I’m gonna start strong here, and I am gonna ask that none of you disagree with me—because I’ve experienced it and you haven’t:
One of the greatest joys in life is taking a pull from a $200 bottle of cabernet next to a dumpster.
Now, don’t go thinking I don’t get it. I do get it. I like drinking wine out of perfect crystal stemware. I like the anticipation of decanting a bottle to unlock the hidden flavors within. I like celebrating a promotion or anniversary with that bottle I’ve been saving, and love the satisfaction of slaving over a meal worthy of being served with it. Really, I get it. But good booze is good booze, even if you’re standing next to a dumpster. Maybe the Clif bar wasn’t the perfect pairing, but you make the best of the situation. I don’t need a white tablecloth, and I don’t need candles. A plastic fork will do in a pinch. Maybe it’s because I became a bartender and not a chef, but I will blow my budget on a great bottle and skimp on the food nine times out of 10. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying culinary splurging isn’t worth it sometimes. It definitely is, and I definitely do. But for me, the spell of the glass is stronger than that of the plate.
Hypothetically, if you had a $150 budget and had to prepare a dinner in which 90 percent of the budget was for wine, and the other 10 percent was for food, I think you could find some decent pairings. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be a better situation if you had a bigger food budget, but wouldn’t everything be better with a bigger budget? I’m just arguing that sometimes you don’t need to wait for that perfect meal to open a good bottle. Hypothetically, I think you could still enjoy the wine with some low-rent cuisine. Aww, f*ck it. Let’s just try
On Stock & Barrel’s behalf in February, I held an experiment in which a five-course wine dinner was prepared and served in the back room of a bar. I was joined by Kyle Wine, (yes, that is his real name) of Wine Trends Distributing, who chose the three wines from their excellent portfolio to be featured for the dinner. With a total budget of $150, our wine cost added up to roughly $140, leaving around $10 for food. After discussing the chosen wines, we set out to find some foods we thought might work well, returning an hour later, to prepare the dinner with only a microwave and plastic utensils. We were also joined by fellow Stock & Barrel conrtibutor V.R. Bryant, and the owner of local record shop/beauty parlor Broken Records and Beehives—both of whom happened to be drinking at the bar.
Laurent Perrier Champagne
(retail price: $40, available at The Hills Market Downtown)
The scoop from Kyle: Laurent Perrier started in 1812 and is one of the best-known Champagne houses in France. This is its non-vintage cuvee, which is meant to be done in their house style. Non-vintage means it’s a blend of different years, which some people think makes it less important, but really it just allows them to achieve the style they were going for. It has a bit more Chardonnay than your typical French Champagne, around 50 percent, and it’s rounded out with Pinot noir, and Pinot Meunier, the typical blending grapes of Champagne. It definitely has a signature citrus flavor to it. A little bit of apple, a little bit of pear, and a nice biscuit flavor.
Recommended pairings from the pros: Caviar, oysters, fried food, lobster, egg dishes, chicken, foie gras, salmon, quail
Our pairings: Whole, deep-fried chicken livers from Buckeye Express Chicken and Fish; Giant Eagle brand frozen breaded mushrooms
Overheard: “Well, any actual gourmand would say that livers and wine would go better than gizzards and wine.”; “I mean,chicken fingers could be made of anything; yeah, but they’re not fingers.”
Verdict: Holy shit, fried chicken livers are great with champagne. Mineral-tasting and earthy, with that crispy breading. I fully expect Buckeye Express Chicken and Fish to be the next foodie hot spot. I’m talking drive-thru lines 40 cars deep. The mushrooms didn’t work as well, but to be fair they weren’t supposed to go in the microwave, and that’s all we had.
Domaine Faury St. Joseph Syrah
(retail price: $40, available at Hausfrau Haven)
The scoop from Kyle: This is from the St. Joseph region of the Northern Rhone. Like most of the wines in this region, it is 100 percent Syrah. The vines used to make this wine were planted between 1937 and 1976. So we have some extremely old vines, resulting in a very concentrated flavor. You could detect some floral aromas and tastes to it, and also a bit of gaminess. It’s a really funky but at the same time really beautiful wine. People tend to associate Syrah with being big and robust, but this particular one is a bit more on the medium side. It’s got a nice balance of acidity to it.
Recommended pairings from the pros: Spareribs, duck, aged cheese, steaks, mushrooms, stewed red meats, lamb
Our pairing: Campbell’s Chunky Savory Pot Roast, served with a mild Slim Jim
Overheard: “I guess that’s the true test of chunky, if you can eat it with a fork”;” “Is Donovan McNabb’s mother on the front of it?”; “Campbell’s has really let us down—can we give them a negative Yelp review?”
Verdict: Swing and a miss. You can really underestimate the salt bomb that is canned soup. This blast of sodium combined with a salty Slim Jim was just way too much for the wine. Salt actually acts to change your perception of bitter flavors, and this allowed for a sweetness to emerge in the wine. Once we put down our soup bowls the wine was back to perfectly balanced. Lesson learned.
Heitz Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet
(retail price: $55, available at Cornerstone Craft Beer & Wine)
The scoop from Kyle: Heitz Cellars is one of the original Napa Valley producers. It was started in 1961 by Joe and Alice Heitz, and now we’re on the third generation of the Heitz family running the winery. This cabernet has three years of oak aging, one year in an oak tank and then two years in French oak. Compared to other Napa Valley cabernets, it’s much more subdued, much more subtle, not so over the top with tannins and fruit. The french oak really mellows it out. A lot of blackberry, a little bit of earthiness. It’s not overly dry, just a delicious cabernet. A lot of care goes into this one.
Recommended pairings from the pros: Beef, camembert cheese, game birds, rack of lamb, chocolate, venison, squab
Our pairing: Banquet brand frozen salisbury steak with potatoes and sweet corn.
Overheard: “I like that you’re following the rules. Even when I eat Lean Cuisines I’m just like I don’t give a shit what you say—five minutes. Bam. It better be ready—I’m not gonna jump through any hoops.”; “One of the ingredients is extractives of paprika. Why wouldn’t you just use actual paprika?”
Verdict: You always go back to Banquet. That’s the slogan Kyle suggested they use when we found ourselves going back for more of this unbelievably cheap frozen meal. Salisbury steak is perhaps the most vanilla preparation around when it comes to meat, but it allowed the toned down cabernet to shine, and the flavors in the gravy worked flawlessly.