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There are a lot of perks that come with being a wine specialist, from samples to trade shows, the constant exposure and immersion in the industry makes the whole job unreal at times. On occasion, I am even fortunate enough to have private tastings, as I was most recently when invited to a Duckhorn event. Duckhorn has always intrigued me with their recognizable labels limned with drakes and hens, of all different breeds, to show off the anseriformes in their various environments—the pairings of art and wine at work here. In addition to the artwork, I was always curious about the contents but never really felt that it was practical to buy a bottle of pricey Cabernet Sauvignon (though that is changing) for over sixty-five dollars. Since I am unable to routinely purchase a bottle of their wine, I jumped at the chance to taste a fraction of their flock to uncover the mysteries and see if the contents matched their packaging.

Gathered there, we (the specialists for our stores) were asked if we knew about the brand or had any exposure. Most everyone had tasted at least one offering from the winery, I was the black swan. Fourteen wines were poured (110 remain, for the countdown followers) and each came with a breakdown, depending on the label, like Duckhorn vs. Decoy or the Migration vs. Paraduxx. After the philosophies were shared, and winemaking practices were dutifully expounded, we tasted the following:

2010 Decoy Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

2010 Duckhorn Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

2010 Decoy Napa Valley Chardonnay

2009 Migration Russian River Valley Chardonnay

2008 Migration Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

2009 Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

2009 Decoy Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

2009 Decoy Napa Valley Merlot

2009 Decoy Napa Valley Red Wine

2009 Decoy Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

2009 Decoy Sonoma County Zinfandel

2008 Paraduxx Napa Valley Red Wine

2008 Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot

2008 Duckhorn Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

After tasting through a few of the white wines it was nice to finally crack the code on the Decoy and Duckhorn debate, beginning to understand their relation to each other. Decoy is the pure varietal, where Duckhorn takes an old world approach to varietals by blending in the requisite amount (by law) of the named varietal and divvying up the remaining grapes with other Bordeaux varietals. By the time I had the Pinot Noir raised, I was beginning to understand the allure of this brand, seeing the wines for more than a comfort label. Honestly though, I preferred some of the Decoy wines over the more coveted Duckhorn Vineyards wines. In no case was that truer than the Merlot; the Decoy Merlot was one of my favorite wines for its mouth feel, exhibiting chalky tannins in a manner similar to my favorite Carmenères, where the Duckhorn Merlot fell in that bigger, homogenous style that Napa knows so well. Decoy Merlot’s character on the palate was better than the classic flavors of ripe red plum, currants and spice, giving the wine a leg up—for my money— on the Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot.

By the end of the fourteen wines I felt better acquainted with the style, more confident in recommending these wines and demystified as to what lay beneath the feathers. I am not sure if I would want the wine for my stocking stuffer, yet I can see why they are a go-to for so many of my customers and why they deserve a shot with many holiday dinners.

My inaugural wine and burger pairing took place in Brea this weekend with a couple of friends, two flasks and a plastic pitcher full of wine. I could not think of a more appropriate “burger joint” to kick off wine and burger tastings than Brea’s Best—where two Greek brothers own the establishment and have been producing fantastic hamburgers as well as other fine meals for quite some time. One of the brothers (Tom) is also an avid wine enthusiast. It has been a favorite restaurant of mine for twelve years. Brea's Best

My hypothesis was that American wines would drink best with American food. I was going to limit the tasting to strictly California however one Italian wine (a Barolo) found itself on the tasting menu. The wines were picked randomly since this tasting would govern our choices for the next time. The wines poured were: Reversanti (2005) Barolo, Peju Province Merlot (2004) and finally Thompkin 3rd Degree (2006).

Aromas and Flavors

1.) The Barolo from Reversanti (14% alcohol) smelled of anise and cherry—coating the palate fully, big yet smooth. Knowing that this wine pairs well with big meals I thought it had as good as any chance to be the favorite with a hamburger.

2.) The Peju Merlot (14.5% alcohol) from Napa was herbaceous with a tiny bit of vanilla on the nose and medium bodied on the tongue. I selected this wine because I was afraid of overpowering the hamburger with a tight Cabernet—I decided to take a slimmer approach and see if this wine could complement the hamburger.

3.) The Thompkin 3rd Degree (15.8%) from Santa Barbara had the brightest fruit flavor. The full-bodied Cote du Rhone via Santa Barbra was a blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache that seemed to be the strongest of the three choices and could have the advantage when it came to taming the char of the patty.

When the burgers arrived we immediately grabbed our three plastic cups and began pouring the contents of our mobile containers. Since this was a new procedure we fumbled around a bit with procedure and lack of resources: Would we share cups? Should we eat inside?

We ate outside–far from the restaurant (since that is not an option) and we did share cups. We made various observations about the tasting and how each wine interacted with the burgers. The first and most obvious note was that the Peju Merlot was flattened by the burger—all the interesting flavors that were present on its own were absent with each bite of a burger.

Thompkin Cellars 3rd degree shined through the drippings from the patty and the char—as expected, vying for the desired perfect pair of the evening. Its ability to cut through the flavors and still retain all of them was astonishing.

The Barolo was enjoyable from start to finish—it only seemed to gather strength with the meal, enhancing the char. Both were better together and that is what I was looking for. I would not think to have a Barolo with a hamburger but in this case the flavors paired synergistically making it my favorite of the three wines poured.

The next pairing will be better executed—as we have a point of reference—we will be more confident when pouring. We remedied our cup situation by immediately going to Cost Plus to purchase some wine glasses (without stems). We have also deduced that California wine may not have the advantage when it comes to pairing with hamburgers. The Barolo by a nose.

In anticipation of Fridays’ flask tastings I have been extra dutiful in studying wine pairings to determine what might best complement a hamburger. When marrying this dish (or any) to wine, a number of factors must be considered: the meal’s preparation, complementing or contrasting flavors, acidity, and thinking about terroir. Carefully considering these criteria might best lead to the perfect pairing.

No burger is created twice (my apologies to McDonald’s)—though the meal can be simple there is a lot of variation between establishments. A hamburger might feature lettuce, tomato and onion to start but of those ingredients, the lettuce or tomato may not be the same. Some restaurants may favor a red onion, or an heirloom tomato while others prefer white sautéed onions and romaine lettuce. Then there is the patty, which can be grilled, griddled, charbroiled or can include ingredients like peppers or cheese into the formation of the patty. A deluge of options can change the complexity of the hamburger.

To broaden the scope, a person choosing a wine may select a route that can complement or contrast the flavors of the meal, depending on their goal. Complimenting the charbroiled meat I might want to serve a full bodied red because the backbone of the wine will be able to stand up to the bitterness from the char. Specifically, I might want to pair a Russian River Pinot Noir with a fatty burger—dripping in oil from the grind and the preparation—because the acid of the wine can cut through the fat, taming it. If I wanted to contrast the meatiness I would pair the wine with a complete opposite in order to highlight/bring out flavors that may not have been easily detected. Both are acceptable paths and can provide a different perspective on pairing.

Acid can be found in sautéed spinach and a glass of wine—the trick to matching these flavors is making sure that the acids found in my favorite vegetable are in proportion to my glass. If one of the components is too acidic the balance is lost and one of the items will suffer. Matching the acids is of paramount importance—nothing should be steamrolled—instead the acids should be utilized to bring out more in each meal. When it comes to the burger, a ripe slice of tomato might make me adjust my pairing like serving an Italian varietal to match the acid and bring out the savory grind of the meat.

Hamburgers strike me as uniquely American fare, a favorite of mine—comforting and diverse (as noted before). The final edge in selecting a wine that suits a hamburger might be the terroir (or the climate, soil and other elements unique to an origin comprised within a bottle). Wine has been tailored to meat for centuries but certain dishes are representations of their environment. So it is no surprise that it would be difficult for a Canadian Ice Wine (even if they posses great acidity) to pair with a hamburger since it does not share the same locale and was not created to suit hamburgers.  Instead, I will begin my experimentations with California wines; specifically Zinfandel and Merlot to see what can be gained by pouring American born wines.

Terroir is not strictly applied to wine—the influences of a particular locale can find themselves on the menus of many restaurants like sourcing all the meat a chophouse uses from Japan (or an individual Wagyu producer) or Niman Ranch in California where unique philosophies help raise the cattle. Differences in diet—kind of like the soil conditions in wine—between grass and grain fed cows can also have an impact on flavor.

Now these pairings may appear goofy but I am aiming to be practical—haute cuisine is special to me so I do not eat four course meals in excess nor do I find myself eating lavishly at home. I prefer simplicity and it will be interesting to note if this is reflected in the pairing. Hamburgers away.

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