The conventional wisdom holds that wine and food are a match made in heaven — wine was food in many cultures in the past and still is in some places.
We would call food and wine complements in economics terminology. Products that are complements tend to be purchased together. Beer and pizza. Hot dogs and mustard. Burgers and fries. Get consumers to buy more of one and the sales of the complement will follow.
Problems with the Conventional Wisdom
There are always problems with the conventional wisdom, of course, and it is true that most food is eaten without wine (the US wine-drinking population is relatively small) and much (most?) wine is imbibed away from the dining table. But the logic of pairing food and wine still holds along with the potential to exploit the complement relationship to broaden the wine drinker base.
Yet, apart from those supermarket wine displays throughout the store and restaurant wine pairing suggestions, I wonder how much effort has gone into exploiting the food/wine link? Certainly there are some worthy efforts — popular magazines like Wine Spectator and Food & Wine routinely feature chefs and restaurants as well as winemakers and wineries. Sometimes there are recipes and wine pairing suggestions. Wine selling food. Food selling wine.
But there are obvious missed opportunities. How many cable food programs bring wine into the frame, for example? Last year I complained bitterly that Stanley Tucci’s CNN series on food in Italy was ignoring the obvious connection with wine! The preview episodes of the second season suggest that this situation has improved, but it is only a small victory.
Food needs to be treated as a key lever in developing a sustainable wine culture in the U.S. Regular wine drinkers are a small group, but everyone eats food. Most people love food. Some people (you know who you are) think about little else. Wine needs to find ways to insinuate itself more fully into that dynamic. Herewith two interesting approaches.
The Italian Dinner
Sue and I were invited to a dinner at Assaggio Ristorante in Seattle organized around the theme “From Italy to Your Table” as part of the Italian Denominations of Origin 2022 U.S. tour. Most of the usual suspects of the Seattle wine scene were in attendance and, although wine wasn’t the main attraction, a really useful food-wine connections was made.
Anyone who is interested in the wines of Italy soon comes to appreciate the many protected designations — DOC, DOCG — that define the national wine treasury (and also the often-exciting IGT wines that sprout up in the gaps that the DOC structure creates). Well, the gist of the dinner is that there is a world of food products in Italy with similar protected status and that pairing the food and the wine is a way to explore and understand Italy’s complex culinary world.
Thus, for example, a spaghetti al pomodoro with Pasta di Gragnano IGP and San Marzano DOP tomatoes was paired with a Chianti Classico DOCG wine. And a rather spectacular risotto al tartufo highlighting carnaroli rice IGP and Pecorino Romano DOP (plus black truffle, of course) paired with a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC.
Like its neighbor France, Italy has made a point of recognizing its many special foods. Do you think there are a lot of DOC, DOCG, and IGT wine designations? Trust me, there are many more PDO and PGI food products. Sue started a list that ran from various sorts of meats and cheeses (of course) to garlic, olives, saffron, olive oil, vinegar, oranges, asparagus, basil, bergamot, turnip, artichoke, capers, chestnuts, cherries, spring onions, mussels, dry beans, flour, farro, hazelnut, figs, licorice, apples, aubergine, plums, breads, pistachios, and tomatoes before she gave up and poured herself a glass of wine.
The dinner was very successful — thanks so much to the chefs and the great service staff at Assaggio — but it wasn’t just that the food was good and the wines were good and pairings were tasty. It was also that the idea made sense. A room full of wine professionals was coaxed into thinking more seriously about their food using the familiar vocabulary of designated origin.
The next step is to switch things around and help foodies (and there are millions of them) translate their passion more directly to wine!
Wine and cheese are an obvious pairing — one local supermarket has located the cheese counter directly opposite the wine wall. Wine should sell cheese. Cheese should sell wine. Both offer a world of interesting choices. The combinations are almost endless. But curious consumers might need a little help get started.
This is what the people at curdbox and The Italian Selection have done with their curated wine and cheese offerings. curdbox offers monthly subscription shipments of cheeses and associated products to introduce consumers to different elements of the world of cheese (the September box features cheese selected in consultation with Food Network celebrity Justin Warner). Each $49.95 box contains
• 3 artisan cheeses
• 3 specialty food pairings
• Pairing info card with wine suggestions
• In-depth blog post
• Themed Spotify playlist
• Curdcast podcast
Cheese subscribers can add wine to the mix, which is where The Italian Selection comes in. Add wine to the subscription and The Italian Selection will send two bottles of Italian DOC or DOCG wine chosen to pair with the cheese selection.
We received the July 2022 curdbox, organized around the theme “Born in the USA.” Our box included
- Hoop Cheese by Striplings General Store
- Grand Cru Surchoix by Roth Cheeses
- San Geronimo by Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.
and The Pairings
- Speck Americano by La Quercia
- Michigan Blueberry Preserves by Brownwood Farms
- Everything Goes Nuts by Bobby-Sue’s Nuts
Here is a List of past curdbox seelections.
I was impressed with the thought that went into the wine pairings. We received a white wine (Cantine Terre Stregate “Trama” Falanghina from Campania) and a red (Quartomoro di Sardegna “Òrriu” Cannonau di Sardegna). I asked the folks at The Italian Selection why they picked these particular wines and received a detailed reply.
The wines have the general characteristics that pair well with wine (no hard tannins, for example, good acidity) and also particular attributes of note. The floral notes of the Falanghina were cited as adding a feature to the pairing, for example, and the fruit of the Cannonau could play the role of fruit usually included on a cheese tray, too.
So what did our test crew think? We liked the cheeses quite a lot and enjoyed tasting new and different varieties. If the point of curdbox is to nudge subscribers to think outside the box a bit, we think it works.
We liked the wines, too, and enjoyed the pairings. The Falanghina was an immediate hit with everyone and changed with each bite of cheese. The Cannonau took a while to show the fruit we were looking for, but it came around eventually. The Falanghina was the discovery for us, however, and demonstrated clearly how curdbox subscribers might come for the cheese and stay for the wine.
Many thanks to curdbox, The Italian Selection, and our friends at the Italian Trade Agency for their help making this column possible.