You, like me, have probably come across a few people who pass as wine 'experts'. These are, to look at, unassuming types. The trencherman, rubicund, beaming, satiated, waistcoat popping, is visible; the wine buff, as often as not, is parson-pale, dressed off-the-peg, ascetic, and able to pass unnoticed. The trencherman will see to it that you are well fed; he will throw a few bottles of a tolerable claret into the fray and snuffle with delight. But the wine buff as host is parsimonious in the extreme: food serves only to mark the transition from one taste to another.
I have a friend of long standing, for instance, who keeps an excellent cellar and enjoys it with his friends. He simply enjoys wine and makes no particular fuss about it. He does, however, like to tease and, as his friends include some who take wine fairly seriously, he enjoys putting them to the test. This he does by throwing brown-bag parties: six friends, 12 wines in brown bags (several bottles of each), and a chance to show off, to identify and choose the best.
On one notable occasion, such was his (and our) absorption in the wine that the food that was supposed to have accompanied it was quickly gone; and much of the tasting, and enjoying, was done in an advanced state of inebriation in which one wine simply flowed, unchecked by food, into another. The moral here is that if you are going to do a lot of wines at dinner, and the purpose is to concentrate on wine and not food, you should at least make sure that the latter is copious.
Instead, the result was taxis home; the outright winner (against some highly rated French and Italian wines), a potent, smooth red from Missouri; and the sting in the tail, when we all wrote away for this miracle, the news that the vintner had resigned and taken up philosophy as a way of life.
This was a friendly occasion. Less friendly, though equally bibulous, are those occasions when, as part of one's professional engagements, one attends an omnium-gatherum public relations exercise, the purpose of which is to push or extol a given wine or wines. I have already written of the disastrous results of an entire meal centred on Alsatian wines (an example of good food spoilt by indifferent wine), and of the efforts (entirely successful) of Washington state wine-growers to persuade us of their excellence with a meal pretentiously designed around the concept that certain specific tastes in food correspond to equally specific wines (a case here of a now celebrated wine writer allowing his fantasy to run wild). Recently I attended a bibulous lunch offered by Italian vintners and served at a Tuscan restaurant of some quality. Here, the which-comes-first problem was nakedly exposed. The wines were good, running from a fine grigio through splendid whites (only the lacryma christi disappointed) to robust reds, of which I particularly appreciated the Rocche Costamagna Berbera; the food was in no way inferior, from crostini, through two excellent soups (including the wonderful Tuscan ribollita), to veal and mushrooms and a splendid bistecca fiorentina. The problem was that the meal totally lacked definition.
I am not awed by having six glasses lined up alongside my plate. On the contrary, I salivate. None the less, I do not think it is a good idea. It is fair neither to the wine nor to the food, and consequently unfair to the guests.
I am making, I think, a simple point about an ancient quarrel. Presented with a superior bottle or bottles, I will, I admit, spend more time with my nose in the glass than with a fork in my mouth; but the one and the other go together. However, to jump uneasily from one wine to another is as promiscuous and unpleasant as a meal (such as in the 'gastronomic menus' which are becoming popular) made of countless diverse tastes on endless little dishes.
What is wrong with promiscuity, as we Basic Values people know, is that one seldom gets to know one's partner; promiscuity does not suggest a relationship but an event and, occasionally, a happening. This is not what food or wine - nor good human relationships - are about; they are ideally concerned with intimacy, with surprise, with appreciation, with generosity.
A good wine and a fine meal are a Sentimental Education, not a crash course in connoisseurship. If you feel sorry for the unappreciated care lavished on the zuppa di funghi (is Est] Est] Est] what you would really choose to drink with it?), or for a delicious Punset Barbaresco veiled by the mushrooms in your veal, you have reached the wine master's stand-off: glasses at two paces.
In all good things, time is of the essence. One wine, two at most (perhaps a third with the sweet), allow one to savour both food and wine in the proper conditions, without a lecture on either and with growing (rather than diminishing) pleasure in each. Meals are not sample trays, cooks are not pedlars; 'choice' is a badly abused word. My Italian vintners would have done better to stage three meals of three wines each than one with 11. I know. I brought 11 bottles home and have been sampling them one by one in the normal way.
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