Opinion The Great Wine and Pizza Challenge

The Great Wine and Pizza Challenge

Sometimes you want something really traditional...
© Stefano's Pizza | Sometimes you want something really traditional...
Can we strike a balance between slavishly following tradition and trying new things? Let's start with pizza...
By Oliver Styles | Posted Monday, 05-Oct-2020

I’m not sure the 1996 film Big Night ever really attained anything quite like the cult status it either deserved or was pitched at – at least, not outside the culinary world.

If you've not seen it – and chances are about even on this one, given the demographic of wine readers – it's about two brothers and their struggling, authentic Italian restaurant in the US. One of the main themes is the conflict between being authentic (and, in the case of Big Night, not making money) or sacrilegiously breaking the rules to pander to popularity (and be successful). It’s probably best summed up (as wine business heavyweight Robert Joseph did recently) in two words: Hawaiian Pizza.

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Inasmuch as opening gambits go, it's a goodie. In this instance, Joseph leans to the side of the traditionalist argument. The consumer needs to know what the consumer is getting, otherwise surprising said amorphous buying public is bad business sense. Which is fine, I guess. If I didn't already hate the consumer. Not you, you understand, but that amorphous mass. And I hate the consumer here because of an earlier statistic in Joseph's piece: 45 percent of all takeaway orders by British consumers is a Margherita.

You cannot defend a buying public on that statistic. You can say it, at best, represents the average Brit's fear of social inconvenience. You might even, with justification, say that a Margherita can be a thing of beauty. But this is takeaway pizza. Ordering a takeaway Margherita is to be caught in one of two cowardly acts: the inability to make a choice, or the desire to please all by pleasing no-one.

I suspect it has to do with making a choice under pressure. You've phoned it in, you've got people coming over for a movie, you've got to get things rolling with at least one order, you're not sure if Mike's gone vegan now or was it that he was eating fish again? You need a decision, and you need it toot sweet. The monotone voice has gone silent on the other end of the line. There's just a buzz of static. Margherita. "I'll have one regular Margherita – please – and, er…" And then your actual order begins.

Think about your drink

That, or it's because Margherita is always the first one on the list. Or is it because, much like ordering a commercial Pinot Grigio, most people don't want to think about what they are drinking? I'm not entirely sure what aspect of this is in any way redeemable for "the buying public". I want to say that the latter acquits itself better in the US (Pepperoni is the first choice there) but, to be honest, if we're playing a sort of Freudian free-association game and you say "Pizza", chances are I'm going to say "Pepperoni". But yeah, it’s better than effectively ordering a pizza base. They should really call Margherita (and we're talking takeaway chains here, remember) "Appeasement with a sprig of Basil", or cheese on tomato on toast. Except it's not toast is it? Its dough-as-sponge.

...and sometimes you want something a little more funky.
© Eatthis.com | ...and sometimes you want something a little more funky.

Maybe the popularity of takeaway margherita is a damning indictment of popular takeaways: imagine being that scared of the other options. Or have I got it the wrong way round? Is it us? Is it our terror of making a decision that we might not like? Have we become so afraid of our own judgement not pleasing us fully that we plump for not making an actual choice? The pizza Margherita is the ultimate, physical manifestation of being unable to choose a topping. Is this why we allocate two hours on a Friday night to watch a movie on Netflix and then spend all of that time flicking through trailers and synopses without plumping for anything?

And talking of making a choice, let’s get back on track. Which is it: typical or atypical wines? Were you on the side of traditional Barolo or modernist Barolo? (Or avoid the issue and make the Margherita decision of a Barbaresco? Or is that still a bit too modernista? Langhe Nebbiolo it is.)

Are you a "conventional wine" fan, or a "natural wine" fan? Do you howl at the moon when your Loire Chenin is oxidatively made? Do you get violent at the suggestion of flor-aged Meursault? Do you defend typicity to your dying breath? Should Pinot Noir in Chablis remain outlawed? Must we derail attempts to plant Marselan on Bordeaux's hallowed ground? Must we avoid surprising people?

There are a few levels to this, admittedly. There is a difference between reproducing something that is predictable for the consumer (i.e. a Hawaiian pizza is a reasonably standardized item) and having something authentically made (an authentic Margherita, for instance). These counter something unpredictable (go back in time to the first tables to get served pineapple on a pizza) and something not authentic (franchise chain-store margherita). See what I did there?

I was recently asked about this while talking to a university winemaking class: isn't there something to be said for protecting typicity? Yes, there is. And if I'm honest with myself, I'm bluff old traditionalist – I like it when stuff is authentic (if only because that gives me someone very clearly at fault if I don't like it: me). I like my Barolo in botti and my Left Bank Bordeaux predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon. I'm not a huge fan of trying to age absolutely everything in amphorae. But I like flor-aged stuff outside of the Jura or Jerez; I like skin-contact whites – oranges, if you must; I like field blends and non-appellation-approved grapes. I like my Rioja aged in American oak. Oh, hang on…

Building to synthesis

But as you deduce that we're coming to the end of this piece, you're probably wanting some resolution. In France, when writing an essay you are taught that you start with your thesis; you then present the antithesis; and then you close with synthesis – with harmony, resolution.

So here it is. Our thesis says that authentic products, made to a manner that is to a degree both reproduceable and traditional, are to be admired and cherished. Our antithesis says that people should be able to go beyond the parameters set down by tradition and experience, even spit in its face (i.e. put pineapple on pizza or cut up generations of Slavonian oak botti with a chainsaw) and produce terrible new things, produce amazing new things, produce terrible yet amazing new things. Our synthesis says: yes.

I don't think there is an answer to this. I think – like Robert Joseph – we can lean into one camp or another but essentially, I think we are both. I think this area of wine and food (and beyond) exists as perpetual conflict – it's not a debate, it's the state of things. Sure, you can be a "natural" winemaker and at the same time demand your coffee come from Arabica beans.

But, if you do want a takeaway: maybe get better at making risky decisions and its corollary, accepting disappointment. Stop ordering middle-of-the-road stuff and get everyone the vegan pizza, or go all-out on that month's special (don't be a dick and buy all meat when you have a vegetarian turning up, obviously – there has not, to my knowledge, been a counter-movement to the tradition of host responsibility); choose a movie on Netflix within two minutes of logging in or go and play a game of chess, or read a book.

If you didn't like something and someone did, talk about it, debate it. Stop buying comfort wines and buy weird stuff – buy a case of Gewürztraminers. And, after a while, when you're sick of that, fall back on comfort. Rinse, repeat.

The natural state is conflict.

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