Just because your dinner comes in a disposable container doesn’t mean you can’t be civilized about it. Uncork a decent (but not necessarily expensive) bottle of wine. Frankly, you probably need a drink if all you can muster up for dinner is a cellophane-wrapped tuna salad sandwich from the cold case at the grocery store.
Bill Summerville is here to help. Summerville is a familiar face in the Twin Cities restaurant community. He was sommelier and managing partner at La Belle Vie, opening general manager for Spoon and Stable, and he designed the wine program for Scena restaurant.
And while his current job as a sales rep for New France wine often finds him gallivanting around the globe eating great food and drinking fabulous wine, some nights Summerville orders fried chicken from Dulono’s — just like us mere mortals for whom dinner often consists of whatever Bite Squad will bring to the door.
He’s also a realist, so he knows that for many (most?) people, spending $100 on a bottle of wine is out of reach and spending $30 is a stretch. Luckily, he says, there are good values and tasty bottles to be found at any price. Sure, an $11 bottle won’t be as refined or nuanced as a $100 bottle, but then your Kraft mac and cheese is no lobster truffle pasta, either.
The following are his tips on how to explore creative pairings for some favorite takeout options.
Learn a few rules, then experiment.
Summerville met us at Red Wagon Pizza, where we sampled seven wines alongside sushi, barbecue ribs, and pizza. As the taste testing proved, there are no hard and fast rules for enjoying wine with your food, but there are some general principles that will help guide you in the liquor store. From there, let your palate and your pocketbook be your guide.
The common wisdom that red wines go with meat and white wines go with fish and seafood is as good a place as any to start, just don’t let it limit you. Another way to put it is that heavier wines go with more substantial dishes, lighter wines with less heavy foods.
What grows together, goes together. Pair wines with food from the same part of the world. If you’re having pasta with a red sauce, a sangiovese is a safe bet. A Loire Valley goat cheese is a natural with sauvignon blanc.
Match your wine to the most prominent element in the dish. If you’re eating ribs and all the fixings, you have spicy sauce, but also tangy coleslaw, and probably fries. Clearly, the ribs are the star of the show, so match the wine to them, not the coleslaw.
Alcohol exacerbates spicy heat, so choose a medium- to low-alcohol wine with Mexican, Thai, or Indian food.
When serving wine with dessert, your wine should always be sweeter than what you’re serving it with.
The bad helps you appreciate the good.
There are a few amazing pairings, many average pairings, and good deal of bad pairings, notes Summerville, and, as with life in general, “You have to taste the bad to appreciate the good.” As long as the food and beverage do not fight with or take away from each other, you’re off to a good start.
Find a good wine shop.
It helps to make friends with someone at your favorite liquor store whose opinion you can trust so you know they’re not just trying to pawn off that rot gut they have 20 cases of and need to unload. And have some information ready when you’re looking for a recommendation. Are you a fan of fruity wines? Do you like a floral note, or a more earthy undertone? Do you prefer a dry or sweet wine? Don’t be embarrassed to name a price. A reputable liquor store will be able to find you the best bottle for the price. Although if your price is under $5, best head to Trader Joe’s for some Two Buck Chuck.
Trust your instincts.
Pairing can get complex, but even after years of studying wine and choosing pairings for some of the best restaurants in town, “it’s best to go with your gut,” says Summerville. Sometimes you just know that two things will or won’t complement each other, he points out. Think about a chocolate doughnut and orange juice. Gross, right? Now, how about coffee and doughnuts? Much better. That’s because the sweetness in the doughnut will play well with the bitterness of the coffee. And your years of experience as an eater and drinker (a.k.a. your gut) tells you that without you having to taste it for yourself. He calls these “cultural pairings,” taste memories based on what you ate growing up.
Document your hits and misses.
Take pictures of the wines you like, Summerville suggests, so you can find them again; conversely, if you hated a wine, having a picture keeps you from bringing home another bottle by mistake. If you want to really get serious, take notes. Write down what you liked about the wine (it was effervescent, it tasted like strawberries, it paired perfectly with a hamburger) or what you hated (it smelled like cat urine, the tannins made you pucker up, it was too sweet). You might start to notice a pattern — you really like sauvignon blancs, for example, or you never like cabernet sauvignon.
Taste with friends.
You can explore pairings one at a time (does this cava go with these nachos?), but it is much more educational — and fun — to invite some friends. Have everyone contribute a different bottle of wine and some food so you can try a couple types of wine with each dish to see what works and why. You may never be a professional sommelier, but you can make sure your food and your wine make each other better — even if that food comes in a grease-stained cardboard box.
A few picks from the pro:
Here are some budget-friendly wines Summerville likes. They’re all available at local liquor stores:
Reserve de la Saurine Rosé (France)
Price: Low teens.
This is a perfect summer wine; drink it with a salad or when you’re making a meal of cheese (especially goat cheese and lighter, fresher cheeses) and crackers.
La Cigarerra Manzanilla Sherry (Spain)
Price: Low teens.
We liked this wine with sushi; also try it with fish and chips or other fried seafood, or when “dinner” is a bag of potato chips or popcorn.
Hugo Gruner Veltliner (Austria)
Price: Mid teens.
This is the wine to turn to the next time you order pad Thai or other mildly spicy Asian food.
Easton Zinfandel (California)
Price: Around $20.
Try this one with barbecue ribs.
Avinyo Reserve Cava (Spain)
Price: High teens.
What doesn’t go with a vivacious sparkling wine? OK, maybe there are a few things, but it’s hard to go wrong. It’s especially good with anything fried and mildly salty.
Do Ferreiro Albarino (Spain)
Price: Mid 20s.
Another great summer wine, this one is perfect with seafood.