Wine Enthusiast Podcast: Don’t Pair Wine and Food—Pair Wine and Mood

Illustration of two bottles and two wine glasses, each in a different vibrant color (pink, red, yellow and blue) with various emotional connotations (hearts in pink glass, fire in red bottle, suns in yellow glass)
Illustration by Rachel Joan Wallis

People love to talk about wine and food pairings, pairing complementary foods and invoking the tried-and-true mantra of “what grows together, goes together.”

But maybe it’s time to take a fresh approach to pairings.

When Napa Valley-based wine consultant Jean Hoefliger is asked how to pair wine and food, he responds by saying, “I don’t pair wine and food. I pair wine and mood. For me, it’s about the moment and the company. Nobody drinks a bottle of wine looking at their watch. You stop time and focus on the moment and the people you are in conversation with.”

Sounds so fantastically obvious and brilliantly genius, right?

Contributing Editor Virginie Boone taps Hoefliger for the best tips to pair wine and mood with a variety of personalities and occasions around the holiday season. Get ready to meet your perfect wine-mood match and embrace the moments of sharing a well-selected wine with the company you keep for the vibe of your choosing, regardless of what the menu has in store.

But, if you still want to read more about great wine and food pairing ideas, check out our How to Pair section of The Basics.

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Episode Transcript

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.

Speakers: Lauren Buzzeo, Virginie Boone, Jean Hoefliger

Lauren Buzzeo 0:08
Hello and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast, your serving of drinks culture and the people who drive it. I’m Lauren Buzzeo, the managing editor at Wine Enthusiast, and in this episode, we’re taking a look at wine pairings, but not necessarily in the way that so many of us commonly do. When Napa Valley-based wine consultant Jean Hoefliger is asked how to pair wine and food, he responds by saying, “I don’t pair wine and food. I pair wine and mood. For me, it’s about the moment and the company. Nobody drinks a bottle of wine looking at their watch. You stop time and focus on the moment and the people you are in conversation with.” Sounds so fantastically obvious and brilliantly genius, right? Contributing Editor Virginie Boone taps Hoefliger for the best tips to pair wine and mood with a variety of personalities and occasions around the holiday season. Get ready to meet your perfect why mood-match.

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Virginie Boone 2:26
Hello, everyone. I’m Virginie Boone, contributing editor for Napa and Sonoma and we’re here today to talk about pairing wine with mood. Our guest is international winemaking consultant Jean Hoefliger, for whom I will give a quick introduction. So Jean was born and raised in Switzerland and his first winery experience was at his godfather’s estate. After earning degrees in enology, viticulture and science, he went to Bordeaux to make wine at Château Lynch-Bages. Moving to California, he spent five years as the winemaker for Napa Valley’s Newton Vineyard from 2001 to 2005. Jean was part of the Alpha Omega team from its inception in 2006, where he was winemaker and general manager, while also building a global consulting business. In early 2021, he decided to focus on consulting full time. With clients in Italy, Sonoma, Napa Valley and Texas, Jean’s consulting business includes everything he loves, for managing farming to crafting world class wines and advising on business strategies. Jean, welcome.

Jean Hoefliger 3:32
Thank you for having me, Virginie.

Virginie Boone 3:34
I know that, you know, there’s a lot more to your bio than then what I just briefly described. And I know that you are often all over the world, but I’m lucky enough to see you with many of the winemaking projects that you have in Napa and Sonoma. But, you know, this is fascinating that you also are working, obviously, in Europe, which is probably not a huge shock. But Texas is interesting. Do you want to just give a quick little mention of what you’re doing in Texas?

Jean Hoefliger 4:02
Yeah, with pleasure. You know, I think that as a winemaker, you follow vegetative cycles so you actually ultimately have only one shot per year and the more you work or are exposed to different equations, the faster you learn. And so when I was approached by by a friend who used to work with me at Alpha Omega to try to help the Texas wine industry, first I said “Okay, it’s interesting. I mean, we haven’t heard a lot about the Texas when when industry and let’s go see.” And I discovered what Napa was probably 30 years ago, a region that is completely booming with tourism, hospitality traffic interest, surrounded by 27 million people within a three and a half hour drive. And I thought, okay, that definitely has the, you know, the decor in a way to make good wines. Now, let’s look into the real technical side. And I saw that just like many places Texas has its challenge. And the challenges are that we have a shorter growing season, fairly fast sugar ripening process, but a fairly slow phenolic ripeness. And so as a winemaker, you just come in and try to really solve the equation, you know, try to see how you can better. Every wine region in the world has its challenges. So you have to as a winemaker, see it in the most positive way, and try to maximize what you’re given. And for me, it’s extremely interesting to do it as much in amazingly famous and well known areas like Napa and Bordeaux. But it is also amazingly great to be in the pioneer stage of, of a wine region where you really are putting the infrastructure in place to grow in better product.

Virginie Boone 5:54
Well, yeah, absolutely. And I can certainly see the appeal from the production side and the learning side on the farming side. But for a lot of wine drinkers and people who love wine, what they’re really confounded by is constantly this notion of pairing wine with food. There’s just so much emphasis on that sometimes. But you really prefer to pair wine and mood. Being, you know, looking at wine as more something that brings or adds to a moment and to the company that you’re with. I think you’re you’re right, I’ve heard you say that, you know, “Nobody drinks a bottle of wine looking at their watch.” You focus on the moment and the people you’re in conversation with. And so that’s really what I wanted us to talk about given your international expertise with, you know, all these different types of wine. But how can we help people think about this notion of pairing wine and mood, especially around the holidays?

Jean Hoefliger 6:56
I think, you know… I was born and raised in a fairly static, unilateral, almost mediocre mood like country called Switzerland. And I love the country but I was missing true expressions of emotions from the very big of emotions of laughter in expressing happiness to expressing anger. I was in law school and then got really bored and went into the wine industry. Wine as itself made me realize that it is truly about the moment. Things stop when you consume, when you taste a wine. And a lot of people try to focus on paring things, pairing the food because the food is supposed to, you know, maximize the potential of the wine and vice versa. Well, I obviously make a lot of different wines throughout the world, different regions, different varietals. But ultimately, a wine can only be judged by the people themselves. And I don’t almost believe anymore in great wines, I only believe in great bottles, because they’re influenced by the surrounding, by the people, by what you do. So I collect wine because I don’t want to obviously, drink only what I make. I buy wine and buy a lot of wine from other people. And why do I keep collecting and buying these wines, now that I have more wine than I will ever consume in my life? Because of that simple concept of wine and mood. Because every time, every situation that you’re faced with, exposed to, your mood, ultimately, you mindset is actually asking or requesting a certain type of wine. And the holidays are for me, in my life, something that is about gathering is about family is about taking time is about not feeling bad because you’re sitting inside, enjoying a slower pace of life. Being raised in a fairly cold climate, you know, in the winter you’re inside and so it is the perfect time to taste and drink wines that are sometimes a little bit more intellectual, a little bit more reflective, that have a little bit more depth. And I think that every wine has a place in time, has a mood to be matched with.

Virginie Boone 9:25
Well, right and also during the holidays. I mean you we are faced with so many different types of situations. And you know, most of them are joyful, but there are also moods during the holidays that can veer into melancholy or anxiety, you know, there’s just a lot going on for a lot of people. And so all the more reason to really give this some some thought and put some intention into, you know, who you are going to be with, what sort of wines might just really add to to the moment rather than take away. So, I really wanted to talk to you a little bit about some of some of these scenarios that are common during the holiday season and get maybe even some specific recommendations from you. So one thing that obviously you already spoke to, is holiday dinners with family. I mean, if we’re lucky, we all get to do that during the holiday season. So, if you’re having a holiday dinner with your family, what are you usually thinking about serving on the wine side?

Jean Hoefliger 10:29
You know, first, it’s very good that you bring that up as a as a kind of almost a an example, right? Are you really setting the stage almost of a situation. But by setting that up, as in you also have to in a way, first, describe the family. First describe, what do you get along? Is it conflictual, is it drama, is it nostalgic, and stuff like that. So I think that, that really, it is important for me to understand this. And so for me, during the holiday with, you know, my family, it’s usually surrounded by intellectual conversation about whatever. Our past, the news, politics, worldwide situation. So you want something that has energy, but it is also a little bit intellectual. And for me, one of the greatest and most intellectual, you know, wine of them all, is actually Pinot. Why? Because it has so much layers, it has freshness, it has vibrancy, to keep you awake, to keep you alive. But it has so many different layers and it’s so intellectually complex. So, you know, Grenache. Pinots are really for me. Grenache is the Pinot of the Rhone Valley, so these type of wines are certainly wines that I would see surrounding a great meal with a very alive discussion, debate, conversation with your loved ones.

Virginie Boone 12:09
So that’s the happy scene. That’s the happy movie. But what about the movie where the family relationships are a little bit trickier and not everybody gets along?

Jean Hoefliger 12:24
I think for me, if you are in a conversation, and in a difficult situation, at around the holiday with your family, and you know that the comfort level might not be there, I would start moving towards wines that are a little bit lusher, sexier, more giving, you know, like younger wines, younger Cabs, some younger Merlots, things that almost take the pleasure that will just bring you almost the friendliness that maybe you’re missing within the environment.

Virginie Boone 13:10
Right. Yeah. Or maybe it’s something that is a good memory or can lead to a topic a conversation that is kind of more amenable, everybody can kind of get behind, whether it’s travel or a country or historic. You know, something that maybe the family has roots in a place and you can actually all kind of get along around that. It seems like there’s ways that wine can do that nothing else can.

Jean Hoefliger 13:40
You are actually right because the same bottle of wine, Virginie, we know, that tasted in the coast of Tuscany, or in your, you know, 50 square feet apartment on a rainy day in New York will taste dramatically different. So there’s no doubt that that memory, that mood memory will help. And I also think you brought up a very important point, the origin, the time. You know, when people taste something older, they always think about not only the wine being old, but what it represents in history. And if you do it in a complex environment with your family, you absolutely right, to bring an origin, a destination or location or an age, a time in a year that will trigger a certain type of conversation, certain types of memories that will dramatically change an experience.

Virginie Boone 14:34
Well, and you know, I don’t know about your family, but certainly in some of my past family gatherings, I, you know, may or may not have wines that are for the people I know will appreciate them. And then I have other wines for the people I know really don’t pay attention at all and are just looking for something to drink. And you know, it’s a little bit of a party trick I think a lot of us do, but sometimes in these family situations—you know, and you also have preferences. So you want to you want as many family members to be happy as possible, but also may be saved the good stuff for the people that are going to care a little bit more.

Jean Hoefliger 15:14
Yeah, I think for me, that’s why I was describing an easier, lusher, foodier, you know, more almost friendly wine. Because it’s a wine in a difficult environment that can almost soothe people. That can almost bring a little bit of a consensus when you know in certain situations there’s not. And I think, you know, I call them block-bustery wines sometimes. You can even push it hard if you want to not be PC, you know, these one night stand wines are really wines that will please the crowds, and you limit the chances of having differences in I think these wines are extremely useful in such situations.

Virginie Boone 16:07
Do you think they work sometimes to to just change people’s minds about about wine, like if you have family members who say, Well, I only like Cabernet or I only like white wines, that some of these things that you’ve mentioned, whether it’s Grenache or some of these Rhone blends or Merlot, that these can kind of maybe change some people’s perceptions?

Jean Hoefliger 16:29
Yeah, without a doubt. And I think that, you know, obviously, you and I are professionals. We’re exposed to—you, even, much more than me—to so many different wines. And I think one more of my most interesting challenges is exactly to change that. When I hear somebody, “yeah, I don’t drink Chardonnay,” or “I don’t like whites,” or “I drink only reds,” or “I don’t like Cabernets,” or even, “I only drink Bordeauxs.” You know, my first inclination if I hear something like that is to go get an old Napa Cab that is 20 or 30 years old to serve it without showing a label or anything. “Do you like that?” “Yeah, I do.” “Well, it is a Napa Cab.” So I think there’s always exceptions to the rules. And I think it’s tricky and really interesting with people, especially when you know them well in their family to be able to convince them of a perception they never had.

Virginie Boone 17:30
Yeah, absolutely. So let’s talk about something that’s a little bit, in theory I would think, a little bit easier, a little bit cozier, which is over, you know, holiday dinner with close friends, presumably, some of these dramatic elements that can happen with family are not happening with close friends. How do you sort of see the mood of dinner with close friends over the holidays?

Jean Hoefliger 17:57
It’s really interesting, I think the difference between family and friends is what is the historical baggage? You know, yes, you can have friends for 20, 30 years, but you choose your friends, you don’t choose your family. And so, for me, wines that are with friends are actually wines that are on purpose, brought to the table to create discussion, to create differences, to create exchange. And honestly, there’s one concept, one brand that we created specifically for that called The Debate where we put three single vineyards of different locations made by the same guy to create that. Because I don’t think society—and we see it in today’s world, especially in U.S. politics—that we’re completely stopping to communicate, to be able to exchange different points of view. When ultimately, that’s the wellness of society. And to be able to put, you know, a couple of great Cabernets on the table and let people describe [and] expose their perception and really create an exchange. That’s why I fell in love with wine, because it creates that exchange and it is a social tool. Therefore, if you put it on the table with friends, your dinner is not going to last an hour, it’s going to last three and you’re not going to have yes-sayers, you’re going to have no-sayers most of the time, where people actually get into conversation and feel free and respected by having a different opinion. And for me, Cabernet, which is of course the king of of Napa, but also you know, the king of Bordeaux, in so many places is a really great wine to trigger this conversation and debate.

Virginie Boone 19:48
Well, especially, I mean, what I always love about older wines where they change over those three hours. I mean, they change within the first hour, but certainly that first sip is gonna be very different than the last sip. And that also just prompts conversation and prompts debate or maybe you start to go down that memory hole of what was that year like, what was what was happening, like, what were we doing? Did we know each other? All those types of things that, again, lead to other points of conversation that you maybe didn’t think about.

Jean Hoefliger 20:23
I know it’s a huge part of wine. And I’m sorry to say but, but it is extremely rare to have this with other beverages. I think that the wine touches the soul in a very different way. Also, because of its location, its terroir. And sometimes, as you said, it’s age. And, you know, we live so much in a society that is always on the go that is constantly moving, that having these type of Cabernets and older Cabernets, in certain situations, surrounded by friends in this particular case, really grounds people to take time to go back to communication that is based on time. And that is based on intellectual and human exchange. And I think that wine in a way has that social role to play. And for me, it’s absolutely key to have it. That’s why the holidays are together, starting from Thanksgiving, which is ultimately not a holiday that I knew because I grew up in Switzerland. So I have an American mother, she taught us what Thanksgiving was, but the tradition of Thanksgiving was not really part of my life until I moved to the U.S., and it has become really for me, the gateway to that time, to the holiday season. To the time where you actually open these bottles of wines, depending on the situation and express and don’t fear sharing your moods and thoughts with others.

Virginie Boone 21:53
Right. Yeah. So let’s get to that because you know, Thanksgiving as you said, is such a gateway but you know it’s a gateway to to lots of different gatherings, maybe lots of little small get togethers, maybe with your coworkers. And so if you’re doing something a little bit more casual, what do you what do you like to recommend wine-wise?

Jean Hoefliger 22:16
I usually go a little bit further on the fresh still wines of the Sauvignon Blancs, Albarinos, the Chasselas, obviously. Why? Because for me that ease of fragrance, that ease of acidity, brings energy and almost wittiness in people. And, you know, where I was born and raised in Switzerland, you always pass you always last or you spend the second part of any given experience to come back to whites, to come back to high acidity whites in this case, because of that. Because it’s almost a soul lifter, it’s something that really brings your energy level up. And I think that when you put gathering with coworkers and social gatherings like that, you need that energy because sometimes people can be tired, sometimes people, you know, might want to go home instead of doing things. And by having that that high acidity but high fragrance style of wine, I think it brings a joyful mood to people and also stimulates their ability to socialize.

Virginie Boone 23:33
Yeah, I very much agree with that and another part of that is also just just staying kind of staying energetic throughout an evening and also just being able to stay sharp, stay clever, to not have too much alcohol in your system because you really are there to talk to different people and you’re not trying to overindulge in these types of situations.

Jean Hoefliger 23:59
For sure not. But you still want, you know, easy aromatics and be in that feeling of comfort that wine brings. But you know that with sometimes with heavier reds that sometimes reds have a tendency of slowing you down. I think that when you’re in such gatherings, a great Sauvignon Blanc from wherever it is from, the Loire Valley to Napa or a great Albarino—again, this high acidity just gives you the mood and the energy and the excitement of life.

Virginie Boone 24:42
Yeah. Well, what about gifts? Like what about, you know, maybe a hostess gift or you’re seeing people and you want to kind of set the mood of you’re there to celebrate, you’re there to be joyful and you want them to join in on your joy.

Jean Hoefliger 25:04
You cannot say the word holidays without mentioning bubbles. I started working with with a brand called Denali and they actually make Champagne in Champagne. And so we make now Champagne, and bring it back. And yesterday, for the last time, you know, one of my really good friends birthday was there and I invited her over for dinner and she came. And the first thing I said is, let’s pop a bottle of Champagne. Why? Because I think there’s a real true effect of that combination of even higher acidity, right? You and I know that, technically, Champagne has a pH that is lower in acidity that is higher than still wine in general. So you get really that really bright, extremely festive. I mean, think about the bubbles in the mouth, right? It’s like a party, it’s a bubble party. Well, I think that bubbles in well-made Champagne or other sparkling give you that festive side, that energetic, forget about everything. And so it’s kind of interesting, because if you think about the producers of Champagnes and sparklings and Proseccos, and wherever you want to go, in Cavas they sometimes hate the fact that it is festive because it limits often when people want to consume their wine, when their wine is actually a wine. You know, if you go in Champagne, every single dish throughout the meal in the middle of the year is going to be with Champagne. So it is a wine but but that party of bubbles just bring a festive side that I think no other wine can can equal.

Virginie Boone 27:02
Well, and you can’t think about bubbles without thinking about New Year’s. It’s such a common pairing, at least in the U.S., for people to feel like oh, this is my permission, or this is my time that I should be having bubbles. And believe me I agree with that. But it’s also a time to maybe look back, to maybe, you know, go back into your library or to get some older wines. What do you think?

Jean Hoefliger 27:29
Well, I mean, I think people, people have a tendency even more than other wines on Champagne, to drink them early. We know that the stats is fairly clear: 95% of wine in the U.S. are consumed within 48 hours of their purchase. If you go to one year, it’s 99%. And you know, so I think that with Champagne, it’s even more the case. People actually buy Champagne for a specific occasion. So I agree with you if you have the luxury, or the interest or the passion in a way to truly wait. And you don’t have to constantly buy old vintage Champagne that is costing more. Just do me a favor and just try buy a non vintage sparkling Champagne right in the corner of this label. When you bought it, put it down and taste it in five, seven, 10 years, you will see the same aging pattern. And that then suddenly that brightness of citrus and an explosion of a freshness is a little bit mellowed with more walnutty, nut characteristic due to the oxidation and aromatically, it loses, as you say, a little bit of the brightness, partying aspect of its personality and falls more into a reflective way. And I think that you’re absolutely right. If you’re age wine, you usually reflect more.

Virginie Boone 29:03
Right. Yeah, no, I think there’s no doubt about that, at least for me. And certainly when I’m with people who will get into that conversation, it’s great. So we’ve had all these wines, we’ve been getting together with our family, we’ve been getting together with friends, we’ve been enjoying Christmas, Hanukkah, New Years. What about New Year’s Day? A lot of times, maybe we’ve had a little bit too much. We’ve stayed up too late, maybe we’ve danced the night away. What do we need the next morning to really set the year to a good start and maybe feel fresh?

Jean Hoefliger 29:44
So I might surprise you a little bit on that. I have a tradition for every New Year is to go to bed between nine and 10. And the reason for that is I really have a problem being forced to party and too often at New Year’s, I had the impression that people forced me to party. So I went to bed at nine or 10, wake up the next day fairly refreshed, fairly happy. And then I want to party. Then I want to actually enjoy the day after. And usually that’s when I open really older wines, to reflect on the past year that is gone, the future that is that is coming up, that have a more intellectual and an old Napa Cab, an old Newton vineyard, for example, you know, from the ’90s, pre me, you know, from Kongsgaard or from Mole or, or even from Forman back in the day would be great. All these older wines bring to me that reflection. Because it is ultimately, I think, the older you get, the more you enjoy also this time, this time where as we said, time stops. So because, traditionally, I don’t go until one or two in the morning. I don’t say I never do it, because if you find yourself and in a spontaneous great time, why change? But I’m not a guy that likes to be forced to party I think that every day should be celebrated. Every day we’re given should be celebrated. So when we have a forced date or hour set, I tend not to respect it. I guess it’s my contradictive personality.

Virginie Boone 31:34
Well, I think you’re not alone there. You’ll have to, you’ll have to start like a wine drinking collective for New Year’s Day and you’ll find your people for sure. And I like that approach a lot. You’ve given us so much to think about for holiday mood and wine and just that, honestly, I think can be applied beyond the holidays. But I certainly enjoy your take and I know you are a huge Christmas guy. So you’re an even better person to speak to this. But thank you so much for your time. Thank you so much for your insights and happy holidays, everyone.

Jean Hoefliger 32:14
Thank you for having me and happy holidays.

Lauren Buzzeo 32:19
While pairing wine to food will always hold a special place in my heart. I I have to admit that after today’s conversation, I’m completely enamored with the idea of instead pairing wine to mood, and embracing the moments of sharing a well selected wine with the company you keep for the vibe of your choosing, regardless of what the menu has in store. Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you find your podcasts. If you like today’s episode, we’d love to read your review and hear what you think. And hey, why not tell your wine loving friends to check us out too. You can also drop us a line at podcast@winemag.com. For more wine reviews, recipes guides, deep dives and stories visit Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com and connect with us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @WineEnthusiast. The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Lauren Buzzeo and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers.

Published on December 8, 2021
Topics: Podcast