By ERIC ASIMOV
WINE and food belong together. That’s always been one of my cardinal beliefs.
I have little use for fussy, fetishistic wine pairings in which you need a PowerPoint display and a degree in biochemistry to decide which bottle to open. No. I simply believe that the pleasure of food and wine, enjoyed in harmony, is exponentially greater than the uncombined parts. At home, I think of wine primarily as a grocery item, perhaps an overly expensive one with an outsized meaning, but ultimately part of the ensemble of a meal.
This, of course, is not everybody’s understanding of wine. In fact, a significant percentage of wine in the United States, perhaps more than anybody might have guessed, is not drunk during a meal, according to a new consumer survey by Wine Opinions, a wine industry market-research company.
First, the basics: The survey questioned around 800 members of the Wine Opinions consumer panel, including residents of all states except North Dakota and Montana. The panelists drink wine frequently, which the survey defines as at least several times a week. That describes only 38 percent of all American wine drinkers, said John Gillespie, the chief executive of Wine Opinions. But significantly, those frequent drinkers account for more than 85 percent of the wine consumed in the United States. The online survey, conducted in December, has a margin of sampling error of two to three percentage points.
This was the first time the Wine Opinions survey had looked at whether wine and food were consumed together. Of all the wine the respondents drink in a given week, the survey found, only 41 percent was consumed while sitting down to a meal. Nineteen percent was consumed with chips, nuts, crackers and other light snacks, and 14 percent while preparing food. A full 26 percent of wine was consumed without food at all.
“My guess is most people in the industry would have guessed more than 50 percent with meals,” Mr. Gillespie said in a telephone interview. “Very few people would have guessed that fully one-quarter of the amount of wine people drink would have been without food.”
I’ve become used to the notion that not everybody assumes wine is meant to go with food. But I find the idea of divorcing the two unsettling to say the least. Personally speaking, I love a glass of wine when I’m cooking, as an aperitif. The idea of not finishing a glass after pushing back from the table? Perish the thought! But I can conceive of very few social situations not involving food where I would want to drink wine. It’s not that I’m antisocial; I’m just pro food-and-wine.
Yet perhaps the popularity of wine in what Mr. Gillespie calls “cocktail situations” helps account for the evolution of wine styles. Some wines that are perfectly enjoyable with food might seem austere, tannic and uninviting on their own, while wines that might seem too soft, plush or unstructured with food might offer more pleasure without it.
Certainly, that was a lesson for Joe Campanale, the beverage director and an owner of L’Artusi and dell’anima, restaurants in the West Village. Last year, when he opened Anfora, a wine bar near the restaurants, he expected most people to drink wine while noshing on salumi or crostini. Instead, he has found that many people don’t order food at all.
“It’s affected the styles of wine I put on the list there,” he said. “I tend to like very structured wines with very high acidity and sometimes prominent tannins, but those don’t always go well if you’re knocking wine back without food. I still look for crisp acidity, but tend not to look for tannic wines.” For instance, he’s found that Spanish wines like well-aged Riojas from López de Heredia or Bierzos from Alvaro Palacios are more approachable without food than full-bodied but tannic reds like a traditional aglianico from Campania.
Far from being alarmed, Mr. Gillespie interprets the findings as great news for the American wine industry. Placing wine firmly on the table is a habit derived from European traditions. Now, he suggested, Americans are embracing wine as a part of their everyday lives and culture.
“We don’t have four-hour dinners the way they do in Spain,” he said. “But when people are sitting down on a weeknight, and they’re watching ‘American Idol,’ and they pour a glass of wine rather than crack open a beer, that’s a measure of acculturation. People’s comfort level with wine is beyond what we imagined in the industry.”
The survey also showed a significant generational difference in how people consume wine. Those 65 or older drank the largest proportion of wine with food — 50 percent — while those identified as millennials drank the highest proportion of wine without food, 31 percent.
To Joe Roberts, whose blog, 1 Wine Dude, is popular with younger wine drinkers, this seemed to make perfect sense.
“Food comes up very seldom, actually,” Mr. Roberts said when I asked whether his readers thought much about wine and food together. “We’re talking about a group that may not have families, that may not have traditional meal settings. Wine’s pretty social, and not every social interaction is over dinner.”
Mr. Gillespie suggested such behavior might indicate that millennials are in fact quite discerning about wine. He’s participated in focus groups with young wine drinkers, he said, where they describe the process of “pre-gaming,” having a glass or two of wine at home before heading out for a night on the town.
“They drink beer there because they know clubs or bars will have lousy wines,” he said.
Well, that’s reassuring. Maybe I need to get out more, and not only to restaurants.