On Wine: With or without food?
Posted: 04/21/2011 01:13:51 PM PDT
Updated: 04/21/2011 01:13:51 PM PDT
The California wine industry, taking its cue from European wine culture, long has preached the pleasures of lingering over a meal with a bottle of wine. Entire books have been written about pairing wine with the appropriate foods. I once heard Julia Child declare to a wine gathering that "any meal without wine, with the possible exception of breakfast, is uncivilized."
But wait. A funny thing happened on our way to becoming the world's largest wine-consuming nation. American wine lovers don't necessarily see wine as something to be drunk with food. Recent research shows that nearly 60 percent of the wine consumed by avid U.S. wine drinkers does not accompany a meal. About one-quarter of the wine they drink is consumed on its own, in situations where food of any kind is a no-show. One-third of the wine is consumed with snacks or appetizers, or while the consumer is preparing a meal.
"The industry spends so much time on wine and food pairing," says Christian Miller, research director of Wine Opinions, the California-based market-research firm that conducted the study, "and the implication is that the public" doesn't care that much.
Rather, Miller says, Americans are "developing a notion of wine as a drink." More than half the respondents report drinking wine at casual non-meal get-togethers at home. "That's a wine occasion, not a food occasion," Miller says.
Even though this applies to wine drinkers of all ages, he adds, so-called millennials "are leading the charge." Three-quarters of this group born after 1980 say they "kick back over a bottle of wine" with their friends.
Some other surprising findings were in the Wine Opinions research. When I think of wines that are drunk on their own, as an aperitif or with appetizers -- wines that are called "sippers" in my house -- I generally think of lighter whites or maybe sparkling wines. But a majority of high-frequency wine drinkers (defined as drinking wine daily or several times a week) in the survey do not classify certain types of wines as stand-alone wines and other types as wines that should be consumed with food.
In fact, dry red wine, the leading type of wine for all occasions, is also the leading category of wine consumed without food. It was followed distantly by dry white wine, then by semisweet, off-dry or sparkling wines. "The notion that wine without food should be lighter or white," Miller says, doesn't hold up anymore. Nearly half of respondents reported drinking dry red wines without food weekly or even more often, Miller says.
My first reaction to the news that so much wine is consumed without food -- or, at least, without a meal -- was to wonder whether this might explain why so many wines these days are soft, plush and low in acid. I find acidity to be essential when I drink wine with a meal, because that acidity cuts through the food and leaves you ready for more. But without food, a high-acid wine, whether red or white, can be less attractive and downright puckery to some drinkers. Where red wines are concerned, a firm tannic structure helps the wine to pair well with hearty meat dishes. But mouth-drying tannins aren't so great when you're sipping wine as a cocktail.
Although the Wine Opinions survey didn't delve into the question, Miller notes that "there's been this obsession with smoothing out tannins" in red wine. He adds, "Smoothness might be something that has paved the way for more dry reds without food."
Wine still finds its place at the table, though. "It's still the leader in what you drink with a proper meal," Miller says, "but obviously it's extended far beyond that."
While I was a little dismayed when I first heard about this research -- all those columns about pairing wine with food apparently are falling on deaf ears -- I've come to believe that it's actually a sign that the United States is developing its own wine culture. And that's a good thing.
As for me, I'll continue to drink most of my wine with meals -- although, in truth, I don't really need a reason to drink a glass of good wine.