I’ll admit to spending more time than it’s probably worth thinking about nuances in wine and food culture. For example, I ponder how obvious it is that most of us Americans act with righteous self confidence buying, ordering, and cooking the foodstuffs and ingredients we prefer. We’ll ask questions freely when shopping or ordering to make sure a dish or ingredient lines up with our palates’ preferences. Conversely, I am consumed by “knowledge gap” insecurities that loom large around restaurant wine lists and retail shelves. We tend to get embarrassed that we don’t know enough and fear asking the questions that might reveal these insufficiencies.
People I eat with know I think about wine a lot and regularly delegate the decision about the wine they will drink with dinner to me. How come this happens with wine but not food? Dinner companions don’t funnel all their food menus my way. They are confident enough to pick dishes and ask questions that help fill in blanks about preparation. Ordering food in a restaurant is as easy as brushing your teeth, but juxtaposed with the trauma of ordering wine it turns into one bookend of a cultural culinary divide.
We eat multiple times a day but wine is a minuscule piece of our diet. According to the Wine Market Council, the average American drank a bit over 11 litres of wine during the last twelve months. Compare that to the idea of “wine as food”, a steady piece of the European diet where there is an absence of anxiety ordering a glass of Cotes du Rhone, Muscadet, or Bandol with lunch or dinner. Continental Europeans, Brits, and Aussies more than double per capita US consumption. This idea of “wine as food” stems way back, something I was reminded of when I read this at CliffordAWright.com (a great resource, by the way, for Mediterranean food and wine culture):
Languedoc, the region to the west of Provence, shared many alimentary parallels with Provence, especially the prevalence of bread and wine in the diet. In his study of the peasants of Languedoc during the last third of the fifteenth century, the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie compared the diet of the farmworkers of Narbonne to the bourgeoisie of Beziers, using household accounts. The bourgeois family of Beziers, the Rocolles, consisted of a widow, her two daughters, and a female servant. The four of them consumed about two thousand liters of wine a year. Again, as in Provence, we see that wine was food. The Narbonne farmworkers drank even more, about 650 liters of red wine a year per person. The farm workers were not demanding, insisting only on money in the pocket, white bread on the table, and a glass of good wine.
That was 60X more wine than the average current day US consumer, and 180X the average US per person 1970 consumption rate. The frequency of consumption in the European diet demanded an uncomplicated approach to wine. Is there really any question whether the low rates of consumption and immersion are top differentiators between food confidence and wine phobia in the US?
I still wonder about how this US culinary divide perpetuates itself. One interesting question to ponder is how it came to be that restaurants distribute only one wine list per table. This point only surfaced last night sharing a few bottles of old wines with Jonathon Alsop, founder of the Boston Wine School. Jonathon is a pretty grounded guy, carrying tons of wine knowledge that he shares in a remarkably matter of fact, uncomplicated fashion. I never fail to spend even five minutes with Jonathon and not realize an hour later that I learned something new without ever having noticed being taught. I shared my interest in this concept of “food as wine” with Jonathan and will attempt to paraphrase his reaction as best as I can:
Think about this, why do restaurants continue to present only one wine list per table? Do they think only one person is capable of ordering wine? Is there one person who has more knowledge than anyone else at that table? Is there a ranking of knowledge that the restaurant expects all their guests to participate in at each table? Is everyone to pass the wine list to the oldest, wisest, whitest, richest, man to order their wine for them? It’s insanity!”
It’s a guess, but I presume this tradition started when great restaurants with classic cellars used hard cover bound books to showcase the hundreds of pages of inventory. You can still find something like this at Tour D’Argent, for example, where a small stand is placed next to your table to rest the twenty pound tome on. But with practically all of today’s restaurants producing a few pages of wine inventory on cheap printed paper, why not make sure everyone at the table can look at wine menus? Isn’t this akin to giving only the smartest math student in the class a math textbook because he knows more about math than the other students, and everyone else just gets history and literature textbooks without any hope of becoming more comfortable with mathematics?
The earliest evidence of wine making and drinking goes back to Neolithic times. National Geographic recalls Patrick McGovern’s research on ancient wine and throws a jab at the people and forces that complicated wine matters over the last 2,500 years:
Wine snobs might shudder at the thought, but the first wine-tasting may have occurred when Paleolithic humans slurped the juice of naturally fermented wild grapes from animal-skin pouches or crude wooden bowls. The idea of winemaking may have occurred to our alert and resourceful ancestors when they observed birds gorging themselves silly on fermented fruit and decided to see what the buzz was all about.
Serving wine and food at Per Se in New York City is anything but Neolithic and a far cry from animal skin wine vessels or crudely carved table adornments. Phoebe Damrosch was working her way through graduate school waiting tables at this pinnacle of New York eating establishments. She was forced to confront her total lack of wine knowledge by deferring to the sommelier. She eventually took some lessons from him which lead to a more useful romantic involvement than deep wine savvy. She simply cemented her crutch and reliance on him. Phoebe had no problem having her new beau constantly visiting her tables and stepping in with the right wine talk at just the right moment. She left the restaurant after 18 months, was still totally insecure about her wine knowledge, yet she became the go to person among her girlfriends for ordering wine in restaurants. After all, she must know something having worked at Per Se and dated the sommelier. Phoebe dreaded these moments and froze in front of wine lists and wine waiters, scared to reveal the gaps in her knowledge even though she had more exposure to wine than the average person. She wrote about how she overcame her own wine list phobia in a Food & Wine piece and shared this liberating vignette of a dinner out with friends:
“Do you like red wines or white wines?” He asked me slowly, with raised eyebrows and wide eyes, as if I were very young or dim-witted. And then it hit me. I had just been pegged as a Chardonnay-with-ice drinker. This would not do.
“Give me a minute,” I said, grabbing the list. I had ordered smoked fish and my friend a salad with vinaigrette, which meant the ideal pairing would be a high-acid, low-oak white. Scanning the whites, I happened to recognize a few of the producers—Marcel Deiss, Albert Boxler—and settled on J.J. Prüm Kabinett Riesling. When I got to the reds, one jumped out at me: the Movia Veliko Rosso, a biodynamic Slovenian wine that’s a blend of Merlot, Pinot Nero and Cabernet Sauvignon. We served Movia’s Ribolla at Per Se.
I ordered the Riesling and got the standard “excellent choice,” but when I ordered the Movia, the sommelier hesitated. “Have you had the Movia before?” he asked.
Having closely observed sommeliers in their natural habitat, I recognized his behavior. This unusual wine was the sommelier’s little pet. He wanted it to go to a good home and be appropriately adored.
When the Movia was poured, and I swirled and stuck my nose halfway into the glass, the sommelier asked, “Are you in the business?”
I guess there’s hope for all of us if we challenge ourselves and stir up enough courage to experience the liberating confidence from ordering wine you think you might like to drink.