Why You Shouldn't Stress About Wine Pairing

I have a friend -- let’s call her Tina -- who was visiting the US from Lake Como.  She had never been to America and it seemed like almost everything -- supermarkets, EZ Pass, diners, maple syrup --  was a  source of amazement.  She was not so amazed, however, with the lasagne.  More often than not, the ingredients in an Italian-American lasagne are flat noodles, tomato sauce, ricotta, and meat.  Tina insisted that lasagne is made with bechamel, not ricotta, and couldn’t understand the substitution. “Why they not follow the recipe?” she said, in her thick Italian accent.  I, quite frankly, didn’t even know what bechamel was (turns out it is a white sauce of butter, flour and milk), let alone that it is definitional to lasagne, and I simply said that this is what lasagne is like in America.  

Using ricotta in lasagne instead of bechamel didn’t seem like a big deal to me, and I couldn’t understand why she was so hung up on this one ingredient. Our difference in perspectives was a cultural one.  In Europe, regional dishes, as well as styles of wine, have evolved over centuries.  In Tina’s mind, there was a very good reason why bechamel was chosen -- not ricotta!! -- and to simply disregard this choice was insulting.  

The “new world,” with its blend of cultures and cuisines, is more comfortable with experimentation and fusion.  Indeed, restaurants borrowing ideas from all over the world are a staple in every American city.  However, when it comes to wine, the search for a correct pairing continues unabated.  The pervasive idea that there is a right and a wrong answer to pairing is seated in insecurity about wine --  a series of rigid and complex rules is easier to follow than having the confidence to trust in your own taste.

Wine is a beverage.  It quenches thirst, washes down a meal, and enhances flavor.  To give some perspective, coffee is another beverage where its  increasing specificity is beginning to resemble the specificity of  wine.  There are now single-estate roasts, tasting notes and multiple methods of brewing.  However, even with all of this sophistication, the simple fact remains that coffee and a doughnut taste good together.  To criticize someone for drinking an Ecuadorian blend as opposed to an Indonesian single-estate with their cruller would be ridiculous.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t certain wine pairings that sing more than others, but it’s important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  With very few exceptions, wine will not ruin a meal, nor a meal ruin a wine.  Enjoyment should be the benchmark of whether a pairing is successful, not a set of arcane rules or the approval of a sommelier.  You can argue all you want about what to name lasagne with ricotta, I'm satisfied to call it delicious.