July 04, 2004

An unusual pairing - A fine pinot noir with that Polish dog?

You have a hot dog. You want wine, too. Can they go together? Yes, by thinking of wine as a condiment, says Danny Meyer, the guy behind NYC's Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla, Blue Smoke, and now, Shake Shack, a cool metal kiosk in the southeast corner of Manhattan's Madison Square Park that serves hot dogs, burgers, frozen custard - and wine.

To discover the wine you prefer, Meyer suggests considering the function of condiments: Ketchup is sweet. Mustard is acidic. Pickles work like spice. Wines also can be sweet, acidic and spicy. "Think of when you make pasta: Why don't you have a thick, chunky sauce with angel hair pasta? It would be too heavy. If you have a real smooth sausage, you might want something different than if it was more coarsely ground," said Meyer during the Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen last month.

Joining him at the Hot Wines and Hot Dogs seminar was Fort Collins sausage maker, Terry Miller, who's so serious about sausage that a tattoo of a hot dog runs down the back of his right leg. During the seminar, the standing-room-only crowd had five hot dogs to sample: a kosher frank; a mild Polish sausage; a spinach-flecked pheasant dog; a link of wild boar sweetened by minced apricots and cranberries; and a jalapeño-spiked elk sausage, all of which Miller makes.

No Oscar Mayer wiener

The choices were a little fancier than most households with children under 16 would stock. But that seemed to be part of the point: This tasting was bigger than hot dogs; it would prepare us to pair wine with anything.

So which wines go with which hot dogs? Meyer wasn't telling. "It didn't matter why you liked ketchup with your hot dogs and your sister preferred mustard. You just knew it." It's the same with wine: There is no right choice; there's just the one you prefer.

To prove his point, Meyer had us taste each hot dog with each of eight wines, which included an inexpensive bubbly Prosecco from Italy, the pricier Taittinger Brut Rosé Champagne, as well as an Italian rosé, a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, a pinot noir, an Italian red made from the little-known grape Teroldego Rotaliano, an Aussie Shiraz, and a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.

The reactions of tasters were recorded on tasting sheets: a smiley face, a noncommittal face or a grimacing face. That way, at the end of the tasting, tasters could look down the matrix and quickly discover what combinations of flavors they preferred. "If the columns with the most smiley faces are those with more acidic wines, you know you're in the mustard and pickle category," Meyer said. Likewise, ketchup lovers might prefer softer, fruitier red wines to the light, bright whites.

The increasingly impassioned chatter among the tasters suggested that many people found enough faith in their taste buds to disagree with their neighbor's preferred pairings, but for those still unsure, Meyer asked Doug Shafer, who supplied a Shafer Vineyards Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon for the tasting, to weigh in with his favorites.

Shafer confessed that his food-and-wine pairing experience doesn't go far beyond mac-'n-Merlot. Then he told us: "The killer wine for me was the Falesco. It seemed to match with everything," referring to the rosé, which had light red berry flavor and plenty of fresh acidity. To which Meyer replied, incredulously, "Really?" Meyer preferred the zippy, sharp New Zealand sauvignon blanc and found the light, sparkling Prosecco from Italy, which he'd thought would be a no-brainer - "only OK with the Polish sausage."

Contrasting opinions flew around the room - notably, no one seemed to mind drinking rosé Champagne with their dogs - but in the end, no single wine stood out. Instead, Shafer summed up the majority opinion while proposing a cleverer name for the seminar: "A Dog is a Wine's Best Friend."

Your own taste test

To try this at home, call Terry Miller, aka "The Hot Dog Man," at 970-308-8762 for an array of sausages, and visit your favorite wine store for an array of wines, from sparkling through white, red, and rosé. Make a tasting sheet with the names of the sausages on the X-axis and the wines on the Y-axis.

Start the tasting at a more reasonable hour. Any time after noon would be civilized. Taste the wines first, and note the overriding characteristics or each one: Is it dry, sweet, spicy, soft? Is it closer to ketchup or mustard in action (not taste!)?

Then taste each sausage - just a nibble, working from less pungent to sweeter and spicier - and do the same. Then taste each sausage with each wine, and note on your tasting sheet whether the combo makes you smile, grimace, or doesn't really make you feel strongly one way or another.

At the end, you'll have an interesting read on the way your palate works - not to mention a delicious, if not super-nutritious, meal.

This article originally appeared in the Denver Post.

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