One of the pleasures of running a bricks-and-mortar shop is the interaction with customers who are, for the most part, pleasant, engaged and enthusiastic about wine. You’re probably expecting a sardonic punchline, but no, it’s true.
These interactions can begin in many ways, but it’s increasingly common for them to be about matching a wine with what they’re going to eat. I hesitate to use the term “wine pairing”, not because I object to the activity, but to preserve the conventional meaning of the concept.
Unlike a sommelier, supported by a chef and a professional kitchen, wine shops don’t have the luxury of tasting the finished dish. The customer might say: “I need a wine to go with curry.” OK, but is that a Goan fish curry, a vegan dhal, or a spicy lamb bhuna from the supermarket over the road?
Faced with this level of vagueness, it’s almost impossible to execute anything close to a sommelier-style wine pairing. With the possibility that the customer doesn’t know exactly what they’re eating, because a friend is doing the cooking, the challenge can be multiplied.
The problem isn’t always solved by having more information. In fact, on the rare occasion when the customer has the precise menu, it can be worse because you have the theory but not the execution of the dish, and expectations are high for the perfect match.
This is also true when the boat is being pushed out, such as for big birthdays or meeting the parents. Then the pressure to get things right can be intense, even though there is almost no real chance of it being achieved. I’m yet to serve anyone who had the faintest idea about what their new partner’s parents like to drink normally.
These days I’m comfortable with this more vague state of affairs, partly because I’m unfashionably centrist, so I find zealots at both ends of a spectrum alarming. That includes the people who think everything goes with everything (it doesn’t) and those who are overly worried about the level of tamarind in a dish and whether a Mosel Riesling is really up to it over something from Rheingau. I find both camps a bit much and vaguely suspicious, and I expect many keen wine drinkers do too.
No time of the year requires a more grounded approach than Christmas. Indies across the land will be recommending Pinot Noir and Grenache for turkey, Riesling for ham and claret for beef, as is customary. Having said that, I’ve never seen anything remotely like a true wine pairing actually occur at a Christmas dinner, although I do rather like the idea of pairing wine to a family row.
Perhaps it makes more sense for us to look not at the menu, but at the desire to match wine as an evocation of a mood or expression of a sensibility. I suspect that, for many customers, asking for a wine that goes with lamb stew is really just a more concrete way to ask for a big, savoury red, rather than a desire to locate the precise biochemical triggers of olfactory ecstasy. If defending this vagueness leaves me more on the side of “matches well with red meats, pasta and cheeses” than the seven-course tasting menu with precise wine pairings, so be it.
Let’s be honest about the practicalities of matching food and wine in independent retail and the level on which most of our customers really engage with it.