An exchange I had recently with a customer at the store where I work sticks with me, as often happens when moments don’t go right. I keep replaying the conversation in my mind, amending as I go, wishing I’d said this but not that, etc.

She was glancing at a bottle of Castano Monastrell 2009 ($9, Central), a rear-legs-kicking, gnarly desert-n-tanglewood Spanish red I happen to love (and so will you, if you love peppery, spirited red wines that don’t take no for an answer). At the same time, I was stocking shelves with a different Monastrell, the Atope 2008 ($13, Wicked) – less ornery, playing in a higher key with mint and blueberry prominent, a favorite of mine these days.

We recognized this shared moment with a somewhat uncommon grape, and got to talking. Turns out she’d lived in Almansa, the Atope’s home region, and had happy tales of quaffing Monastrell daily from the village urn at about $3 a bottle. She also had a bag of tofu in her hands, and as she grabbed a bottle of the Atope, I asked how she was planning to cook it to match with that wine.

She literally laughed. “I have no idea. You can’t drink wine with tofu.” With that, she was off to pay, and I started to say, Yes-Wait-Yes, but she laughed again and was gone.

This was what’s known as a teachable moment, and although I missed the opportunity then, I’ll try to re-seize it now. First of all, you can and should drink wine with tofu! There’s wine for everything.

Second, eat lamb, lentils or sausage and hearty greens with either of those Monastrells, and see what happens. Use the flavors and associations of a wine you know to suggest food matches, rather than just putting the wine next to food you happened to cook and crossing your fingers.

Third, the question of what to drink with tofu is as broad as what to drink with pasta. Both, plain, present almost completely neutral flavor profiles, and so what’s important is your preparation, other ingredients and sauces. (Therefore, any wine’s back label that says it’s a “great match for pastas” should be regarded skeptically.)

Simple red wines with a mix of sweet cherry and tongue-tingling acidity – like the Il Morino Sangiovese 2009 ($10, Central) or Capestrano Rosso Piceno 2009 ($10, Pine State) – are perfect if you’re covering pasta with tomato sauce, but with rabbit rag?ou need to drive deeper: Vietti Barbera D’Asti Tre Vigne 2008 ($15, Wicked) is amazing, at once gamey – chewy even – and bright. Pasta with a mushroom-cream sauce would get wrecked by that Sangiovese, but would be exalted by an earthy Pinot Noir or a nutty southern Rhone white that blends Marsanne and Rousanne. Everything, always, depends on the details.

This returns me to the tofu. If you’re beholden to that Monastrell, make your meal conform to it: rub firm tofu generously with a Cajun spice mix and blacken it; crust the tofu with ground walnuts and currants before frying; make a sauce using roasted garlic; add chipotles; add bacon.

Best, though, is don’t be beholden to the Monastrell! Find additional wines to love. There’s comfort food and there’s paralysis; recognize the difference. If you prefer your tofu in Thai style, using coconut milk, ginger and lemongrass, a boisterous red wine is ridiculous. Rather, the Leitz Dragonstone 2008 ($17, SoPo), is super vigorous, lusty and open, surefooted and stony, with just enough polenta-y sweetness to offset your tofu’s heat.

But say you’re creating a different kind of Asian heat, more of a Chinese style with star anise, peppercorns and soy? For that, you want something more succulent and plunging. Try the best red wines you’re not drinking, Cru Beaujolais (I’ve written on these before; see my blog for the archive if you want specific suggestions), or the extravagantly terroir-y Independent Producers Merlot 2008 ($11, Nappi) from Washington state, deep like an Oaxacan mole with cocoa, pumpkin seeds and innumerable other stealthy spices and dried fruits.

Pairing food with wine is endlessly fascinating, and you can do it in a playful, experimental way rather than anything grim and academic. There’s much more to discuss along these lines, but for some reason The Press Herald editors don’t hand me the entire Wednesday paper to play around in (something about world, national and local news, apparently).

For that reason, let’s consider this column Part One of an extended investigation into what wine and food actually have to do with each other. Part Two will come two weeks hence.

Meanwhile, please address questions/comments to my blog or e-mail address, and I’ll try to incorporate them into the next column.

 

 

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: [email protected]