If the idea of "pairing" wine with food seems hopelessly complicated, pointless or just plain snobby, Marla Crouse Guarino would like to point out two things:
Cookies and milk.
"That's an amazing pairing," said Guarino, co-owner of Shango Bistro, in University Heights. "When you have a chocolate chip cookie, you just want that milk. It's the same way with wine."
Unconsciously, people are already pairing food and wine, said Michael DePue, a certified sommelier and buyer for Michael Skurnik Wines. "Do you like drinking beer with cookies?" said DePue. "Certain beverages go with certain foods. Some things just taste better together, and these things are learned over time."
The days of white for fish and red for meat are "pretty far behind us," Guarino said. "There's so much more you can do with it."
Take a few minutes to ask knowledgeable wine sellers or restaurant staff for help, and start your wine education, Guarino said.
"You want to have fun when you eat, when you go out to a restaurant or throw a dinner party," she said. "Wine and food pairing is trying to get the best experience." Done right, she said, it makes both food and wine taste better.
"The thing that people get a little worked up about wine, they think they don't know what they're tasting, and they get intimidated," said Guarino. "This is costing a lot of money, and the names are all being thrown around."
Information is the antidote to intimidation.
Start with the basics: Over time, some pairings have become classics, like Cabernet Sauvignon with steak, Bordeaux with lamb, champagne with oysters and fine port with dark chocolate. Others have become new standards: Zinfandel with Asian stir fries, Chardonnay with grilled chicken, Sauvignon Blanc with grilled fish.
The next time you're at an upscale restaurant, "don't pretend you know anything," DePue suggested. "Tell them what your budget is, tell them what you're ordering and tell them what you like." An experienced wine pairer can sort through the possibilities and make some suggestions.
Tasty vintages do not have to be expensive, DePue noted, so don't think you have to splurge to try a pairing. "A true wine professional won't be elitist or judge you," he said. "I love wines at all price points from around the world."
Or, for the most flexibility, consider pairing wines at home. That way, you can research wines at your leisure and sort through the possibilities available in local wine emporiums. It's an education that you build up over time, as each wine you taste carefully leaves its sense memory behind, said Guarino.
Learning about wine is a process of building up a library of those taste memories in your head, she said, so you can make decisions in the moment.
>The right words
Until you get to that point, Web sites like a foodandwinepairing.org can help with suggestions. DePue uses a 34-page booklet called Essential Wine Tasting Guide (essentialwinetastingguide.com, $11). It helps tasters find words for the subtle elements they're noticing and specific flavor notes that can help generate suggestions for food pairings.
When you turn to the description of zinfandel, for instance, here's the list of flavors you could expect to find, and use as connections to dishes: Bay leaf, black currant, black olive, black pepper, cola, cranberry. "The average person puts their nose in a glass of wine, they're not going to get these descriptors," DePue said.
Another point to consider is that you're looking to match flavor with flavor, so you have to consider the overall flavor profiles of a dish, not just the central protein. Chicken goes well with a bunch of different types of wines, depending on its preparation.
So if you're serving roast chicken with lemon-butter sauce, DePue said, look to pair up with the lemon, say with a Chardonnay. Chicken, fried in a panko crust with Thai dipping sauce? Riesling, Gewurztraminer, possibly Pinot Grigio, cool against the spice in the sauce.
When you're trying to pair wine with food, looking for similar flavors is only one way to go, said Guarino. Other strategies include looking for a contrasting flavor, the same way that cooks will use a squirt of fresh lime to balance richness in a sauce. A third strategy is using geography -- German wines with German food, for instance; wiener schnitzel with a Riesling or Austrian Gruner Veltliner.
>It's catching on
As you get comfortable with the idea of pairing, there are elements besides taste that can become part of your decisions, DePue said. Tannins are compounds that give you that puckery feeling after a dry red wine; they tend to magnify spiciness, so aren't great with spicy dishes.
Then there's the wine's "body," its thickness, which affects the way it feels in your mouth.
If you scoff that such a subtle thing would be noticeable, DePue returns to the milk comparison. If you're used to drinking skim milk, or putting it in your coffee, you will probably notice quickly if 2 percent milk is substituted, and even more so for whole milk. That's body: the way it feels on your tongue. Lighter-bodied wines generally play better with delicately seasoned food, like poached skate.
With rising interest in wine pairing, the concept has traveled from high-end restaurants and cozy dinner parties to parish fundraising dinners. Such events give lots of people a chance to try four or five wines at a time, sticking up their mental taste libraries.
Barbara Blackburn, an English teacher, has been part of the committee organizing a wine tasting dinner for SS. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Williamsville.
The committee settled on a menu, then got help from Georgetown Liquors' Steve Glamuzina in selecting supporting wines. At a testing dinner, "Everyone ate the mussels, even those who don't like mussels," Blackburn said, so the right wine seemed to make a difference.
The final menu matches sparkling Cristalino Cava (Italy) to the feta and grapes over mixed greens; Aires de Arosa Albarino (Spain) to mussels with lemon and garlic; Ercavio Tempranillo Roble (Spain) with the beef with walnut bleu cheese butter, plus two other courses. (Seats are available for the event, at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 26; $40.)
Wine has gotten good publicity lately, with the New York Times reporting a study that suggested drinking wine delays Alzheimer's, Blackburn said. "One to 28 glasses a week," she said. "I'll drink to that."
Some people will never get into pairing, sticking to drinking whatever's in front of them, Blackburn said. "I suspect those are the same people who don't taste the herbs and spices that went into the food. Who don't detect the rosemary or the basil."
To each his own, she said. "I'm not as sophisticated as some people on this. Sometimes I just want a dry white or a dry red," said Blackburn. "But I think I appreciate it a lot more if I pair it."