Miguel de Leon, the wine director at Pinch Chinese in New York, first began pairing wines using the traditional French notion of what-grows-together-goes-together at Chez Panisse in 2005. But by 2009, working at the Momofuku group, where food wasn’t defined by one region much less one country, he began thinking about pairings as a way to “[maximize] deliciousness,” pairing off-dry sake with foie gras or a celery cocktail with stewed fruit for an ants-on-a-log experience. “Red wine with meat? Maybe. But it was more interesting to show something like Jura sous-voile instead of a well-trodden cab or pinot,” he says.
While Momofuku may have been a rarity in 2009, today this style of casual service and genre-bending food has become the norm; hard and fast rules feel more like loose guidelines. “The thing that boggles my mind is this idea of a correct wine pairing,” says de Leon, referring to learning about wine from books. “There will be graphs or tables of, if you are having this, you should have this. ‘Should’ for who?
Pairing food with wine dates back to 19th-century France, when restaurants grew in popularity and professional sommeliers emerged as custodians of the cellar and curators of beverages to go alongside the meal. As the French concept of the restaurant migrated to the United States later that century, the notion of wine pairings—and European wines themselves—came along with it. By the late 20th century, wine pairings stateside had evolved to become associated with a very specific version of high-end, coursed-out service, the calling card of iconic restaurants like Windows on the World and The Palace. Wine pairings only proliferated further as they practically became prerequisites to being considered for accolades like Michelin stars and the World’s 50 Best. Restaurants that made the top of those lists, like Eleven Madison Park and Le Bernardin, invested heavily in their wine programs.
Yet today, many of the world’s most cutting-edge restaurants eschew the ironed white tablecloths and wine pairings list for bold, multicultural flavors and a vibrant atmosphere. Natural wine, for its part, has helped to democratize how sommeliers and customers alike assign value to wine lists and the idea of pairing. In this conception of restaurants, it can feel difficult to understand what the traditional role of wine pairing is, so intertwined with associations of expense accounts and Western fine dining has it become. It’s worth asking today, what is the place of wine pairings in a much more diverse, democratized food landscape?
When Zwann Grays became wine director at Olmsted in Brooklyn in 2018, she was inclined to pair the seasonal menu of creative, globally inspired fare with natural wines, but was met with resistance. Chef and owner Greg Baxtrom was an alumnus of Alinea, Per Se and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, his experience rooted in French-style service where wine pairings alongside 20-course tasting menus were de rigueur. Grays too had worked in four-star restaurants like Bouley where pairing menus were a staple, but as she got deeper into the low-intervention scene, she wondered why Olmsted’s low-key refinement shouldn’t be met with the same approach in wine.
Eventually, as the restaurant found its footing, Grays started to integrate Baxtrom’s affinity for the classics with her own tastes, pairing a spicy Indian sauvignon blanc with delicate carrot crêpes and a high-acid Peter Lauer riesling with kale and crab rangoon. Olmsted has become a destination not only for Baxtrom’s unexpected flavors, but also Grays’ passion for natural wines.
The popularity of natural wine has also helped open the door to more inclusive language around pairings—especially as it relates to non-Western cuisines. At Pinch, de Leon talks to guests about how fruit-forward wine can complement the numbing effect of Sichuan peppercorns, or how a skin-contact muscat can bring out the floral character of hot peppers. Just because a cuisine isn’t heralded as a “traditional wine-pairing cuisine” in books, he says, “doesn’t mean we should discount those experiences.”
It also helps that more wine professionals nowadays received their education from places other than European fine dining restaurants. Julia Coney, a wine journalist and the founder of Black Wine Professionals, learned about pairing while working as a legal assistant for a wine-loving lawyer in Houston. He served her barbecue chicken with vinho verde and brisket with Caymus. “All those old wine books gave me great insight on wine, but it was more like, over there,” she says, referring to their irrelevance beyond fine dining. “The way I drink is the way I cook. I am Creole. I eat a lot of ramen and Indian food. I am going to think about those dishes and pairing them.” Coney insists that wine pairing should be accessible, especially considering the current nature of dining. If people want to pair Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with demi-sec Champagne, why not?
This high-low approach gets at a certain brand of populism highlighted in books like Vanessa Price’s Big Macs & Burgundy: Wine Pairings for the Real World, an offshoot of a pairings column Price started for New York magazine, that instructs readers on what to drink with gummy bears or Twinkies. It’s a direction not everybody believes is helpful. “I think that is just a millennial thing,” says Rajat Parr, a winemaker at Domaine de la Côte and an owner of Bibi Ji, an Indian wine bar in Los Angeles. “People dumb it down too much. I think there are certain rules you have to abide by, but that is an extreme to make it so simple.”
Populism as a reaction to prohibitively expensive Champagne and caviar pairings also illustrates how, for so long, exclusivity in wine has been tied to the customer’s wallet. In many tasting menu settings, the wine pairings cost as much as the dinner, further cementing the notion that wine is a rarefied privilege. That’s why, before the pandemic, de Leon offered $25 three-wine pairings at Pinch—Štekar merlot from Slovenia with cumin-spiced ribs, prosecco col fondo with seafood fried rice, Bichi’s No Sapiens from Mexico with oyster spring rolls. “I think it’s important we shy away from the one-glass-per-course narrative,” he says, explaining that contemporary dining isn’t built around the strict concept of appetizer, entrée, dessert anymore. “It’s exactly the way of considering the whole meal—zooming out, so to speak.”
Another aspect of this wave of accessibility is that conversations around pairings aren’t just happening in high-end dining rooms. People can take these discussions to social media via platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Coney regularly hosts Instagram Live talks with other wine professionals to discuss her favorite bottles, in an effort to make wine drinking and pairings feel more everyday. These mediums are also a way to talk about values of wine not considered in a more old-school pairings conversation, like what it means to farm regeneratively, or how vineyard workers are compensated, or what exactly is implied by the terms “new” and “old” world. Coney says that environmental and social factors are an important consideration for both wine professionals and consumers in the conversation of pairing.
De Leon, for his part, explains that the shift away from the pomp and exclusivity in pairings is good for everybody, and for the wines themselves: “To champion this idea of democratizing the wine experience—let’s make sure that for every kind of experience, we can say yes to wine, too.”