Fishy thoughts on pairing wine and food

Imagine the following scenario: You’ve been asked to bring wine to a special dinner party.

After staring at countless unrecognizable labels at the wine shop you’re beyond frustration. Ignorance causes you to rely on the only two pieces of information at your disposal — price and marketing hype. “Ripe and powerful. A must-drink Cabernet. 92 points. $55.” “That must be good,” you assure yourself.

Chances are, it is. Unfortunately, the perfectly grilled $22/lb. line-caught salmon served at the dinner will leave it tasting like a copper penny — Cabernet renders the salmon as fishy as a sardine.

The moral of this story: Just because a wine is good doesn’t mean it will taste so with all foods. I’m not preaching the tired “red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat” standard here. There are too many exceptions to that rule. When pairing wine with food, the character of wine is just as, if not more, important than its color.

With more than 10,000 types of grapes being made into thousands of wines representing the full spectrum of colors each year, it’s impossible for even the most knowledgeable wine enthusiast to keep up. Enter “Wine That Loves,” a new venture from The Amazing Food Wine Company. The premise of this imaginative product is simple: The pleasure of pairing good food and wine should not be hard to come by. These wines are designed to relieve the consumer of all responsibility in pursuit of that pleasure. World-class sommelier Ralph Hersom does all the work for you. To accomplish this, the former wine director of Le Cirque (and its 50,000-bottle inventory) first identified the three most commonly consumed meals in the U.S.: chicken, pizza and pasta. After months of testing, Hersom settled on a perfect wine profile for each meal. He then assumed the role of mixologist, blending mostly obscure grapes from around the world into a wine that replicates the character of his template.

The company’s first three offerings were born: Wine That Loves Roasted Chicken, Wine That Loves Pizza and Wine That Loves Pasta in Tomato Sauce. There are no labels on the bottles, only the aforementioned name and a playful graphic of each food item in the center of a colorful thought bubble. “Most people are confused by all the information on wine labels. And those who do know a little about deciphering them get hung up on the varietal” (Chardonnay, Cabernet, Syrah, etc.), Hersom explains. “That can be extremely limiting — just because someone had a bad experience with one Syrah may mean they will never buy it for their barbecue, even though it would be perfect.”

Hersom hopes the concept will appeal to a wide range of consumers, including the 21- to 30-year-old demographic. “These wines can take them away from the critter brand (Yellow Tail, Little Penguin, etc.) fruit and sugar bombs.”

John Gillespie of Wine Opinions, a research firm that analyzes wine-drinking habits, says the jury is still out. “Unlike Gen-Xers, Millennials like to be marketed to, but they don’t like gimmicks for gimmicks’ sake and prefer to learn by experience and independent research, usually online,” he says.

Hersom explains, “These wines are perfect for small, family-owned restaurants, pizza and barbecue joints, where the clientele doesn’t know a lot about wine but are curious.”

Airlines, casinos, cruise ships and hotels are also among his marketing priorities. Daniel Freedman, a wine buyer for a national hotel chain, mostly agrees. “It seems like a very novel idea. If it really does what it claims, it should fare well among novice and value wine lovers. However, I do not see this selection selling even the most approachable sit-down restaurants, unless it is served as the ‘mule’ behind the bar.”

I tasted two “Wines That Love” with their intended culinary counterparts, grilled salmon and roasted chicken. Whites that best complement salmon have a good measure of acidity to cut through the creaminess of the fish, with a balance of fruit and mineral flavors. The first WTL offering fell short on both benchmarks. Alone it tasted too acidic, yet it became lethargic against the fish. Conversely, WTL Roasted Chicken really delivered. Ripe red fruit supported by restrained tannins and acidity deftly enhanced the mild flavors of the dish. Hersom’s vision is fully realized in this delicious pairing.

“Wines That Love” is training wheels for pairing wine and food. If fear of failure is preventing you from experimenting, give them a try. At $13 a bottle, falling down won’t hurt too much.

Derek LaVallee is vice president, U.S. Public Affairs Practice at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide and a certified wine buff. He can be reached at dereklavallee@hotmail.com.