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db reader: Is food and wine pairing overrated?

The great economist John Maynard Keynes was once criticised for changing his mind. In reply he said, “When the facts change, l change my mind. What do you do?”

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This seems to be the case with the well-established practice of matching wine with food. There is specific evidence that the facts have changed, although there is a compelling question as to whether this was always the case and it was the consensus that chose to ignore it as an inconvenient truth. There is no doubt that wine pairing is interesting and a nice party piece, but the trouble with parties is the hangover the morning after.

The only apparent evidence against the practice, a statistically robust survey conducted by Encirc in 2014. In this, to the overall question “do you match food with wine”, only 22% endorsed the statement: “yes , l always try to match wine to the food l’m eating”. By contrast, 57% said: “l drink whatever wine l fancy with my food”. Consequently, around a fifth of consumers have some interest whereas over half don’t really give a damn.

There is other detailed evidence. In a paper Gerard Basset MS MW wrote for his wine MBA he researched three wine lists. The one with the pairing was not the preferred one, rather it was the list that described the wines themselves and their taste which was the winner. This has particular resonance as the occasion might be regarded as the ideal context for food pairing given the respondents were about to eat and so could be deemed to be at their most receptive to such suggestions. Yet food matching was still of only secondary interest.

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On an anecdotal note, the person in charge of the wine section in a branch of a well-respected supermarket, who has worked there for over 25 years, reported that there were hardly ever questions from customers about food pairing.

It was above all taste they were interested in, as with Basset’s research. Such observations have some validity as these supermarket staff talk to more consumers in a day than most people in the wine industry do in a lifetime. They are on the front line. Yet the marketing department of this store seldom asks for any feedback from them – a statement in itself.

Obviously the idea of food pairing is highly plausible and makes logical sense, particularly to those within the wine industry, although not all. Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW, editor-in-chief of The Wine Advocate, stated that they do not feel it is worthy of consideration. Yet many in the wine industry seem to be seduced by it as a major marketing tool, despite the apparent evidence to the contrary.

Beltrán Domecq is a wonderful champion of Sherry with a profound knowledge of his subject. But in his book Sherry Uncovered he sings the praises of the pairing of Palo Cortado with cuttlefish testicles. Given the latter are not even readily available in Jerez, such a choice seems too esoteric and inaccessible for most consumers.

It stands as a useful caution against the tendency of those in the wine world to be seduced by their own passion for wine to the exclusion of the more prosaic concerns of the consumer. The inconvenience is that it is the latter who pays – that’s why marketing is a necessary discipline, rather than an option.

Turning to a wider canvas, there appears to be a logical inconsistency in the wine pairing approach. It is to be hoped that, when wine matching is considered, most wines would be able to offer a reasonably broad scope of different dishes they could complement. The danger of individual recommendations is that they focus on one point of a wine’s horizon with the unforeseen consequence of leaving the other options in the dark. The prospect of a panorama can be replaced by a tightly blinkered view.

The overriding question with regards to wine pairing is what came first, the matching or its employment as a marketing tool? In the light of the evidence it seems to be a familiar act of seduction where the interest of the trade is deemed to have been transferred to the consumer, presumably by a process of osmosis. It is best to spend ones funds wisely and this means on the basis of evidence.

There may well be proof for the marketing efficacy of wine pairing. It is only to be hoped that it will declare itself. For without this, the effort devoted to wine pairing would be more constructively engaged in marketing that resonates with consumers, making it more likely to bring returns.

One Response to “db reader: Is food and wine pairing overrated?”

  1. Hugo Rose MW says:

    With the diversity of available wine choices in the UK and of the available food propositions, consumers may well conclude that ‘matching’ is too much like hard work. But just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean its not there. There are undoubted affinities and antagonisms between specific wine types and specific food types – oysters make an extreme example – and there is money at stake in getting it wrong. Wines that are not good friends with olive oil, for example, will tend to perform poorly in a market such as UK which has discovered its Italian side. Think about that, Bordeaux marketeers.

    There is of course a substantial market segment where food and wine pairing is close to irrelevant. The last 30 years has witnessed the rise and rise of wine-as-aperitif in the UK, a market that simply did not exist before 1980 (and barely exists today in many wine producing countries). For consumers in this segment the answer to the question “what does this wine go best with?” is “a good movie on TV”.

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