In my Oct. 23 column on millennials and wine, I noted that today’s younger drinkers have carried their glasses away from the dinner table and are enjoying their vino in other social settings. It’s part of how they are supposedly revolutionizing wine and the way we drink it. Marketing types have noticed that as well, and we can expect advertisements to show people downing wine in places and ways unaccustomed, such as in bowling alleys and (gasp) on the rocks. The message is that wine is an everyday drink to be consumed however we like, without regard to stuffy conventions or rules.
That ideal of “social drinking” — as though dinner is an antisocial activity — has sprouted an insurgent movement among wine writers who decry the idea of food-and-wine pairings. Such maxims as “white wine with fish, red wine with meat,” however outdated that one is, smack of rules. These writers want to liberate you from the bondage of snobbery; they denounce pairings as traps meant to enslave timid tipplers and take away their vinous freedom to drink as they choose. Why anyone other than a modern-day Carrie Nation would want to do that is never explained.
Wait a minute. Millennials aren’t the first generation to drink wine away from the table. The cook’s adage that wine for the sauce should be good enough to drink has an internal logic to it: There might be half or more of the bottle left for the cook to sip as the sauce bubbles away. Who hasn’t enjoyed a glass or two at a reception? Or watched a beautiful sunset with a glass of rosé in hand? And remember all those 1980s wine-and-cheese parties? Those were social occasions.
The diatribe against food-and-wine pairings really gets my nonsense alarm sounding full blast. It’s a counterclaim to the mantra that wine is food and is meant to be consumed with food. That, in turn, was a reaction against the idea that wine can be judged in isolation and given point scores that rank one wine’s superiority over another. Winemakers disappointed with their scores cried foul. Wine, they argued, was meant to be enjoyed over the course of a dinner, not robbed of its context and evaluated with a simple swirl, sniff and spit.
Even if the general wine-drinking public is downing more wine away from the table, it is still drinking wine with dinner. Who doesn’t consider the menu when choosing a dinner wine? There are no rules; you are free to drink whatever you like with whatever you’re eating. But guidelines such as matching a tannic red with steak, a crisp, acidic white with briny shellfish or a slightly sweet wine with hot, spicy food can enhance your meal. A muscadet might be perfect with raw shellfish, while an oaky chardonnay would seem clumsy. Put those wines with chicken in a cream sauce, and the muscadet might disappear on your palate while the chardonnay shines. That’s why opting for the wine pairings on a restaurant tasting menu can be so much fun. There’s a kaleidoscope of possibility.
The anarchic democratization of wine, this idea that anything goes and everything is right, devalues wine by stripping it of its mystery. If nothing matters, why bother exploring different wines, their regions, their styles?
These liberators would make wine nothing but a drink. It’s that, yet so much more.