For someone who encourages people to throw out concerns about pairing their wine with the “right” food, I spend a lot of time thinking about food and wine pairings.

Each month, I recommend four wines to pair with the cookies from Cookies & Corks. I also often develop recipes for wineries of dishes that will show off their wines. Of course, with both of these types of jobs, my assignment is to specifically make a match that shows off a client’s product.

Pacific Coast Oyster Wine CompetitionBut a recent event prompted me to think about food and wine pairing from the consumer’s perspective, that of the home cook and entertainer, the wine drinker, the restaurant patron. Last month I was invited to participate in the judging of the annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition. This wasn’t my first time judging. You can check out my experience in the indulgent life of an adjudicator in my post Oyster Wine.

Maybe judging a competition built around the concept of pairing contradicts just about everything I teach on the subject of food and wine pairing. And yet, I believe in the spirit of this competition 100%. Driving home from this year’s competition, as the dozens of oysters danced in my belly, I asked myself just why is it that I can tell people to drink Chardonnay with their steak and White Zinfandel with lemon pie if that’s what they enjoy, but I can, with a clear conscience, judge a competition set up specifically to give consumers food and wine pairing instructions. I came up with several arguments which not only convince me that judging an oyster pairing is the right thing to do (not just for the pleasure of my palate). But that it truly helps illuminate my stance on the subject of pairing and the reasons I encourage consumers to be uninhibited in their pairing choices.

First of all, an oyster is a single ingredient, pure. Its flavor is relatively unchanged no matter the part of the world where it is consumed or by whom it is prepared. Sure, there are superior oysters: the mouthfeel, size and intensity can change. But when we speak of the experience of eating an oyster, we know that we’ve all had essentially the same flavor experience. For this reason alone, it’s easy to talk about the experience of a particular wine with oysters. (Same goes for the Cookies & Corks pairings I create each month.) But when you start talking about pairing a wine with burgers…

There’s more to my love for this competition that celebrates pairing wines with oysters. Sometimes a particular food or recipe can improve a wine. It’s something that, in my experience, wineries rarely acknowledge to the general public, yet it’s a tool many embrace wholeheartedly. Have you ever had the experience of tasting a wine at a winemaker’s dinner and having it suddenly click for you? This may not be so remarkable if you’ve never before tasted the wine or if it’s a wine you already know and love. But sometimes a formerly unremarkable wine comes to life and teases the tongue in an unexpected way. You have the chef’s input to thank for this sensory pleasure. Now I’m not saying that the wines that won this year’s Pacific Oyster Wine Competition weren’t necessarily well-made wines but ones that were made remarkable by Chef Mother Nature’s pairing. But judges for this quirky competition are given specific instructions to taste the oyster first, allowing it’s flavor profile to influence the wine and to judge primarily on how the wine celebrates the oyster’s flavor. That doesn’t mean that a poorly made wine could make it among the winners, but it does mean that some of the “losers” were finely crafted wines–just not ones that balance with the delicacy, sweetness, protein and brine of oysters.

I don’t think people should give up on trying to pair food and wine. The harmony can be a sensual part of the experience of eating and drinking when the right chord is struck. Essentially, its all about balance, not about rules. To help you experience what I’m talking about, check out the winners of this year’s Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition and proceed to shuck.

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what is a “perfect” food and wine pairing?