Wines for Drinking, Not Overthinking

Why can't we talk about wine as easily as we talk about food? Writer Salma Abdelnour seeks out a common language while drinking Pinot Grigio with burgers.

Ever since I was too short to reach the checkout counter at the supermarket, I've had an insatiable curiosity about food. The less I know about a certain ingredient, the more I want to taste it and talk about it — whether it's Galician berberechos clams or white-boar soppressata. But when it comes to wine, I tend to keep my mouth shut. I drink wine nearly every day, and I enjoy learning about varietals and regions and producers. But wine lingo and wine trends intimidate me, and I second-guess my tastes and instincts. I'd be mortified to be overheard gushing about something totally passé, like White Zinfandel. Let's be clear here: I hate White Zinfandel. (I'm supposed to hate it, right? Or is it coming back in style?)

To get over my wine anxiety, I decided to conduct an experiment: What if I took wine off its pedestal and treated it the same way I treat everything else I eat and drink? I would talk to some of the world's most respected experts and compare wine to foods and beverages I'm comfortable with — namely, burgers, bacon and coffee. Maybe then I could finally overcome my insecurities.

White Castle Burger of Wine.

© Brian Cronin

The White Castle Burger of Wine

My first question to the experts: What's the White Castle burger of wine? Just as chefs like to boost their street cred by admitting to certain lowbrow tastes — from fast-food fries to RC Cola — I wondered if sommeliers had guilty pleasures, too. I had two goals: One, to make them fess up some embarrassing secrets. And two, to feel less mortified if I happen to enjoy a wine that's unfashionable, even trashy — because if professionals privately drink déclassé wines, then the world is safer for the rest of us.

Some experts, like David Lynch, the wine director at San Francisco's Quince, told me that wine geeks who are slumming it will drink beer or certain "disgusting" cult spirits, like amaro. Others, like Berkeley–based wine importer Kermit Lynch (no relation), begged off the question. One famous expert I spoke to sniffed, "A lot of wine professionals would admit, privately, that they like Silver Oak. But please, that's off the record." (Silver Oak is a popular California Cabernet that's considered outmoded by snobs.)

The most convincing answer came from Laura Maniec, the wine director for B.R. Guest Restaurants (which includes Las Vegas's Fiamma Trattoria and Manhattan's Blue Fin). "Ask most sommeliers, 'Do you drink Pinot Grigio?' and no one says yes," Maniec told me. "But if you blind-taste them, you'd be surprised how many guess it's a very young Grüner Veltliner Federspiel, Chablis or Albariño. They don't admit that they like Pinot Grigio, but they do like it in blind tastings."

More Great Pairing Tips:

Leek-and-Pecorino Pizza
© Con Poulos

I asked her to point me toward a really good Pinot Grigio, and for fun, we agreed to meet at a White Castle to conduct a tasting. I think we both just wanted to eat some sliders. So as not to get arrested, we brown-bagged the bottle, a 2006 Schiopetto Pinot Grigio from the Italian region of Friuli ($30), and poured it into Riedel glasses masked by Styrofoam cups.

The wine was, indeed, refreshing. "I like the ripe honeydew, apple, tangerine and Meyer lemon flavors in here," Maniec said. "It has a rocky minerality and a long finish. How can anyone say they don't like this?" We were pleased with how well the wine complemented the french fries, too. "Usually fries are best with Champagne," Maniec said. "But the saltiness works well with any acidic wine." For my future french-fry cravings, Maniec recommended another, less expensive Pinot Grigio that she's a fan of, the 2008 Tiefenbrunner delle Venezie from northeastern Italy ($15).

She then brought out a surprise bottle: Zinfandel. Many wine pros don't admit to drinking New World wines like Zinfandel, Maniec explained. "We tend to drink high-acid, earthy wines that take us to the place they're from. New World wines don't tend to have as much terroir. But Zinfandel is always true to its colors. It tastes like ripe, cooked fruit." We tasted one of her favorite Zinfandels, a 2007 Kunin from California's Paso Robles region ($24), and it was, quite frankly, sublime with the White Castle burgers. "Saying you don't like this," Maniec said, "is like saying you don't like chocolate."

Bacon of Wine

© Brian Cronin

The Bacon of Wine

My next challenge: to discover the bacon of wine. Whether I'm tasting fried Jimmy Dean at a diner or slow-braised Berkshire pork belly at the swankiest restaurant in town, I'm eating bacon — and I'm probably pretty happy about it. There had to be a wine equivalent, a varietal so fundamentally delicious that I'd love it without having to think too hard about it, whether the bottle cost $10 or $400.

A few experts I talked to chose Pinot Noir. "The acid is soft, the tannins aren't aggressive; it's drinkable juice," said Paul Grieco, the wine director and a partner at Manhattan's Terroir, Hearth and Insieme. Kermit Lynch gave a very specific suggestion: "White Burgundy from a sunny year, from a good winemaker. It will please those who are into terroir and those who just like the taste of Chardonnay."

But, unexpectedly, the most popular pick was Merlot. "It's an easy wine to drink, for the most part. And some of the world's best wines, like Bordeaux's Château Pétrus, are made with Merlot," said Eduard Seitan, the wine director and a partner at Chicago's Blackbird, Avec and the Publican. Matt Skinner, the Australian sommelier who works with London-based chef Jamie Oliver, also chose Merlot: "When I started learning about wine, I read a description of Merlot as plush, round, inky, sweet, full. I thought, I want to drink that. It's like a bear hug from your grandma. It's safe and warm. It puts its arms around you and says, 'It's OK. I'm not here to challenge you, I'm just here for you to enjoy.' "

A wine that's pure, uncomplicated joy: That's what I was looking for. I asked Skinner to recommend two bottles, one under $15, the other over $30. Then I enlisted F&W wine editor Ray Isle to try them with me at my Manhattan apartment. "Merlot is one of the great grapes of the world," Ray explained as we opened Skinner's first recommendation, a 2007 Errazuriz Merlot Estate from Chile that sells for $13. "It's more plush and forgiving than Cabernet Sauvignon, although that can be both a virtue and a drawback. But when it got so popular in the 1990s, farmers started overproducing it and the wine quality fell. Merlot itself is not the problem; the problem is what people did with it."

We poured two glasses of the Errazuriz, and I took a sip. The wine had loads of dark fruit, a lush and velvety feel, and then still more fruit. "This wine hits one note — but it's a nice note," Ray said. I didn't have to pay close attention to catch the nuances; there weren't many. Then again, when I'm eating a BLT, I'm not exactly focused on the nuances of the bacon in the sandwich, either.

Next we opened Skinner's second recommendation, a 2005 Chateau d'Aiguilhe Côtes de Castillon from Bordeaux, which is mostly Merlot blended with some Cabernet Franc. "For $35, that's a really pretty wine," Ray observed. "It has what Merlot wants to have, that deep, dark fruit. The Chilean bottle was more one-note, but this Bordeaux is more like a chord."

Half an hour later, after the Errazuriz had opened up a bit more, it became more subtle and beguiling. Now it was inching closer to pork belly instead of a diner BLT — not that I was quibbling either way.

Coffee of Wine.

© Brian Cronin

The Coffee of Wine

For my last experiment, I wanted to find a wine that was as versatile as it was reliable—a wine that I could happily drink every day. I was looking for the coffee of wine.

Again, I got a range of answers from the experts I queried, from Riesling to Champagne to Syrah. But the response that seemed to really nail it came from Alpana Singh, wine director at Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants, which includes Everest and L20 in Chicago: "For me, Sauvignon Blanc fits that bill. For the most part it's reliable, zippy, goes with a wide variety of foods — spicy dishes, sushi, lots of things. The acidity perks up your palate."

It's also her fallback pick at restaurants, Singh says. "If I don't know how the wine has been stored, I'll order Sauvignon Blanc. At least it has been refrigerated and will have some acidity to preserve it. There's a big difference between good and bad coffee, but if you really need caffeine, you'll drink bad coffee. It's the same with Sauvignon Blanc."

I decided to test her theory by drinking Sauvignon Blanc every day for a week. On the first night, I had just returned from a week of joyful overeating in New Orleans when I was invited to dinner with friends. They served a 2005 Sincerity from Chile, and the acidity made me salivate in a way I didn't think I could muster post-Louisiana-gluttony. It wasn't the best Sauvignon Blanc I'd ever had, but it worked well with the braised artichokes, roasted asparagus and buttery, pine-nut-studded rice — even though artichokes and asparagus are notoriously tough to pair with wine. Score one for Sauvignon Blanc. Night two: I met a friend at a terrific Bosnian hole-in-the-wall in Queens, and afterward, I brought home a sugar-syrup-drenched spongy cookie called hurmasice. I ate it with a glass of 2008 Te Muna Road Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand's Craggy Range ($20), one of the wines Singh recommended, and together they made a splendid nightcap.

On subsequent days, Sauvignon Blanc was a fantastic utility player, pairing well with everything from a Bibb lettuce salad with olive-oil-packed tuna to spicy pulled-pork tacos and grilled-eel sushi. I alternated between the Craggy Range and another wine Singh likes, the 2007 Westerly Vineyards from California's Santa Ynez Valley ($20).

The only time Sauvignon Blanc failed me: One night, after talking a friend through a bad breakup, I went home and poured a glass of the Craggy Range. But the acidity wasn't quite the soothing sensation I was looking for just then. I needed something a little rounder, warmer and more instantly uplifting. An espresso, perhaps, or a glass of Merlot. Or maybe what I really needed was one of my favorite new guilty pleasures: a White Castle burger, paired with a big fat Zin. But this time, hold the guilt.

Salma Abdelnour, a food-and-travel writer based in New York City, is the former travel editor at F&W. She is writing a culinary travelogue about Lebanon.

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