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food wine

Life is the variety of spice

[dry goods at la boqueria]Just as politicians and propagandists twist perfectly serviceable, harmless words into mnemonic abbreviations for whatever and whoever they oppose, the completely understandable phrase “food wine” has been pummeled into a state of mockery by concentration-loving critics. As part of my little series on the Olympics and wine, I’d like to reclaim the phrase…or at least, its intent.

I don’t wish to defend all the practices that, allegedly, led to the term’s downfall. As with “elegance,” there is a difference between the intended meaning of the term and its employment as an excuse for overcropping, too-early harvesting, or overly-timid winemaking. Of course, some wines are elegant, and some wines are better with food than without, and the modern redefinition of both terms (by critics and their acolytes) into synonyms for “bad wine” is as unfortunate as it is wrong-headed. It’s oenological demagoguery.

There exists a large segment of the wine-drinking population who believe not just that wine can be a cocktail, but that it must be a cocktail. That is to say, a wine has achieved its ultimate destiny when it can be sipped, pleasurably, in isolation, and any wine that cannot live up to this standard is somehow lessened.

Cocktail-supplanting is indeed one of the many possible functions of wine. But to insist on its primacy, dismissing all other uses as subordinate, is an exceedingly narrow view. It’s a little like claiming that the important function for mustard is to top a hot dog.

After all, there’s more than one kind of mustard. The fluorescent yellow glop that American children squeeze on their tubes of mystery meat would ruin a carefully-constructed French sauce that calls for a finishing swirl of Dijon. Likewise, those same children probably wouldn’t want a Swedish brown, or beer-infused whole-grain, or spicy English mustard on their hot dog. Mustards exist in both industrial/commercial and artisanal forms, and the latter come from a wide variety of source and ingredient variants, the better to tailor mustard to a wide variety of individual uses and tastes. No one who loves the condiment thinks that there’s one mustard to rule them all…a mustard that must perform at its peak in all situations, supplanting all others, or that there’s only one function for that ruling mustard. The same is true for aficionados of tea, of honey, of bread, of…well, I could go on for a long, long while.

Shaun White is the best at what he does. But at the Olympics, we don’t see him doing snowboard cross or the parallel slalom. It’s not that he’s not capable of competing, or even succeeding, at either, it’s that he’s unquestionably the king of the halfpipe. Part of the reason he’s so good is that he specializes in it, devoting the majority of his time and attention to that singular purpose. Other events have their own specialists and stars that are fashioned in the same way, and who one won’t find in the halfpipe competing against White, either.

Bode Miller doesn’t do aerials. He doesn’t do moguls. He doesn’t do the biathlon. And he doesn’t snowboard. Oh, he might give any of these activities a shot in his free time, but when it comes to demonstrating the pinnacle of his skills, you’ll find him on the steeps, competing in the Alpine disciplines. It’s what he does, and he’s among the best in the world. We don’t need or expect him to be good at anything else, and in fact to attempt to change sports would likely lessen his ability to perform at the highest level of Alpine skiing.

The same is true across the various Olympic disciplines. How many Nordic skiing events are there? With guns, without guns. Skating vs. classic. Sprints and marathons. Off the jumps and on the flats, or sometimes combining the two. Individual and team. And that’s just one small category of sport. Do Samuel Kamau Wanjiru and Usain Bolt compete against each other? No, and no one asks them to, nor thinks less of their abilities because they don’t do so. Is the standard of greatness for either somewhere in the middle…say, their ability to run a 1500 meter race? No.

Athletes specialize. It’s how they achieve greatness. Once in a great while, there’s a multidisciplinary success (e.g. Michael Phelps, though even he isn’t to be found on the archery field, much less paddling a kayak or atop a horse), but these are rarities. Usually, the 50 meter freestyle and the 200 meter butterfly stars are different people (and even Phelps doesn’t excel at the former). We don’t expect a sprinter to win the marathon, and we don’t expect a bobsledder to strap herself to a snowboard. And yet, many of us expect the wine in our glass to be judged first and foremost as a cocktail, no matter its intended form, function, or specialization. Why?

Wines can be specialists as well. They have different situational uses – a prosecco, a Madiran, and a liqueur tokay are rarely interchangeable, for example – and they have different qualities within those specializations. Sauvignon blanc and gewürztraminer do not go with the same foods. No, there’s no law against pretending otherwise, but there’s a measure of disrespect for the intent of the wine by insisting on their interchangeability. A high-acid, unoaked red from a region lush with tomato-based sauces is not intended as a sipping wine, it’s intended as a counterpoint to, and partner with, those sauces. No, there’s no rule that one can’t have a glass before or after dinner, but that glass is missing something of its purpose and intent.

We might be able to put Michael Phelps on skis and find that his innate athleticism would allow him to perform with some measure of skill. But he’ll likely never achieve what he can in the pool. And we can put a Taurasi in our cocktail glass, but it’s not likely to express everything it does with a slow braise of wild game. To insist otherwise is to insist that Phelps does, in fact, belong on a horse. And who wants to see that?