As the beverage and wine director for the Cohn Restaurant Group, Maurice DiMarino oversees a massive inventory of wine that will be paired at the vast empire’s 20-plus restaurants with everything from balsamic-glazed Brussels sprouts to butternut squash risotto and bone-in ribeye.
But what about pairing wine with ultra-casual food, like a burger from Hodad’s or fried chicken from The Crack Shack? Could DiMarino handle that? How about Grand Ole BBQ y Asado’s tri-tip or the tacos al pastor from ¡Salud! or Ambrogio 15’s pizza?
Being a wine pro, and knowing the quality places we were sending him to, DiMarino accepted the challenge and even brought his own wines to match with the iconic San Diego flip-flop fare.
Armed with a stocked cooler bag and his trusty Coravin — which allows you to pour wine from a bottle without popping the cork — DiMarino and his designated driver made their way from two spots in Little Italy to Barrio Logan, Ocean Beach to North Park. At nearly every one of these hip eateries, he raised some eyebrows from fellow diners wondering how come that guy got to bring his own wine. (Note: He had permission; to try this yourself, you’ll have to order off the wine list or get your food to-go and pair your own wine at home.)
We know a little about wine and we chose some of the most craveable foods in town, so we thought the pairings he’d make would be fairly easy — Argentine asado with Argentine malbec or crispy, fried chicken with crisp Champagne, right? But DiMarino surprised us. And himself.
“What stood out was that my first intuitions were not the best pairings, they were good but there was always another ringer,” he said. “I initially relied on on sweetness and acidity to pair the wines but in the end, the slightest change in alcohol level made for the perfect pairing.”
For us non-wine professionals, the biggest takeaways from DiMarino’s experiment is to keep an open mind when pairing food and wine and get ready to have fun. Here’s his report card from this tasty assignment.
¡Salud! — Taco al Pastor
Why that? DiMarino called the Lebanese-inspired taco al pastor “the quintessential taco … made of slow roasted pig smothered with guajillo chilies, garlic, adobo and chile de arbol, dripping with pig fat. Probably the best taco meat on the planet.”
First pairing that came to mind: “My initial instinct was to bring Riesling or rosé wine, but I did not want to make this exercise easy on me.”
What he tried: “Instead, I pulled out reds to see if they could stand to the challenge. I looked to south of the border for inspiration. I grabbed a bunch of fruity Baja wines to see if I could find the ultimate Taco Wine.
How it worked: “After trial and error, I landed on a match: Cavas Valmar red blend made with nebbiolo, syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. It was fruit forward and juicy, which contrasted the spices of the al pastor. These Baja wines also have a salinity which naturally match the salty al pastor. The key was keeping it below 14 percent (alcohol) and serving it at a chilled temperature, 56-58 degrees. The chill helps take down the heat of the spices.”
Pairing bonus: “I also had a (white) Gutzler sylvaner from Germany in my bag, and although it did not perform well with the taco, it was amazing with the guacamole!”
Ambrogio 15 — Burrata e Prosciutto Crudo Pizza
Why that? We named this crispy, thin pizza topped with delicate prosciutto and creamy burrata from Puglia one of the Top 5 bites of 2018, and it just might be the best pie in San Diego.
Foiled plans: DiMarino wasn’t allowed to bring his own wine to the Little Italy Food Hall, where the newest Ambrogio 15 is located. “No sweat, I ordered from their wine list several glasses of wine I thought might do the trick,” he said.
What he tried: Two reds from Puglia, a primitivo from Manduria, and a fiano from Salento; a sparkling rosé from the baga grape, and a Tuscan-style red. “Surprisingly, none of them really made a great pairing. The closest was the baga rosé from Portugal, maybe because the acidity paired with the salty prosciutto and the bubbles helped scrub the rich oils of the cheese off the tongue. But it was not perfect.”
Shifting gears: “I saved a slice of pizza and took it to my car where I sat on the corner of Fir and Columbia, reached into my bag and grabbed a vernaccia di Serrapetrona spumante. Incredible! This is a sweet red sparkling wine from the Marche region of Italy. The sweetness contrasts with the salty prosciutto, and the acidity and bubbles match the burrata’s richness perfectly. So, I recommend ordering take out and popping a bottle of vernaccia — the pizzas are fantastic!
Hodad’s — Bacon Cheeseburger
Why that? San Diego’s most famous burger always delivers he beefy goods. DiMarino ordered his with the works and a side of onion rings.
Match muse: “When gathering wines for this venture, my mind went to Miles in ‘Sideways’ drinking (Bordeaux’s Château) Cheval Blanc with a burger. So I brought a merlot and Argentine malbec with me. Although both were not bad, the best pairing I came across was with a white wine.”
Say what? “I pulled out a 2007 Nicolas Joly Savennieres from the Loire, a chenin blanc, aged in oak and made as naturally as one can get. Drinking it in 2008 would have been a punch to the mouth. The wine is now in the perfect place. It is a full-bodied white, with slight honey notes, high alcohol and high acidity; how does this even happen? The sweet honey flavors were glorious with the onion rings, the weight and acidity of the wine matched the massive burger — what a total unexpected trip! The wine held up, never overpowered by the food and the food never overpowered by the wine. Who says white wines are for wussies?”
Crack Shack: Fried Chicken
Why that? “The chicken at The Crack Shack is downright delicious. It is crunchy, salty, and fatty.”
Caveat: “They make an array of sauces (for the chicken) so each will drastically compromise the pairing.”
What he tried: “Naturally, I went to my bag full of high acid whites. I had an Atalier albariño, an off-dry scheurebe from the Pfalz (region in Germany), a white Burgundy from the Macon and sparkling chenin blanc. The albariño was good with the ranch dressing. The schreube had some residual sugar ... but worked great with spicy sauce. The white Burgundy clashed, the alcohol was a bit too high and intensified the spice.
It’s a match: DiMarino loved the sparkling wine La Taille aux Loups Triple Zéro. “It has aromas of yeast, sourdough and bee pollen. The acidity was lively, cutting through the grease of the fried chicken. Although the wine was dry, (the) honey taste balanced the peppery flavors of the chicken skin. The bubbles (cleansed the palate), making the next bite a whole new experience again and again. This goes to prove that one cannot go wrong with high acid bubbles and fried chicken.”
Grand Ole BBQ y Asado — Asado Tri-tip
Why that? The barbecue trend is on fire in San Diego, and this is one of the best smokehouse joints around.
Food fail: “I showed up at Grand Ole BBQ ready to get my pulled pork on, unfortunately — or should I say fortunately — they were doing Churasco (grill) Sunday with Argentinian cuts. I chose to get the tri-tip and try different barbecue sauces ranging from sweet to spicy.”
What he tried: “In my bag, I had six wines I thought might work — shiraz, South African red blends, Portuguese reds, and I threw in a wine from Lebanon for the heck of it. My bet was on the Portuguese reds.”
How they paired: “All six wines would have done just fine if I were eating the tri-tip, but the barbecue sauce (complicated things). One Douro red was fantastic, with pruned fruit (flavors), and a dry and tannic mouthfeel. It matched the sweet barbecue sauce but clashed with the spicy sauce. The other wines all clashed with the sauces, until I got to the dark horse, the Hochar red blend by Chateau Musar of Lebanon.”
It’s a match: “This wine was super earthy, funky, and totally dry. My intention was to match barbecue with fruit-forward styles similar to zinfandel. (But) once the wine got over 13.5 percent alcohol, it would clash with the spicy sauce. The Hochar, at 13 percent, was incredible. It was tart on the palate, which contrasted very pleasantly with the spices. The cedar, leather and other ... aromas melded perfectly with the spices in both sauces. Neither the wine nor the food were ever overpowered.”
The bottom line: They key again, was alcohol — keep it down and if the wine has good tannins and acidity structure, then it will prevail.”