One reason I dislike the topic of “appropriate” wine and food pairings was illustrated a month ago when I read about a hamburger recipe whose creator suggested that it went best with a Pinot Gris.

And chances are she was right!

The eclectic way we’re eating these days, with unusual ingredients, cooking methods, and uncooked components, can radically alter the wine choices we might have made decades ago. And often the best wine to go with a dish is one that’s nontraditional.

One reason for this is that the wines we’re making today are better than they’ve ever been.

No wine-and-food lover is surprised when we pair a Cabernet Sauvignon with a char-grilled steak or a rich Chardonnay with lobster. That works. But Susan Mason’s hamburger creation that I read about needed something different.

She was declared the winner in October of Sutter Home’s 30th annual Build a Better Burger contest with a unique recipe. The Puyallup, Wash., contest winner submitted what she called the Happy Apple Day Swiss Burger.

And part of her contest submission was her suggestion that the best wine to go with it was Sutter Home Pinot Gris. One reason: the recipe includes the use of three Braeburn apples.

Many creative consumers today seek dining diversity. Distinctiveness appeals especially to true wine lovers – those who try many types of wines, from Pinotage` to Lagrein. Such eclectic-ness is refreshing in the face of middle America’s continual satisfaction with homogeneity.

I relate some of this to those wine critics who put scores on wine. In some people’s minds, if the best wine you can get is a 100-point Cab, then a 92-point Zinfandel or a 90-point Merlot are failures by comparison. And what about Grüner Veltliner, Chenin Blanc, and Nero d’Avola?

In most regions of this country, there’s widespread support for commonplace wines and foods. This places in jeopardy the loss of foods that creates excitement in food and drink.

In many areas of the food world, we’re losing diversity, which inevitably leads to the removal of uncommon grape varieties.

In the last three decades, I’ve heard of numerous cases where yet another plot of ancient-vine Carignane or Petite Sirah was ripped out and replaced by Chardonnay or Cabernet. This increasing homogeneity threatens the diversity that keeps chefs and winemakers so excited. (The really sad thing is that some vineyards are planted with the wrong variety and make mediocre wine, but the grapes sell for top dollar.)

Many winemakers tell me that they love experimenting with Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Grüner Veltliner, and many other relatively abstruse grapes. Many winery owners, on the other hand…

About 45% of all varietal wine sold in this country is either labeled Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. Real wine lovers (a distinct minority) adore different wines and they make efforts to pair up their foods and wines accordingly.

Some traditional matches do work because there is a natural affinity between the wine and the food.

Caviar and gravlax both go well with Champagne, for example. The naturally high acid in a classic bubbly works to amplify the flavors in the fish and there is a subtle but intriguing counterpoint between the richness of the fish and the crispness of the wine. A classic French Chablis could work well here too.

Rich, buttery Chardonnays would be incompatible with such foods.

But uncommon ingredients and novel recipes call for non-traditional wines. Indeed, diversity in our eating and drinking represents one of the legs of the four-pronged platform of the international, Italy-based movement called Slow Food.

It is a major organization that attempts to protect endangered indigenous ingredients and cuisines — and to encourage slow dining as opposed to homogenous fast food.

The Slow Food manifesto includes the notion that a dish with regional character should carry with it an imprimatur of its region and that usually includes local ingredients. The result often is distinctiveness, which is cherished by true wine lovers.

Slow Foodies say sameness in food isn’t a good thing. Standardization risks the loss of local fruits and vegetables and creates a boring uniformity in the taste of many foods.

Susan Mason’s $30,000-winning burger, mentioned above, called for it to be made with Braeburn apples. She did not say it was OK to substitute Golden Delicious. Braeburn was specified.

The more standardized the food is, the more Socially Correct it is to choose only commonplace wines — to the point where only standard flavors are acceptable. Which is the death knell of the distinctive.

When the first Sutter Home burger contest was announced 30 years ago, I had no idea it would affect how people thought about wine suggestions, certainly not the way it did. Back then, most hamburgers were pretty much all derivative of one another.

However, the four runners-up in the 2020 Sutter Home contest were eclectic in their wine picks. No Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon was among the suggestion of a best pairing wine.

One submitter, whose recipe included spicy chorizo, suggested it went with White Zinfandel(!); one recipe based on lamb was delicate enough to work with Sauvignon Blanc, said its submitter. Two other submitters (a burger using duck and hot Italian sausage burger) both suggested Pinot Noir.

Spicy foods like Far-East dishes with peppers, blackened fish, and chili-seasoned foods might work with a wine that has a bit of residual sugar, so Gewürztraminer, Riesling, or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc could work nicely.

With tomato-sauced foods that are often higher in acidity, I prefer wines with better acid than typical bargain Cabs that are soft. Here I prefer Barbera or a lower-alcohol Sangiovese.

Sutter Home’s burger contest this year was judged by a panel of three professional chefs, each of whom understands that the use of unusual ingredients creates flavors that lean toward fusion — not the confusion that comes from a mélange straight from the kitchen sink.

Next Week: Part II of Food-Wine Matches

Wine of the Week

2017 Napa Cellars Pinot Noir, Napa Valley ($28) – Reasonably priced Pinot Noirs are hard to come by these days, with so many people trying to sell wines using a grape variety that’s in such high demand. The result: prices for quality fruit can be relatively high and good Pinots often sell for $30 or more. This tasty offering is often seen for closer to $20. It’s excellent in terms of varietal characteristics as well as approachability. Ripe plum, cherry, and tea mark the aroma and the wine actually opens up after 2 to 3 hours in a decanter.



Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.