Monday, January 08, 2007

Red Wine, Chocolate

I've always liked to think I'm one of those guys who's ahead of the trends, with my own set of critical faculties and the ability to judge things independently of what other people say about them and, especially, independently of what marketers and food section reporters would like us to think about them. And so it has always galled me when I would "discover" something new and exciting and, within a few months or so, find it had somehow gained broad popularity.

For example, I might stumble across a new band on the Internet and download a song or two and really get into it and buy the CD. Two months later I hear the song on the radio and think, "Hey, those guys are getting some airplay. Good for them." Three weeks later the song is being played on six stations simultaneously and it's being licensed for TV commercials and the band is on every talk show and I'm crabby because the masses have glommed onto my "discovery" and ruined it. As Yogi Berra said, "Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded."

At this point, it should be obligatory that I digress into a brief discussion of "the tipping point". But I won't, because I'm pissed off about the popularity of that phrase, too. (For anyone who may have been trapped under a large rock for the past five years, here's an explanation of the term.) I've long been a fan of Malcolm Gladwell's writing in The New Yorker, and I read The Tipping Point not long after it first came out and just before it achieved best-seller status and started being quoted by every middle manager in America. It's a handy concept and I could apply it here but I won't because the tipping point has reached its own tipping point and become a dreadful cliche.

To egocentrical people like me, these sort of early discoveries are both a validation of our own sophistication and an extreme annoyance. For years, my sister-in-law would get irate if she saw someone at a party or nightclub wearing an outfit she already owned and insist that they were copying her look, even though those people had never seen her before in their lives. I can relate. If we decide something is cool before the mob does, it must mean our critical faculties are more subtle and finely tuned. And, of course, once the mob figures out that that particular thing is cool, it couldn't possibly be because they have good taste, too--they're just doing it because everyone else is.

But recently I've had a new and unsettling thought: what if I'm not actually discovering these new things before everybody else but at the same time as everybody else? Perhaps I'm not in the top 1% of cutting edge people but rather the top 65% or so, and once something has been so broadly exposed that I get wind of it it's already well on its way to fad status? Might it actually be that my tastes and opinions are not empirical and pure but can be molded and swayed by the exact same media and marketing messages as everyone else?

I was led to this realization by red wine and chocolate.

Have you noticed that in just the past few months red wine and chocolate--good dark chocolate, that is--has come out of nowhere and become trendy?

Of course I was out ahead of the curve. About six months ago I came across Chloe Doutre-Roussel's The Chocolate Connoisseur on the new books shelf at the public library, thought it looked interesting, and checked it out. Doutre-Roussel is the chocolate buyer for London's posh Fortnum & Mason department store, and in her book she takes it upon herself not only to educate her readers about the world of pure, top-quality chocolate but also provide a step-by-step instructions on how to develop their own "chocolate palates" and become connoisseurs every bit as discerning as those of wine, cheeses, and cigars. I found the how-to-be-a-connoisseur part a bit snooty, but the passion of the writing convinced me that I needed to seek out a better grade of chocolate.

And I did. Or at least I tried to. First, I took a peek at the candy aisle in the supermarket during a regular grocery trip. There wasn't much to choose from outside of Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate bars, which aren't really all that special. There were a few more upscale brands (like Dove and Lindt), but these were all filled chocolate candies, not pure bars of dark chocolate. Fortunately, Charleston has Lucas Belgian Chocolate down in the Market, and Lindt and Godiva have both opened outlets down on King Street, so you can have your fill of good chocolate if you willing to make a little effort. But, as of the summer of 2006, high-quality dark chocolate was a pretty rare thing, and I felt quite sophisticated breaking off a square or two from my secret trove for a small postprandial treat.
But that changed quickly. Starting this fall, the supply of good dark chocolate boomed. The same supermarket that only six months ago had nothing but nougat-filled Hershey and Mars milk chocolate now boasts several different large dark chocolate bars with 70% and even 85% cacao. The original "Special Dark" bar is milk chocolate, but Hershey's has released its own Extra Dark line that is classic dark chocolate (sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa liquor, and vanilla) with nary a trace of milk.
Dark chocolate sales have been on the rise for the past several years, growing at 20% a year since 2001. That trend accelerated in 2006, with growth topping 40% and all the major chocolate manufacturers scrambling to introduce new products.
But it's not just the dark chocolate that's trendy. It's also the new hot accompaniment to that chocolate: a hearty glass of red wine.
Yes, red wine. I could swear that not two years ago everything I read declared that good red wine and good chocolate are like oil and water--they never, ever go together. Something to do with the tannins in the wine and phenols in the chocolate causing poison gas to form in your mouth or something like that. (See, for example, the Wine Doctor: "Some foods are notoriously difficult to pair with wine. Chocolate is one good example, although why anyone would want to even try is beyond me. If you must serve a chocolate-based dessert, I'd concentrate on combining it with some coffee.")
Suddenly that has changed. "The natural affinity between dark chocolate and red wine is no secret," declares the Prosser Country Chamber of Commerce (Prosser County, Washington, is home to the Yakima Valley wine region.) Tastings and other themed events that pair red wine and chocolate are suddenly everywhere. Search for "red wine and chocolate" on the Internet and you'll turn up dozens of articles recommending you match Zinfandel with bittersweet chocolates and Pinot Noir with dark milk chocolate.
I knew the tipping poi . . . er, rubicon had been crossed when, over the Christmas holidays, on no fewer than three occassions was I offered little squares of dark chocolate to go along with the red wine we were drinking and was told by myt host/hostess that his/her newest passion was red wine and chocolate. "I just don't understand how I made it so far in life without discovering how wonderful these two things are together!" one hostess said to me.
Part of the explanation is that (as I predicted 10 years ago) the Baby Boomers are finally emerging from their family-raising cocoons and, as empty nesters, are determined to discover the finer things in life (this is a topic for elaboration in a whole other post). Unfortunately, the other part of the explanation--as with the explanation for so many other food fads--is that over the past few years reams of studies have been published claiming that, though the jury is still out and the initial findings could be completely wrong, there is something of a chance that dark chocolate just might possibly be good for you.
Tellingly, the marketing materials for the new lines of "premium dark chocolate" from the major candy companies mention little about the flavor of the chocolate, but they load up on the purpoted health benefits of "flavanol antioxidants". The wrapper for Hershey's Special Dark has been given a make-over, with a large logo touting that is is a "Natural Source of Flavanol Antioxidants." Large promo signs in the check out lanes declare that, like a glass of red wine, dark chocolate is good for you.
The thinking, I guess, is that if red wine has antioxidants and is good for you, and dark chocolate has antioxidants and is good for, then the two together must be fantastically good for you.
I personally think red wine and chocolate go fine together. I also think that a cold beer pairs very nicely with steak and eggs, especially around 3:00 am at the Capitol Restaurant in downtown Columbia, SC, with the beer served with a wink and a nudge in a styrofoam cup because it's after midnight and they don't have a Sunday beer license, so maybe I'm not the best one to judge.
Yes, it is disheartening to realize that I'm not nearly as far ahead of the curve as I like to think and that I probably rode the same wave as everyone else to my dark chocolate affectation. And, it's irritating to think that the primary motivator for many of the new red-wine-and-chocolate buffs is not that they enjoy tasting the stuff but rather that they hope it might make them live forever.
Dark chocolate and red wine may well turn out to be the next oat bran. (Does anyone eat oat bran anymore?) But for now, good chocolate is now readily available on almost every street corner, and the odds have gone up dramatically that at the next cocktail party, instead of a big bowl of Doodads, my host will offer me a couple of squares of delightfully dark chocolate and a big glass of Zinfandel.
We could do a lot worse than that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some food (and wine) for thought:

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