Don’t overlook wine and mood pairings

Raise your hand if you’re exuberantly happy.

Didn’t think so. In these days of ceaseless cold, wind, snow and ice, who among us has the inner strength, the profound confidence and integrity, the cardiac energy, to feel consistently joyful? No. This is the hard time.

My apologies if I’m projecting. I’ll rewind and speak just of myself, and if you want out because this doesn’t apply to your life, turn the page. I, though, am not excited about wine right now, or much else. It’s very, very cold out; it’s hard work to deal with it all; I just want to sleep, hide, stop. Wine’s association with good times mocks me.

Yet this is my life, and I am on record asserting that wine’s highest calling is to accompany our lives. That it ought not be treated as an object distinct from ourselves, that its true origin is not a factory for luxury goods and its true goal is not to be assigned a score. Advertisers will tell you that wine is for smiling faces, pretty ladies, debonair gents, success. Beneath that sheen, though, is wine in vivo: a spectacular partner to your rejoicing, yeah, but just as surely a companion to your despair.

So in the midst of my contracting, softly depressive, winter-darkened condition, the question is, as it always is: Which wine mates well to this state? The majority of wine advice, erroneously squeezed into the too-narrow confines of meals, assumes that the highest duty of a wine is to a particular food. But I’d like to explore the notion that there are emotional wine pairings as well. Chablis may be scintillating with oysters, and Brunello with beef, but might Amontillado be just right for melancholy?


This is a less outlandish proposal than it initially seems. Wine comes from grapes, vines, roots, earth and people. If we acknowledge that a certain climatic and geologic situation affects what a wine becomes – that, more succinctly, wine emerges in context – why is it any weirder to claim that the context in which a wine is consumed plays a role in its nature? It’s only weird if you claim that you exist apart from the rhythms of the natural world. Nothing in nature stops. Everything transforms, becomes.

My mood will pass. In July, I will chill a bottle of young Picpoul de Pinet and quaff it with crab cakes. I will be surrounded by friends, we will noisily converse. We will finish the crab cakes and keep drinking the wine. At some point I will pull back from the scene, go quiet inside, and my eyes will moisten with gratitude.

The importer Terry Theise often speaks of how wine’s role is to be “useful”; that’s a lot of what I’m getting at. “A useful wine,” he says, “comes to the table and asks, ‘How can I help?’ ” I’ll take all the help I can get – from people and pets, but also from wine. Part of the answer to “How can I help?” could be, “As the lemon-herb boost that would really make this flounder dish take off.” Another part is, “By lifting my chin a bit and convincing me everything will turn out fine.”

Here, then, is a starter guide to accepting this question that wine asks, and taking from wine all that it truly has to offer. The usual principle of food pairing will be maintained: A wine should be analogous to certain aspects of the dish while simultaneously providing a counterpart. Obviously, this is very personal, and your results may vary.

For melancholy, I do love Amontillado. The hauntingly sweet, fortified sherry with amber hue binds one to eternal truths, and that’s what you need when you feel dragged under by circumstances that seem reinforced by history. There’s nothing like sweetness to make you feel loved, though too much – which good Amontillado doesn’t have – merely lulls you into dissolution. Amontillado’s deeply dug vein of acidity will help convince you that while you might be falling, something will catch you in the end.

For slight nostalgia, the sense that the current moment looms too large and you wish you could back up, try older rosé. As a general rule, I’m disappointed by rosé as it first becomes available. There are already 2014 rosés for sale, too young and scatterbrained to be of much use. Start drinking these in June at the earliest. For now, find a 2013 rosé, usually available at reduced prices this time of year, and appreciate the seriousness it has taken on in what we can only call its sunset years. As you find yourself gently pining for a slightly older moment that in retrospect seems simpler, the wine will surprise you with its focus and depth.


The more moving, aching nostalgia that comes with times further in the past belongs to Bordeaux. The other day, I had a truly Proustian moment. I had opened an old Pauline Kael review of “My Dinner with André.” I adore that 1981 film, and return to it periodically. But the review pulled me into something more: an entire world so poignantly and surprisingly distant from our own, a pre-postmodern New York, roughed up, searching and searing. Old Bordeaux is the natural accompaniment to a yearning for the Big Something Else I felt. Its depth resonates with the depth we always think we currently lack. Its silky body soothes the troubled, dislocated monkey mind. Its underground energy adheres to the soles of your feet, and restores perspective.

Flat-out grief is healed by old Rioja. My father died when I was 21. On the precipice, peering confused into adulthood while grasping for a childhood that felt ripped from me, I spent years in the emotional wilderness. When I emerged, I needed something eternal, something that understood the pace set by important things. In full disclosure, Dad loved Rioja, so the association is strong. There were bottles left in the apartment, for me to drink with my family. But time has yielded clearer eyes, with which I see Rioja’s ability to heal.

There’s an emotional state that I can’t find a word for in English, but I call it “empty-full.” It’s a deeply joyful sensation, but the joy is more satisfying than exuberant. I feel stripped of all excess, void yet with no desire, no yearning, past the extraneous. Empty, and full. I glimpse it at sunsets, or with my wife, sometimes with animals, often alone in the woods. The wine that best calls up this state, or lengthens its reach, is German riesling. No other wine packs as much character into so light a frame. No other wine is as expressive, or as nimble, or as open to as much experience and influence. No other wine acts this way with so little fanfare. It is fuller than anything else, and emptier too.

The ebullience of small children is one of the world’s great gifts, and every once in a while, we adults find access to it. To enter this world, I drink scheurebe. This magical cross of riesling and … something, grown mostly in Germany and Austria (where it’s called samling), leaps whenever it moves. It scatters, it laughs, it tickles and jokes. But just like children caught up in their radical acts of pleasure, it means business.

Here’s another emotional state that eludes labels. What’s that sense you gain when you’ve been concealing and pretending, and that you don’t want to act that way anymore? We recognize all the layers of pretense that accrue during an ordinary life, so caught up are we in performing for others, and maybe at some point we decide to call it off. Zinfandel – bold, spicy, unabashed zinfandel, made with a light touch – is the wine for us then. I drink zin when I yearn to come out into the open, to say hello to everyone I’ve been hiding from, with a deeper voice.

Of course, there are plenty of emotions for which the appropriate wine match is “none.” Maybe this is a time for tea, or nothing at all. Or maybe it’s time to break out the watercolors. But we’ll never know if we don’t at least accept the possibility that the true life we live lies patiently beneath the surface of our visible lives – waiting to be called into action, to be useful for higher purposes.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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