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Learn the trick to pairing food and wine.

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Tips and Techniques

Wine with Food: Part of a Healthy Lifestyle
by John Ash

There is no question that wine (in moderation of course) is definitely part of a healthy lifestyle. This fact burst into the consciousness of Americans back on November 17, 1991. CBS's 60 Minutes show aired a segment called "The French Paradox". This show sought to answer the question of why the French, who often eat diets very high in saturated animal fats, had a much lower incidence of heart attack and other cardiovascular ailments than Americans. According to Dr. R. Curtis Ellison of Boston and Harvard Medical schools, who studied this question, the answer seemed to be that the French routinely drank significantly more wine—especially red wine—than the typical American.

Dr. Ellison theorized that there were elements in the wine, probably phenols such as resveratrol, which broke down LDL or "bad" cholesterol that sticks to artery walls causing blockages and turned it into HDL or "good" cholesterol that could be carried away by the blood. This reduction in LDLs lowered the chances for arteriosclerosis and actually reduced the pressure needed for the heart to circulate blood. Resveratrol is a compound produced by grape vines to help ward off diseases in the vineyard.

The impact of Ellison's story and the 60 Minutes show was astounding and immediate. Red wine sales went off the chart and quickly surpassed white wine sales for the first time in the Unites States. Subsequent studies have confirmed these findings and all indications are that moderate consumption of wine (one to two glasses a day) can have significant health benefits.

Wine 101

Interestingly, however the majority of Americans still don't drink much wine. There appear to be several reasons. Among them:

  • The description and terminology used around wine seems pretty impenetrable for the beginner. Unfortunately there are some "cork dorks" out there who seem to want to make it difficult to understand what wine is about. They use mysterious words and phrases that can definitely be off-putting.
  • Figuring out which wine goes with what food can be a challenge—creating all kinds of angst. The next time you're in a fancy restaurant, watch a group of businessmen passing off the wine list to each other because no one feels confident enough to choose the wine.

Let's address these points: To the first point, there is a lot to learn about wine if you want to! It's not a requirement, however. My advice to everyone, no matter your level of wine interest, is to "drink what you like". If you've found a flavor or style that suits you and you don't want to explore further—that's OK. My mom loves white Zinfandel because it has a little sweetness and it's very fruity and pleasant. Some cork dorks or "wine weenies" look down on her choice and are forever trying to get her to drink more "serious" wine. "White Zin is like soda pop," they'll tell her. The point is there is no reason for her to explore more if she doesn't want to and she enjoys white Zin (and God love her, she is very blunt about sharing that opinion!).

To the second point about matching food and wine, I'd like to offer some thoughts. First, it's not rocket science! The underlying truth is that each of us has a unique set of flavor preferences and, like my Mom, you'll ultimately drink what you like whether or not it's the "right" choice.

Mixing and Matching

There are basically two strategies for pairing or matching food and wine. The first is to look for similarities in the two. It doesn't matter whether you are starting with the food and looking for a wine to go with it or vice versa. This is the approach we use most often and it involves looking for the same or similar flavor notes in both the food and the wine.

Using a musical analogy, it's like playing the same notes in different octaves to emphasize a particular sound, like an echo. It's dramatic and the whole experience is elevated as a result.

Examples here would be:

  • Fresh salad greens served with a young goat cheese and lemon-herb vinaigrette. You'd look for similar flavors in the wine, i.e. fresh, crisp, acidic, lemony and herbal. This is a classic description of a white wine like Sauvignon Blanc or a clean, non-oaked Chardonnay.
  • A red wine and mushroom braised beef or pork pot roast served with an earthy, meaty red such as a Cabernet or Syrah. The wine flavor in the dish mirrors the wine in the glass.

The other strategy is to put contrasting flavors together. This is a riskier approach but is based on the idea that "opposites attract" and when two very different flavors come together they can create a whole new unanticipated experience. Often we find contrasting matches by accident! Using music again, instruments playing different notes can create beautiful harmony.

Some examples are:

  • Stilton cheese and Port: The Brits love this match of a rich, salty, fungusy cheese matched to a contrasting sweet, syrupy, high alcohol wine.
  • Deep fried foods and Champagnes: The contrasting acidity of most dry Champagnes and sparkling wines helps cut through the richness of deep-fried foods like tempura. These kinds of wines also go well with smoky, salty and fatty/oily foods like smoked salmon or caviar. Again the contrasting bubbles and acid in the wine cut through the fat/salt/smoke to reenergize the palate.
  • Spicy foods and sweet wines: Foods with a high level of chile or pepper heat benefit by having a wine that has a little bit of residual sugar or sweetness and is young, fresh and fruity with little or no oak aging. Wines with residual sugar are lower in alcohol content since the wine hasn't been completely fermented. Wines of this type have a cooling effect after the onslaught of heat from the chiles.

The real point of all of this is that you are now armed with some knowledge that will hopefully help you sort out what's going on as you taste wine and food together. This is a foundation that you can build on as you experience the two things in tandem. In my wine classes I encourage everyone to keep a little journal so that you can note great matches when they happen for you. This enables you to recreate and build on them.

In the coming months I'll share more information on wine and give you some recipes to pair up with wine. Obviously I'm a "wino"—in California we use this term to refer to someone who is passionate about wine! Whether you end up as immersed in it as I am isn't important. I believe that an occasional glass enjoyed at a meal with family and friends is one of life's great gifts and pleasures. As Ben Franklin noted: "Wine is sure proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy". I couldn't agree more!

About John Ash

John Ash is an internationally recognized culinary figure and one of California's most influential chefs. A columnist, cookbook author and a food and wine educator, Ash is also the Culinary Director for Fetzer Vineyards. He's an advocate of cuisine based on seasonal foods and has been a steadfast supporter of local organic farmers. John Ash's namesake restaurant reflects the "good life" of Sonoma's wine country—where wine and food are a celebration.


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