Winos stole my burrito!

jalapenoWine has changed my life in so many ways, almost all of which have been positive from my point of view. There are the health benefits, social benefits, and probably most profound of all, the opportunities that writing about it has opened for me. One change that I have mixed feelings about is in the way that I relate to food since becoming a full-fledged (as opposed to being a half-assed) wino.

Food and wine seem like such a natural match that it would seem likely that wine could cause me to quit enjoying any of my favorite foods, but it has. Prior to my life as a wino, I was a beer guy. I also loved intensely spicy foods. Okay, I still love beer and spicy food, but I tend to think of meals as something to be paired with wine these days.

I’m sure that plenty of people can give me recommendations for wines that they love when paired with jalapeños, jerked chicken, Pad Kee Mao, or curry. The problem is, for me, most of those dishes are not in any way enhanced by a glass of wine. Those are beer dishes in my mind. However, it isn’t just an association in my mind.

One reason that beer works better than wine with spicy food is that capsaicin, the compound that brings the heat in peppers, is alcohol soluble. Most beer does not have much alcohol per sip, but most wine has enough that it will dissolve just enough capsaicin to spread it around the mouth even more, but not enough to wash away the burn. This is why, if you must drink wine with spicy foods, it is usually recommended that they be paired with low alcohol Rieslings and Gewürztraminer, particularly if they have a bit of residual sugar, which helps damp down the flames.

Now it turns out that there is another reason reason why spicy food and higher alcohol drinks do not mix. Researchers in Europe have found that alcohol interacts with a protein known as VR1 to increase the pain. This article goes into it with a little more depth. Here are a couple of excerpts:

The new findings, reported in an upcoming Nature Neuroscience, emerge from research led by John B. Davis of Glaxo-SmithKline in Harlow, England, and Peirangelo Geppetti of the University of Ferrara in Italy. The scientists focused on ethanol, the world’s favorite form of alcohol, and its influence on a protein called the vanilloid receptor 1 (VR1). This receptor, which sits on the surface of some sensory nerve cells, first drew public attention when researchers learned that it responds to both high temperatures and capsaicin, the substance that makes certain peppers taste hot.


Davis and Geppetti now have demonstrated an alcohol-VR1 connection in the laboratory. They’ve shown that ethanol triggers certain tissues, such as skin, to release the same neurochemical signals secreted when heat or capsaicin stimulate VR1-laden sensory nerves. Triggering nerves in such tissues with capsaicin eliminates a subsequent ethanol response–further indication that the alcohol acts on the same nerve cells.

That goes a long way towards explaining why my tastes have changed quite a bit as I’ve become much more serious about wine. Another factor is that I choose not to eat very spicy foods too often because capsaicin can temporarily dull your sense of taste. Spicy food lovers probably notice that the more often they eat blazing hot spice, the more they can tolerate. While this effect is temporary, it will definitely effect the ability to taste wine properly.

Now don’t get me wrong, wine makes most foods taste better when properly paired. It has also re-kindled my love of simpler rustic foods, and ignited a love affair with unadorned, simple seafood. Sometimes, though, I miss the fire. Good thing there are also a lot of times that I miss my beer.

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