awkward, hard-to-get-to-know Languedoc when we’ve got juicy, boozy, tongue-down-your-throat Zin?

Quite honestly I don’t bring many customers here because the general population of wine buyers are looking for ‘friends’ they already know and like—not new foreigners that will take some initial patience, tolerance, and a little getting used to.

I am enchanted by these wines. While they may not be the tastiest, juiciest party wines in the shop, they are excellent representations of the lands from which they hail. They are wines of high quality, though initially you might not find them the best tasting wines.

But don’t great quality and great taste naturally go together?

The answer to that question lets you in on a little secret about wine: not necessarily. As American consumers we learned early that if we were going to shell out the bills, we were going to get it our way. Wine, especially Old World wine, doesn’t obey the Burger King rule.

Getting one’s head around this notion becomes a lot easier when we think about wine’s first purpose and commitment. You might be surprised by this, but the primary function of wine is not to get you drunk, nor to delight your individual palate. These may be side benefits, but the goal and function of wine is to express the land in which it is grown—its terroir (if you want the fancy technical term).

I think we often make similar ‘me-centered’ mistakes in judging fine art. Everything gets the ‘mantle test,’ as I will call it. “Sure, this may be a million dollar Picasso, but I don’t think I’d want it in my living room.” This may be hard to believe, but Picasso wasn’t painting for your living room any more than a wine maker with integrity is producing a wine for your palate (though many do because, after all, tasty wine sells). Picasso produced art that expressed himself, the time period in which he painted, and the various art movements operating during his career. Your taste and your living room were of little concern.

And so it is with some of these wines. Their purpose is to express their little corner of the world. For example, the Ermitage du Pic St. Loup from southernmost France that I brought home was a surprising mix of green peppercorns and herbes de Provence (maybe minus the lavender). Odd, right? Not the flavors you want swirling around in your wineglass? I can’t blame you. But while this wine was not immediately the epitome of delishery, I couldn’t help being intrigued by it. As I drank a bit more of it and paired it with some food, I actually came to appreciate and even like it very much.

Kind of like that foreign exchange student that ended up becoming one of your best friends. Sure they dressed a little funny and spoke with an accent and needed special explanation on idioms and jokes, but it wasn’t long and you realized that this sojourner was really a special individual. Suddenly everyone who was just like you and represented all the things you knew and liked weren’t quite as exciting anymore.

There are a lot of these semi-obscure ‘homeless’ wines that are affordable, food friendly, unsung gems. Don’t be afraid to try funky wines you’ve never heard of. Choose a varietal or a region that is totally unknown to you and then work on getting to know it. Do a little research, make a dish that will pair well, and then sit down and get to know a new friend.