Debating Ten Food and Wine Pairings

In our new installment of Back-and-Forth,  and take on 10 simple dishes and pick the first pairing that comes to mind. Feel free to argue the point, disregard, write off, cheer, question...or just add your own honest opinion in the comments below! We welcome the discussion.

First, a few words of advice.

Brian McClintic: A Second-Hand Emotion

How about this? Every food and beverage pairing recommendation from now on comes with an asterisk: Sancerre and chèvre*. Sauternes and foie gras*. Equally effective with people: Ike and Tina*. Some marriages work, some are beyond counseling—some poor would-bes get left at the altar. Terrine, for instance, with a red berry compote doesn’t quite make it with Sauternes. Moreover, if that Sauternes is 1811 d’Yquem, I’m probably going to want to pair it with my mouth and...not anything else.

Context is king. And it extends beyond the table. Delicacies like caviar and foie carry with them certain social assumptions. As does green chile pozole. Take a look at your surroundings. Where are you? Who are you with? Currently, I’m on a train to SLO watching a dude eating Boulder potato chips and slamming whisky out of a mini-bar bottle. And it just seems very okay. If it were a bus, I’d recommend Fig Newtons and a handle of Beam.

You want to talk three Michelin stars? Let’s talk three Michelin stars. Two memorable domestic experiences I've had involved Eleven Madison and The Laundry. I was at the bar at EMP in the Wilson era. He knows it’s my first time. He is also very much a sommelier, and the hat was on as things started coming out. “I chose this because of this... I chose that because of that...” It was geek status for eight courses. And why not? I’m by myself at EMP, and Dusty’s on fire. At TFL, I’m with five dudes, and it’s part pleasure but mostly business. I told Eric, “I want these five bottles. Can you just make them work where appropriate and fill in the gaps because I’m about to talk about some stuff for four hours straight?” And while we are engaged in our little man world, Eric and Mikayla went full ninja and made it rain. Same social context, different situation—different experience. Both, amazing.

And in the end, what else is there but the experience? That is why we’re in this industry, isn’t it? To color those moments for people. If that’s the goal, then there are no rules in love and war, and every decision has one of these behind it: *. And who knows? You may end up with a baby named North West. That being said, Geoff and I are going to do our little song and dance. And someone will say, “Ooooo, I love that pairing!” or, “Ooooo, I don’t.” About that, I have this to say (as inevitably, all roads lead back to Tina): “What’s to to do with it?”

Geoff Kruth: Keep It Simple

If you haven't seen Into the Bottle yet, there's a scene on food and wine pairing. It opens with me saying, "A lot of food and wine pairing is BS; a lot of food and wine pairing is overthought.” Then—with some throw-you-under-the-bus editing—Brian says, “You want to say food and wine pairing is BS? Okay... But that's like saying peanut butter and jelly is BS.”

The question I was actually answering was whether or not I think a lot of food and wine pairing is overthought. I still maintain that it is. Too many ingredients or too much complexity? Just give me some Vermentino. That's not to say food and wine pairing isn't important; we are sommeliers after all. When you hit it just right, both the food and wine taste better. But when you overthink it, you tend to make things worse.

So what's my advice? Simple: eat a lot, drink a lot, and pay attention. Also, if you’re going to take risks, do it on your own dime.

Here's our Back-and-Forth on 10 simple dishes. Unlike the movie set, this website is my home turf, so I get the last word on each paring.


Rack of Lamb

As a proud Irish/Syrian, lamb is a family staple. So many different ways to go, but nothing quite tops Northern Rhône for versatility. You want to play it Provençal with lamb, or tackle Middle Eastern and Moroccan versions? My advice: traditional French Syrah the $%!# out of that table. Look for whole cluster producers for fattier preparations (that was my yearbook quote)...

It's hard to argue too vehemently against lamb and Syrah—but I actually prefer Northern Rhône Syrah with beef (think pepper). Admittedly, I lean old world, but as far as pairings go, rack of lamb is actually a better match with Aussie Shiraz: I'm talking about the kind that somms would never order (think mint jelly). Try it... But if you want to talk about ultimate pairing here, I'm going with Sangiovese. Look for a bottle with a little bit of age and a touch of ripeness, without excessive brett or VA. Pergole Torte anyone?

Grilled Bratwurst

Reissdorf Kölsch. Mic drop...

Yeah, that works. I wish we made more good Kölsch in the United States. Kent Lake makes a nice one here in Northern California, but all these hopsters try to make them taste like an IPA. Barf... Pours Grand Cru Alsace Gewürztraminer...hand drops to the side...lets mic slip out...walks away like Michael leaving Louis Restaurant after killing Sollozzo.

Green Chile Chicken Pozole

Horchata (I believe it’s a soft “h”). Who doesn’t want to coat some marrowy fire broth with a little cinnamon rice milk? Ethnic continuity maintained. Leave the Tagamet at home.

What a wimp... I understand the sugar helping to tame the spice, but are you playing designated driver? I've certainly never seen this Brian in real life. Line up the shot glasses for some Charanda: the distilled sugarcane from Michoacán where pozole is at its best. Ethnic continuity enhanced... You don't need Tagamet; that's what the avocado is for.

Burger and Fries

Root beer. Call it nostalgia, call it self-medicating, but something about that sweet and spicy, anise-tinged elixir washes it all away and says it’s okay to eat your feelings.

After horchata and root beer, I think I'm going diabetic. How about we revisit that Northern Rhône Syrah you tried to pair with the rack of lamb? Ahh... There it is.

Ham and Eggs

Watch this video. Right? I’m gonna want to dial down the atmospheres first thing in the morning, so traditional Champagne is out. Vouvray Brut is my go-to. Feel free to rock Hamm and Bublé while enjoying the eponymous pairing.

Assuming your sparkling Vouvray doesn't taste like a dry version of Martinelli's Apple Cider that's been left out for a week, I think I could get into this. Franciacorta Satèn could be safer these days. My first choice here: current vintage Bandol rosé. One of the few wines that actually works with eggs—and the ham just makes it better.

Uni Hand Roll

Here in Santa Barbara, eating uni hand rolls is literally a prerequisite for owning a home. I feel good about this one. Aged Muscadet. Urchin has all the flavor in the world—the one thing it lacks is acid. While most any high-acid white will do, Muscadet just has the next level of delicacy and brine, and with age it’s soft enough to let the uni win. And letting the uni win should honestly be everyone’s life goal.

It's a good thing the prerequisite doesn't work the other way around. Oysters and Muscadet is the most seamless pairing you can find, but with urchin you need more texture: Tête de Cuvée Champagne. Can't go grower here—need more richness, need more lusssury. If you bought enough real estate in Santa Barbara in the 70s and 80s, then let's crack 2003 Clos du Mesnil.

Dry-Aged Strip Steak

Dry-aged strip is to Bandol as George Clinton is to Bootsy Collins. Funk + Funk = Mothership Connection. 'Nuff said.

Strip steak has polish. More fat than tenderloin, but it's a high-rent cut. I'm good with either Napa Cab or classified Bordeaux. Malescot-St-Exupéry in a good vintage with 10 years of bottle age is my secret weapon. Save the Bandol for the cassoulet and the P-Funk for South Jersey BBQ.

Steamed Clams

Rosé with some tension. Corsican or seaside Provençal—keepin’ it shellfish community. Rosé is insanely versatile anyway, but these examples tend to have a texture and a saline finish that—much like Geoff Kruth’s hair—transcends.

I’ll see your rosé and raise you a Fino Sherry. We can order a bottle of each—and two helpings of clams. You can forgive me for this article, and I can forgive you for running out of gas after midnight in Compton.

Pulled Pork Sandwich

Three words... Beau. Jo. Lais. Had to throw it in here. Little carbonique for lift. Juicy vintage—’14. I want my sandwich to dominate, and Gamay is like the Sancho Panza of sidekicks—round and rational.

Since you're a former baseball player, I feel like some of your first pairings deserve a batting cage analogy. But you seem to be getting more on your game. Maybe you just needed some time to warm up? Solid single to left field here. If it’s picked ripe enough and has some SO2, I’ll give you a stand-up double. Looking for a home run? Old vine Zin or Carignan. Not too over the top—needs a touch of red fruit.

Assorted Cheese Plate

Aged Verdehlo, which also happens to be my instagram handle (@agedverdehlo). And in my bio it says, "Hint of sweetness to tame a blue. Enough oxidation and acid to match up with most any queso."

Not bad... But aged Verdehlo is more my go-to for crispy Carolina pig ears with teriyaki. We have a flight of cheese, so let's do a flight of wine: Crottin de Chavignol and a glass of one of those trendy Sancerre producers that leaves some RS, segue to Comté and Vin Jaune, finish with a slice of Roquefort and aged Sauternes. Class dismissed...