The Sommelier as Shaman

Is there a real art to matching food and wine, or is the whole practice of finding the perfect “pairing” so much hokum?

After making the ultimate damaging confession about his own taste in food and wine combinations (“I once loved pizza with Asti Spumante”), Matt Kramer writes in The New York Sun, “As best as I know, I am alone among my winewriting colleagues in my belief that this business about ‘marrying’—which is the preferred term—the just-so wine with the just-right dish is just so much eyewash.”

Kramer, the author of six books on wine, compares the idea of divining the perfect pairing to something akin to mentalism:

In the magic business, especially in the field of mentalism or mind-reading, this is known as “working strong.” The air of authority is everything.

For instance, if you said to me, “I’m serving Vietnamese spring rolls tonight. What’s the best wine for this dish?” you’d be disappointed—dismayed even—if I told you to serve a chardonnay. After all, you already know about chardonnay. Anybody could choose that.

So instead, I rummage around for something that you’ve probably never heard of or tasted. So I suggest—nay, insist—that grüner veltliner is the ideal dry white wine for Vietnamese spring rolls. Does the pairing work? Sure it does. So too does dry riesling, arneis, pinot grigio, and about two dozen other dry white wines.

But you’re impressed. Who knew from grüner veltliner? You look at me with respect. I’m a mentalist of the menu, a priest of the palate, a shaman of the senses. You feel the need to return for my services. In short, I’m golden.

The critique is a devastating one, especially considering the proliferation of wine and food pairing dinners, tastings, and classes in the gastrosphere.

What do you think of this debunking of pairings? Does Kramer’s argument have legs, or do you smell merde? Sorry for the punaliciousness.