When asked what factors had shaped his palate and his wine collection when he first began collecting fine wine, rockstar (literally, not just figuratively) and winemaker Maynard James Keenan answered: "Mountain Dew and Doritos. Like most American kids, that's what I grew up on." This was a few years ago, when I was visiting Maynard out at his winery near Jerome, Arizona and we were tasting wines and breaking bread -- or cracking some nachos together, to be more exact (see below). He was referring to a preference -- earlier in his wine-conscious life -- to the heavily concentrated, jammy, oaky, highly alcoholic style of California that has dominated worldwide winemaking for the last 20 years.
His "palate" (as we say in wine parlance) has shifted significantly since his early career success delivered the means to collect fine wines. Today, he told me, he's sold off his "big" wines and has focused on more nuanced, more balanced, and more long-lived wines and winemakers.
Maynard's benign, however ironic, comment about American culture, historic American gastronomic values, soda pop, and junk food echoes a belief widely shared in the wine community: The divide between American and European preferences can be attributed to the fact that Americans grow up drinking sugar-heavy Coca Cola and charred-oak bourbon while Europeans grew up drinking mineral water and low-alcohol wines.
There's no denying it: Back in Southern California, I grew up thinking "Jack and Coke" or "7 and 7" was what men ordered before dinner and oaky "Napa Valley Cab[ernet Sauvignon]" was what you paired with steak, bacon-cheddar-cheese-sour-cream-and-chive-topped baked potato and Caesar salad -- the ultimate meal for my then teenage-fueled heavy metal tastes. My palate changed only after years of living in Europe and an epiphany inspired by Sangiovese (another story for another post).
Despite Maynard's and my own rebirth as wine lovers and a newly formed enogastronomic awareness and sensibility, the powerful memories of childhood comfort food never leave us. Our palates change, but our memories, however romanticized, do not.
"I remember years ago chefs wanting to make their own ketchups in their restaurants," said the great American chef Thomas Keller in a 2009 interview with NPR, "[But] nobody really liked it. Everybody wanted to get a bottle of Heinz. It's because we grew up on those flavors."
Everyone has one -- whether it's Heinz ketchup or Skippy peanut butter -- a guilty pleasure junk food evoked by childhood remembrances. Mine is Doritos.
Before we got pregnant, I Pricelined a room at the five-star St. Regis Hotel off San Felipe in Houston (for an obscenely low price, by the way) and Tracie P and I cloistered ourselves for a romantic night with a bottle of one of our favorite wines, 2000 Coulée de Serrant by Nicolas Joly, given to us by a best friend. When I discovered a bag of Doritos in the minibar, I couldn't resist the decadent match and a truly odd pair: One of the world's greatest Natural wines with one of the world's most notorious junk foods. The marriage was supremely delicious, with the saltiness, spice, and flavor enhancers 621, 627, and 631 of the Doritos dancing on the acidity, minerality, and tannin of the ten-year-old Chenin Blanc. I enjoyed every last powdery crumb.
What is the moral of this story? However much we need to respect the wines we drink and the winemakers who make them, I believe that wine should be folded into the rhythms of our lives without prejudice or pretension. Did I commit an act of blasphemy with my pairing? In the eyes of many, I most certainly did. But I am convinced that wine is a living and breathing being, just like us. In my view, its application should be based on an honesty of desire and not an affected and complacent reliance on bourgeois convention. Yes, there are the great pairings of Western Civilization: Muscadet from the Loire and raw oysters; Sancerre and veined cheese; Tuscan Sangiovese and porterhouse alla fiorentina; red Burgundy and duck civet; Sauternes and
foie gras Fritos.
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When it comes to pairing, follow your palate and be true to your heart.
What's your favorite junk food pairing? Please share it with us in the comments section.