At Fales Library on a Thursday evening in June, food and restaurant consultant Clark Wolf hosted a spirited panel discussion that was evocative enough to make many in the audience yearn for a good drink.
At “In Your Glass! The Evolution of Libation at the American Table,” culinary minds held forth on changing drinking habits in America—from wine, cider, and ale to hard liquor to Prohibition and back again—while dismantling some contemporary myths about how best to pair beverages with meals. Some of the spiciest remarks came from New York Times dining columnist Florence Fabricant, who both lamented Americans’ insecurities about wine and encouraged New Yorkers to resist the hard sell of overeager sommeliers in the city’s trendiest restaurants.
Also on hand was Cathy Nonas, an NYC health department official (and NYU alum!) who opined on the obesity epidemic and explained the city’s rationale for prohibiting the sale of sugary drinks in cups and bottles more than 16 ounces.
Some highlights from their conversation appear below. Bottoms up!
“The first time wine started to make sense to me was in France. It was my first time there, I was 19 years old, and I was at a bistro. They poured a bottle of Beaujolais (they poured many bottles of Beaujolais!) and it was so delicious. It’s just simple! You’ve got your bread on the table and your cheese and your main course and your potatoes. And there’s wine! That’s all it is. How we’ve gotten to this position where most Americans think wine is this thing you get down on your knees pray to ... it’s ridiculous!”
—David Rosengarten, chef, author, and culinary personality
“We’re privileged to live in the greatest time in history to drink wine. We now have access to a wider diversity of wines than ever before, made in more styles, of more grapes unheard of 20 years ago, grown in places never before associated with good wine.”
—Florence Fabricant, New York Times columnist, reading from Wine With Food: Pairing Notes and Recipes from the New York Times
“I grew up with wine. My father had a bottle of white and a bottle of red on the table. I grew up with the idea that wine was food. And then when I went to UVA, wine was something you got drunk on on Friday nights. It was a really different mindset, and it took me a while to convince some of my friends that wine is food, with complexity just like other food.”
—William Woys Weaver, contemporary cookbook author, master gardener, and food historian
“Selecting a dish to accompany a particular wine or category of wine is not like falling in love. It’s more like friending on Facebook—often casual, even haphazard.”
—Florence Fabricant, reading from Wine With Food: Pairing Notes and Recipes from the New York Times
“Wine and cheese pairings? Not a good idea! UC Davis did a study that showed that 80 percent of the nuance of a red wine disappears when you have butter fat in your mouth. So with cheese, drink white wine—or beer.”
—Clark Wolf, food and restaurant consultant
“Forget this notion that you need a sommelier to figure out a different glass of wine for each dish in a four-, five-, six-, or seven-course tasting menu. That makes me nuts. Why? One, if you like one of those wines, you don’t get a chance to really savor it. Two, sometimes the pairings are really off base. And three, some of these wine matchings cost as much as $60! If you’re four people, multiply $60 times four. Do you know what kind of wines you could buy for that $240? My word of advice is undermost circumstances, avoid the wine pairing. It’s a growing trend that makes a ton of money for the restaurants—and I think it’s a rip-off.”
“There was a real serious interest, up until Prohibition, in viniculture and in good wines—and then Prohibition really knocked things back. There was a hotel in Philadelphia that had a wine list in 1903 that had 53 varieties of champagne. It was like a Sears-Roebuck catalogue, and it wouldn’t have been there if there hadn’t been a public willing to spend the money to drink [the champagne].”
—William Woys Weaver
“The cocktail is uniquely American. It’s about not having enough good liquor, but having a lot of sugar—and adding things together and marking it up.”
“In the ’60s, the marketing people started thinking, if you want ice cream, you go to the store and get chocolate or vanilla. So why not, if you want wine, go get cabernet or chardonnay? So it sort of became a two-horse race.”
“I’ve tried beer pairings, and by the end of the day I feel bloat—like I’m going to float up and pop when I hit the ceiling.”
—William Woys Weaver
“We’re privileged today to have so many kinds of varietals, but you have to sort of be a wine geek to go out and find them all. Most of the time, if you open a bottle of wine in a steakhouse in Kansas City, it’s going to be a cabernet. “
“The larger your wine glass, the faster you consume that bottle of wine. We took a cruise on the Yangtze River and the only drinkable wine they had was a bottle of Beaujolais. There were ten of us at this table. That one bottle of Beaujolais lasted ten people the entire dinner, because we had these tiny little cups of it. But if you get one of these glasses that holds half a bottle of wine, you’ll be amazed at how fast you go through that bottle and need another one.”