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The Unpairables
Case Studies

 Wine & Spirits 2003

The Unpairables
With careful matchmaking, even vegetables can marry wine
Our parents had it relatively easy. "Red with red meat," they were told, "and white with fish." When in doubt, it was always safe to serve pink wine. "Rosés can be served with anything," Julia Child wrote in 1961.

The way I see it, bringing food and wine together is not unlike bringing friends together for dinner. In some sense, you can't go wrong. Just like people, food and wine belong together, and sometimes you get a match made in heaven. But every now and then, you end up with a real clunker. Even if you follow all the rules, some foods, like some people, are especially hard to match.

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Some foods ruin the taste of wine because they're too sour or salty or sweet. Other foods — such as green vegetables, eggs and herbs — present problems all their own. I spoke with Canlis sommelier Shayne Bjornholm to help me understand what's going on when these bad pairings happen and how to avoid them.

"A lot of the time," he says, "it's just a matter of getting the right wine. Anything with vinegar or a lot of citric acid — salsa, mayonnaise, hollandaise, tartar sauce, anything with lemon juice — is going to be hard on wine. But you can match it with a really crisp wine like a sauvignon blanc or a muscadet and it will work because these wines are high in acid, too, and they have a kind of 'citrusy' quality themselves."

Because of the vinegar in most dressings, salads can wreak havoc on wine, even very acid wines. And yet, in homes and restaurants all over America, people are drinking wine and eating salad, and they don't seem worried. No doubt this is partly because they aren't really thinking about how their wine tastes. But it's also because they're eating bread and butter, two of the most wine-friendly foods in the world. Think of seating an attractive female friend between two very quiet men at the dinner table. The mix is simply better than putting the two quiet guys side by side.

Even without dressing, some vegetables such as artichokes and asparagus are especially rough on wine. Many of the old food-and-wine guides recommend that these foods be avoided at meals featuring great wines. In a very extensive list of wine recommendations for specific foods, Raymond Oliver's 1969 classic, "La Cuisine," advises that only water be served with vegetable dishes. Most people would take a less draconian approach.

"With artichokes, you just have a lot of metallic and bitter stuff going on," says Bjornholm. "But it is possible to find wines that work. Interestingly, Greek wines go well with artichokes." But not retsina. "Retsina is only good for cleaning the kitchen floor."

Fennel and basil, or anything with a licorice flavor, is hard to match with wine, he says, suggesting the old rule that says, "If you're serving a complex food, you need a very simple wine," and vice-versa. "If a food has four or five things going on and the wine has four or five things, some of them are going to be missed and a few of them are likely to clash."

Eggs are another hard case, he says. "You need a very light white, like Bourgogne blanc or one of those chardonnays without oak; or add something to the eggs like cheese and then match the wine to the cheese. Cheese is not as wine-friendly as most people seem to think, either." So be careful, he cautions.

"Then again," he muses, as if recalling the words of Julia Child in 1961, "you can always serve rosé. Rosés are incredible; they go with everything."

Greg Atkinson is a Bainbridge Island writer and author of "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (Sasquatch Books, 1999). Paul Schmid is a Seattle Times news artist.

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