Wine column no. 3: The revolution begins

Meet Joe. Pleasant and quick with a joke, he doesn't look like a revolutionary. He works, he pays his taxes, and when he comes home at night, he likes to share a bottle of wine with his wife. The trouble is, they prefer white wines, and some wine purveyors can't seem to understand that.

Now meet Jane. She's married, loves to travel, and when she cooks, she wants a wine that'll enhance the experience. The problem? She's confronted some so-called "rules" that she just can't accept, and because of that, she's been made to feel like an anarchist.

Welcome to the real world of wine appreciation, where outlaws exist. We know, because we've butted heads with strict traditionalists who've rolled their eyes at the thought of pairing a Pinot noir with grilled salmon, or who've ignored us when we've told them we don't like buttery Chardonnay.

Call us uncouth, but we happen to think that drinking and eating what you like isn't a crime. In fact, we'll throw our own lassos out far enough to say: Outlaws like Joe and Jane may be onto something.

This is because it turns out rules aren't so bad -- when they're the right ones. Ever heard someone drone on and on about "red wine with meat, white wine with fish, sweet wines with dessert"? What's wrong here is that those rules are too general to be accurate every single time. Aside from the fact that not every wine is the same, the food itself changes, too. Like, what happens if you barbecue that chicken instead of baking it in a cream sauce? And what if that pork loin was tasty, but it was the sauerkraut sitting right next to it that really stole the show?

What we've found is that there are some rules to wine and food pairings, but the pairings are best based on the texture, body and flavor of the wines and foods themselves. In other words, it's not just simply a matter of whether it's a fish, a red meat or a dessert. A good pairing means the dish and the wine play off of each other, so that the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts.

This is how creativity can be rewarding, because it's the only way you can really learn. It's also why you need an outlaw or two -- or just a lucky mistake -- to get you thinking about what your own rules can or should be.

Here are some examples of our own efforts to explore the unique marriage of wine and food:

You have before you Exhibit A, a 2006 Honig Cabernet Sauvignon. We paired this $30-$39.99 Napa Valley, Californian, from Winetree with a balsamic vinegar-shallot reduction that we poured over lamb chops seasoned with fresh rosemary, fresh thyme, fresh basil, salt and pepper. Now ordinarily, lamb would go fairly well with Cabernet, which we have found to be generally earthy, robust, substantial and smooth. But also competing for attention at the table was the balsamic vinegar reduction, which was a personality with a capital "P." This bad boy of the kitchen was sweet and a bit tangy, and paired with the lamb itself, it definitely left an impression. Yet the Honig didn't hold its own. The nose was fruity, and it had an earthy, serious tone that set it apart as one of your more stoic wines. But against the charismatic balsamic reduction, it was, quite simply, a clod.

Thankfully, there were lamb leftovers, and the next night we opened up a 2008 Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages. Now this wine by itself isn't a star. This light Frenchman was around $10 at Schnucks, slightly acidic, easy to drink, and it trended toward strawberries. But against this lamb, it was fantastic! Somehow, it managed to make the lamb even more delectable, pulling at its fibers in a sort of dance on your tongue. It was also an agile-enough partner for the lamb that it wasn't overshadowed. In other words, you noticed the lamb, and you noticed the wine, and while the two were clearly different from each other in textures and flavors, together, they shined.

So there's several things Greg and I learned here: One, that a bad wine and food match isn't the end of the world, since we're learning, and that's the whole point of this. Two, that when judging a wine and food pairing, the pairing itself doesn't necessarily make a wine (or a food) bad -- as evidenced by the tasty Honig that would have faired better, possibly, against a steak. Three, we learned that lamb and balsamic vinegar are hefty dinner companions, and that sometimes it's best to just let them do their own thing while a lighter, nimbler wine adapts to their strengths. And four, if we were to go a bit further in this, we'd say we learned that an assertive vinegar reduction, when paired with a lightly acidic red wine, seems to cancel out the acidity on both sides, so that overall, both improve.

Another example of this fourth lesson would be why so many Italian restaurants pair younger Chianti with spaghetti and meatballs, or pizza. The acidity in the wine is able to meet those two dishes on their own terms.

But these are just our own musings, and we've got a lot more to learn. In the meantime, we'll remain -- just like Joe and Jane -- wine's anarchists, its revolutionaries. Because while we may be aware of the so-called "rules", we're confident enough to know that we can break them. We also know that there are others out there who agree with us, and that one day, we'll rise up and exclaim: Let us drink what we want. We're the ones you need to please anyway.

2002 Domaine Arlaud Bourgogne Roncevie: Starts out acidic, ends substantial

april 10, 2011: 10 minutes into this roncevie, and i had already given up. that's how little time i was willing to grant this pinot noir, which was on a blind date with a grilled lemon-dijon chicken. my thoughts? this domaine arlaud had arrived at the party angry and annoyed, spitting out some version of pinched acidity we had had nothing to do with. and it wasn't the chicken, either, which was full of flavor and personality. frustrated, i was ready to kick it out. we had another pinot we could have easily brought in to pinch hit, a sarasota, fla., import from california that would have surely had some warmer things to say, like the ever delightful: thanks for inviting me. but greg was there to see past the tension. give it time, he said, and anyway, whatever i saw as acidity, he had no problem with. so i had more chicken, and a bit more of the green beans and rice. and suddenly it was like this red burgandy and i had brokered some version of peace. i don't know: maybe i was hungry. maybe the bourgogne needed time to breathe, to compose itself after what could have been a nervous entrance. but whatever the reason, or the solution, in the end we ended up giving this fruity, cool and smoothly substantial dinner companian a good review. and it ended up being a wine that made our weekend. which leads us to: so much for first impressions, because it's the final ones that really last. 12.5 percent alcohol.

here's the lemon-dijon mustard chicken recipe: http://allrecipes.com//Recipe/grilled-lemon-chicken/Detail.aspx


2009 Achaval Ferrer Malbec: Delicate, yet substantial

march 20, 2011: don't let yourself fall into that trap, the one that says: all varietals are the same. greg and i did that when we were first starting out on malbec, then cabernet sauvignon and merlot and the rest of what we called the reddish bunch. with a lot of prodding from some wine experts around town, we've unfurled our wings a bit and have begun to peck and poke at the bottles we purchase, asking, before we open them up, what's different about *this* version of, say, malbec, compared to the others in their varietal class. and this achaval ferrer is a prime example. if a 2009 crios malbec is the scruffy guy hanging out in the alleyway, then the 2009 achaval ferrer is his clean-shaven, sweet-smelling cousin ... the one you'd bring home to mom, in other words, when you've finally realized that you really do deserve a little kindness after all.

and this mendoza, argentinian, is the guy you'd want at the table. as with many good catches, this one came with a recommendation, and after searching for it in three wines stores in evansville, it was only when i happened to be at the schnucks on north green river that i suddenly realized it was within my grasp. so, a little bit of anticipation might be coloring my view here; excitement can do that to you. but right out of the bottle, this wine is delicate, tender, soft and smooth. and that's just the texture. the nose is fruity but also clean. think the aroma of unplucked blackberries, the ones you find accidentally, while on a hike. as for the flavor, it's not effusive. it's berryish, but not so much that it's what some might call a fruit bomb. this is just a nice, gentle wine that a lower-priced malbec would be proud to be associated with. 14.5 percent alcohol. could probably be cellared a bit. goes well with grilled steak.