With the weather entering summer territory in most of the U.S., and many states and municipalities relaxing some social distancing guidelines, the time is right to start thinking about the pinnacle of outdoor eating: barbecue. The term itself encompasses such a range of cooking methods and ingredients — and potential drink pairings — that we had to devote an entire podcast episode to it.
On this week’s episode of the VinePair Podcast, Adam, Erica, and Zach roll up their sleeves and offer up some of their favorite pairing suggestions for this staple of summertime enjoyment, barbecue. From burgers and brats, to smoked brisket and pulled pork, to serving suggestions for each, they discuss why so many people don’t take drinking at cookouts and barbecues seriously — and when, perhaps, they should.
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Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Erica: From Connecticut, I’m Erica Duecy.
Zach: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the VinePair Podcast. Before we get into everything else we want to talk about today, I want to say that none of us even want to be talking about barbecue wines right now. There’s a lot going on in the world right now. If listening to a podcast talking about barbecue wines is not what you want to do, I completely understand. We’ll catch you here when you feel comfortable listening to a podcast like this again. We know there’s a larger conversion that needs to happen about equality and people of color in this industry. Rather than rush a podcast to discuss those issues, we want to do it right and be consistent. This is an issue that’s not going to go away and needs to be solved over a period of time. This doesn’t get solved by us doing a podcast really quickly this week. We talked about it, and that’s the decision that the three of us came to. We will be deliberate about tackling this problem, and we will try to bring on the right guests who can speak to it. In all honesty, three white people in the industry talking about this problem isn’t going to solve it. It’s going to be solved by bringing people in this industry who have been affected and impacted or faced systemic racism, telling us how we can come together as a community and solve this problem. I wanted to address that right now before we jump into everything else. For those listening, we at VinePair are publishing a database where you can see all the black-owned wine, beer, and spirits businesses you can support. That’s the first thing, but not the only thing we can do. Please make your voice heard. Please get out there if you can. Please give to charities that are fighting this and trying to make this right. Please vote in November. With that, let’s get into the podcast.
E: Sounds good.
A: It’s been a crazy week, but there’s something coming up that everyone at VinePair is excited about, the VinePair Drinks Experience. It’s happening June 23, 2020 through June 26, 2020, on our site and on the interwebs, on a webinar near you. It’s going to be an incredible online digital drinks festival. We’re going to bring together our favorite personalities and brands in the drinks space to have incredible classes, seminars, and tutorials in the world of drinks. Whether you’re a cocktail aficionado or someone who loves wine, there will be something right for you. The VinePair Drinks Experience will be easily accessible on our website, VinePair.com, where you can sign up. We have a track for the trade or a track for consumers. You can take part in getting as deep into a subject matter as you want. You can also have a track where you’re interested in making base level cocktails for the first time. There’s a lot for everyone in this digital drinks festival. We’re excited about it and we hope that as listeners of the podcast, you’ll check it out. Again, it’s June 23, 2020 through June 26, 2020. There will be a lot more information on our website about it very soon, and we want our podcast listeners to have heard about it here first.
Z: I am legitimately excited for this. In my own work and activities, people are missing so many opportunities to go learn and experience in a way they normally would year round. Late spring or summer is the time for people to travel and attend festivals or conventions. Because of Covid-19, that’s just not possible right now. I’ve seen some of the details, it’s a remarkable event. I say this as someone who’s not as intimately involved in the planning, so I have a touch of objectivity here, but it’s a kick-ass set of events. I’m not sure how I’ll be able to attend as many of the events as I can while watching my son but that’s what screen time is for.
A: It’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m really pumped for it.
E: Everyone is! We have a lot of exciting news to come on the programming. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
A: Please check it out. Again, it’s June 23, 2020 through June 26, 2020. Now, let’s get into barbecue drinks. Barbecue season is 100 percent upon us. It’s a fun subject to tackle because we treat the wines and beers we drink a little less preciously than in other social settings. I’m curious: Do you guys have a go-to drink when it comes to barbecues?
E: I do.
A: What is it?
E: When I started thinking about this episode, the thing that I kept coming back to was that our best utility in this episode is to share our insight about how not to have that crappy, hot red wine in a plastic solo cup that you have at every pool party. When I’m thinking about barbecue wine, I go to a rosé. It’s a really good, all-purpose summer wine, whether you’re having grilled chicken, salmon, sausages, burgers, steak, or whatever it is. Rosé is my go-to, all summer long.
A: OK, I get it. Zach?
Z: A barbecue is one of the few gathering times where I steer away from wine. Some of that is likely because of the experiences that Erica mentioned, of crappy wine, too hot, in a plastic cup. There are wines like rosé or chilled reds where you can avoid some of those issues, but one of my favorite things to do for barbecues is to make a punch. Punch is one of these drinks categories that is criminally underutilized in a modern drinks culture. It solves a couple of problems. First, you can tailor the flavor profile to what you’re serving. If you’re leaning on red meat, you can look at a more robust punch, even something with a brown spirit. If you’re leaning on lighter fare at your barbecue, then you can look at something more fruit-driven. If made well, it can be sippable for a long period of time. It can also be super easy to serve. You as the host don’t have to worry about where the next bottle of chilled wine is, or if there’s enough room in the fridge, or if there’s enough ice. Ice is a part of punch, sure, but you don’t need as much as if you were keeping a bunch of drinks cold. And frankly? It’s just fun. We served a punch at my wedding, and I’ll mention, we made a strategic error which you should probably avoid if you’re going to have a barbecue. We made the punch in a traditional sense. It had both spirit and wine in it. A number of our guests were not aware of that, or didn’t look closely at the menu. They ended up a little more inebriated than they intended to. So, you want to be careful. Use sparkling water to round out your punch. The point is, it’s a lot of fun, it’s relatively easy to prepare ahead of time, and it’s endlessly malleable to what you want to have.
A: I dig the punch. I also like rosé. I agree with Zach’s point. My issue with backyard barbecue is that the wine gets warm very quickly. There becomes a time when it isn’t as refreshing as you want it to be. Or, someone pulls the bottle out of the cooler and just sets it on the picnic table. You finally get to it, and it’s warm in the bottle, too. You feel bad for the person who brought the bottle because no one’s going to drink it now. Or, it’s got to go back in the cooler and get cold again. That just sucks. It’s never a good thing. I tend to drink wine at a barbecue every once in a while, but my go-to is pilsners. I’ll drink a crisp, cold pilsner any day. When it comes to a barbecue, it’s just so refreshing. It’s just the right amount where it stays cold throughout the entire time I’m drinking it. I can grab another one out of the cooler. It’s low enough in alcohol. It’s a very easy go-to. For the same reasons you guys are listing with wines, I won’t tend to reach for IPAs because they’re higher in alcohol. I’m already sweating. I don’t want to get too drunk too quickly. I want to have a sessionable experience with my friends. For me, pilsners are 100 percent the way to go.
E: Yes. If I’m really looking for something that’s super cold and refreshing beyond rosé, my go-to, I’ll do a spritz. It could be an Aperol Spritz, with an orange characteristic, or Cynar. Cynar has an artichoke characteristic that’s actually so delicious. You can do a Campari spritz. To make a spritz is so easy. It’s just three ounces of Prosecco, two ounces of liqueur, and one or two ounces of soda water. Much like a pilsner, you’re watering the thing down like it has a lower ABV, so you’re not going to get smashed.
A: That’s a good point. Why do you think people assume that this is a time to drink crappy wine? Everyone thinks this is where you put the throwaways. People say, “I’m going to a barbecue. I’m going to spend less than 15. Let’s see what happens. It’s not going to stay in the cooler anyway.” Why do you think that this is?
Z: There are two reasons. The first is that if you’re a stereotypical wine connoisseur, you don’t think of sitting outside with your buddies eating burgers as a place where you want to open treasured wines from your collection. It’s a space that is in the same way that we don’t consider most barbecue, with some exceptions, to be the pinnacle of cooking.
A: Oh no, it’s the pinnacle of cooking.
Z: I want to be clear. It depends on what we’re talking about here. My second point: In the end, some of this comes down to: How good is the food that you’re eating? We’ve all had the experience where you or someone in your family has a smoker, and they know how to make that style of barbecue. Or, they cook it on the grill. They grind their own meat. They get great quality product. It’s a legit dining experience. There is a good idea to bring rosé, but also some of the higher end Provençal rosés. Look in the Top Rosés for 2020 that we talk about as being premium rosés. Or, I’m going to get a really nice pilsner from a local brewery. I’m not necessarily going to buy something that’s produced on a larger scale. Because hey, this is great food. Even if I’m in a casual setting for dining, it doesn’t mean I can’t have a really great drink. For a lot of people, whether it be beach, park, or somewhere else, people’s standards are lower. They expect that food is going to be tasty but not amazing. The focus there is on things besides the drinks. It’s catching up with family. It’s games you’re playing. It’s a natural place to not necessarily put your best foot forward in terms of drink quality. I can certainly understand disagreeing with that. I often bring reasonably good wine to these things because that’s what I prefer to drink, if I’m going to be drinking. In our mind, though, the standard is lower. For example, traditionally you go to a baseball game, and this is changing in some stadiums, but you drink whatever macro lager they have. You’re there for another experience, and beer is just a part of it. There’s a lot of that intention that goes along with this.
A: You’re saying if someone went to Costco and bought frozen patties to put on the grill that are pre-made, that won’t be when you bring out high-end stuff.
E: That’s time for hard seltzer. That’s when seltzer gets popped with bags of chips. It’s that type of barbecue. But if you’re grilling salmon, for example, chill a Pinot Noir down a little bit. That’s one of the biggest problems with barbecue pairing. The temperature outside is pretty hot. It could be in the 80s or 90s. The drink, though, even if it’s a red wine, shouldn’t be getting hotter than 70 degrees. It’s not going to show well at all. So, chill down that Pinot Noir slightly and put it in the cooler for 10 minutes. It’s going to taste better with that salmon than if it’s 75 degrees or 85 degrees sitting in the sun.
A: Here’s the issue. We should have started off with the definition of the word barbecue.
Z: Oh, man. Things are going to get ugly.
A: What the two of you are talking about is grilling. Which is fine. You can grill. But when it’s barbecue, that food is some of the finest cuisine in this country. If you have some smoked pork butt or pulled pork, with a fine Burgundy, that’s delicious food right there. Or a really good brisket with a nice, cold Syrah, that is a dope pairing. It’s in the difference, as Zach was saying, of whether we’re grilling and chilling, or barbecue where there’s a whole culture around it in this country. There’s been a lot of care that’s gone into it. It’s caused us to have one of these true American cuisines. This idea of where that’s come from is incredible. That meat, the result of that cooking, is some of the best meat you’ll have in your life.
E: We should give pairings for both. If we’re talking brisket and smoked pork, which is my favorite, what are the ideal pairings? I’ve got my own perspective here, but what would you guys say are the best pairings for those meats?
A: Brisket? I really am not a huge barbecue brisket fan. I’m from the real South…
Z: That’s what I’m saying. Things are going to get ugly.
A: I’m not Texan, so I know what barbecue is, actually. It’s all on that Pinot tip. Burgundy, Willamette Valley Pinots, Russian River Valley are all great with pork. If it’s going to be brisket, I’ll just say let’s have the burnt end baked beans because that’s the only thing that’s delicious. If I can only just have true brisket, I would do it with something like a Cabernet or a Merlot. But when I go to have barbecue, that’s just not what I want.
E: What about you, Zach?
Z: Growing up in Washington, barbecue is sadly, mostly imported. But, I’ve had the opportunity to do some traveling, and I have a cousin who wrote a book about barbecue. He is from Texas, so his perspective is oriented around brisket. But on the beef side, you’re looking at two important flavor notes. First is obviously the smoke. If you don’t have a wine that’s going to pair or a drink that’s going to work with those smoky flavors, you’re going the wrong way. Adam mentioned Syrah. Syrah is a good wine to look at. I like something that’ll take a little more kindly to chilling. Syrah cold can work, but the tannin structure can get assertive when it’s cold. I like, and this is a little obscure, and Austrian variety like Blaufränkisch. It picks up a lot of those smoky notes like pepper notes on the nose, but it’s more like Pinot Noir in terms of body. Xinomavro from Greece can also be good as well.
A: Yeah, yeah, yeah…
Z: It’s aromatics, low-key peppery, but not as robust of a variety. If you’re looking at the pork side of things, then you get to variations with sauce or no sauce, one of my favorite things with barbecue pork ribs is a really robust white. I like something like a southern Rhône white blend, or potentially a Chardonnay from the New World with some oak. It’s one of the few places where I actually like that flavor profile and structure with the food. Those wines have a little bit of tannin to them, and the pork is so unctuous and fatty that I want a little bit of tannin from oak and the grape to some extent. I want even some of those tropical fruit notes because that tropical fruit flavor plays really well with pork. It’s not a wine that I would do very often otherwise. This is one of those areas and times that I do look at it. Another thing I’ll note, and I want your thoughts on this: If you’re getting excellent barbecue, what I want to drink has to do with the sides I’m getting. That gets me to: What are your favorite sides?
E: Totally. The burnt end beans. That’s why I go with a rich wine for that type of meal! I go with a Malbec or Syrah. It’s the sweetness from the burnt end beans that is driving me to a really rich red.
Z: Zinfandel is another good option.
A: I’m with burnt end baked beans. The rest of the sides are carb-heavy: mac ‘n cheese, cornbread. Sometimes you have greens, but usually you don’t. Certain places also have stewed collards. It’s very carb-heavy and then there are the burnt end baked beans. I’ll just get the beans and call it a day. There’s also broccoli slaw, which is hard because it’s so sweet.
Z: What about regular coleslaw? Am I alone in liking coleslaw?
A: I love regular coleslaw. It should always be put on top of a pulled pork sandwich, and if anyone tells you differently, they don’t know how to eat barbecue.
E: I will second that.
Z: We might have found the topic where Adam is at his most opinionated. I didn’t think this was going to be it, but being from the South…
A: I do have a question. I have heard people refer to wood-plank salmon as barbecue. I think it could be as well, but now I’m curious about that because it’s not grilling, it’s putting it on a wood plank.
E: It’s so good. The alder plank smoked salmon is one of my very favorite things in the world. Whenever I go back to Seattle, I have to have that along with dungeness crab. Let’s not forget the oysters, but that’s another episode. With the salmon, you just can’t go wrong with the Oregon wines. A little bit of a chill on a Pinot Noir or a Pinot Gris, or even a Chardonnay from Oregon. It’s one of those things: What grows together goes together. When I’m eating that plank-smoked salmon, I’m generally thinking of Oregon and Washington wines.
Z: Erica’s suggestions are good ones. I agree that this type of salmon, and there is this direct heat versus non-direct heat component going on which is cool, has a weight to it that’s a little bit more substantial than most other fish. You can look at a mid-weight red wine, such as a Cabernet Franc or Syrah, and there are great examples from Washington and as Erica mentioned, Pinot Noir or other Oregon varieties. The other thing that can be really delicious with that food is one of the few things that can go with, and going back to my punch idea, I’ve made an almost herbal sangria. That’s the best way I can think to describe it. It’s essentially an infused wine where you bring in sage, thyme, and rosemary, and they work well with rosé or white. That’s a good use for that mediocre wine that someone brings. Throw those things together, let them steep for a while, and strain them back out, so that you aren’t getting chunks of thyme in your drink. That can be nice because there’s an herbal note that comes out in this process. It’s super tasty, but it takes a little bit of work and isn’t everyone’s preferred methodology.
A: Sounds pretty good.
E: I’m curious. That sounds amazing and would be so good with roasted vegetables. Explain how you would make it.
Z: I’ve done this a couple of times. There’s both impromptu and thought-out methodology. If you have the chance to prep, it’s like making iced tea. I grow a bunch of herbs in my backyard and have tea bags essentially. Just put some thyme, rosemary, or sage in one of these sachets. Fill a pitcher or jug with wine. Steep it in there. Overnight is fine. I just do it in the fridge, or you can leave it on the counter. Then, just pull it back out, and there’s a little bit of that flavor infused in. Depending on how much you use and how much flavor there is in the wine, sometimes the flavor is subtle or more intense. I keep it on the subtle side, making it so that you’re just getting an additional note. It’s a great thing to do if someone brings over something that’s relatively neutral in flavor, like a Pinot Grigio. You can just add a little bit more to it. These are the kinds of dishes and foods where we like to treat wine, and rightfully so, as a sacrosanct thing that should not be adulterated. Gosh, don’t put ice cubes in your wine. I agree with that with some things. Adam’s great Burgundy: That’s something you should just drink on its own. If someone brings over a $12 bottle of Pinot Grigio or Sauv Blanc to your barbecue, grill, or whatever the name is for your dining experience, treat it as a base for whatever else you want to do. Fruit, wine, wine sangria; or fruit, wine, spirit, and punch with infused herbs; don’t think that’s the only thing you can do with these wines and drinks. Try it with beer! That might be cool. Don’t think that the only things you can do with these is open them and drink them. If you’re willing to put in a little time and energy, you can create a really cool experience that works with the resources you have on hand but also creates a new drink.
E: I love that infused wine idea and would totally pour that over ice, add soda water on top, and a big squeeze of lemon. That sounds incredibly refreshing.
A: That sounds delicious.
Z: The only thing I need is a hammock after that.
A: So, we discussed the barbecue. We discussed the salmon. Let’s go to grilling and chilling. If you were just grilling, what would you bring. Now, we’re talking about what most people think of when having a barbecue, such as hot dogs, hamburgers, and that kind of stuff.
E: For barbecue chicken or something similar, I like a Chardonnay, for something with a sweeter sauce. Or, you could go in the other direction with something aromatic. You could go Riesling. You could go in so many different directions. It really matters what the sauce is. Chicken is a malleable thing, and you can do a lot with them. It’s really the sauce. We do a teriyaki at our house. In Washington, there are pretty much teriyaki stands on every corner. That’s a thing there.
E: Totally. There are stands, little stores, practically in every little strip mall throughout Washington state. It’s a real thing. Particularly in the Seattle area, it’s concentrated. For something like that, I would do a Chenin Blanc or a Riesling, something with aromatic qualities to stand up to the flavor profile.
Z: This is a time when I come back to your advice from the beginning, Adam, thinking about what I want when I’m standing outside and it’s hot out. This is especially true because I’m often the one in front of the grill. In that setting, I want a pilsner or my fancy gose. It’s made with salt, so it has a little bit of that salty character, which helps bring out the flavors in whatever I’m eating. They’re refreshing and low-ABV as well. I really enjoy them. You guys know me. Sometimes I overthink things. In a situation like this, give me something cold and refreshing because I have to think about how one person needs their burger medium-well, another person wants a certain kind of cheese. I don’t have the brainwaves to deal with what beverage I want to pair with all these foods, so I’m going to default to something that I know will taste good with everything. That’s where rosé, as Erica suggested earlier, comes in. I certainly put a lot of thought into these things, but when I’m the one grilling, that’s all I want. I just want a can of beer and leave me alone.
A: I see that. Also at this time we’re in Aperol spritz territory. Let’s go with that. It’s refreshing. It’s crushable. You can make a few of them. That’s what I want when I’m sitting in the backyard, grilling over charcoal or gas. Again, we could get into some heated debates over whether grilling over gas is actually grilling.
E: Can we get a shout-out for sparkling wine?
Z: You need it for that spritz, at least.
E: No, but how Champagne is getting killed lately from the sales perspective. I need to get a shout-out for my sparkling wine because I feel so bad for it. I’ve been seeing so many articles and looking at the sales numbers and just feeling terrible. I’ve started buying Champagne to do my part.
Z: We appreciate you falling on that sword, Erica.
A: That’s hilarious. That’s a good way to end it. Guys, it’s been a pleasure as always. For those listening at home, we hope you and yours are doing well, are healthy and safe, and if you have any thoughts about this podcast, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, make sure to check out the Drinks Experience which will be June 23 2020 through June 26, 2020, on VinePair.com. We will see you all back here next week.
E: See you then!
Z: Sounds great.
A: Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits: VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe, Erica Duecy and me, Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again right here next week.
Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.