I joined a group last week at a (sports - of course) bar where multiple screens were showing Blues Hockey, Cardinals Baseball, Mizzou Football, and even though people roll their eyes about the Rams, they're still the home team, by gum! As I perused the menu and thought about which elixir would go down best, I felt very uncomfortable even implying (with discernible hesitation and accompanying raised eyebrows) I might throw beer and wings to the wind and satiate my lust for the vine. The confused group looked at me as if I had six heads. Additionally, the added peer pressure made it difficult to order a nice pairing with confidence.
What's a wine gal to do? Could you suggest strategies for making quick and confident selections of food/wine based on the traditional watering hole menu? There are usually more wines than just the "house", but I don't want to merely partake alone in my corner; I want to inspire.
Hmm...inspiration and nachos often go hand in hand -- but nachos and wine? Hmm...this one's going to take some thought...
Disclaimer: I am not referring to "bars" like Friday's, Applebee's, Chili's, or other apostrophe'd chain restaurants that are ostensibly watering holes. These zits on the face of most American suburbs offer broader food options and "wine lists," but they're the gastronomic equivalent of a bachelor/bachelorette party -- sure, you can make a ruckus with your friends and you'll probably end up buzzed and full, but you'll wonder what happened to your evening, your wallet, and your sense of self-respect afterwards.
Most bars, pubs, taverns, etc. offer some kind of hot (as opposed to haute) cuisine. The menu usually consists of various forms of absorptive, high sodium items usually created for sharing, scarfing, and grazing unthinkingly while your focus is elsewhere. These selections, as Lee pointed out above, usually cry for beer -- often for cheap, light lager-ish beer. Why is that?
Well, let's think about that. We're not talking craft brews here -- those are usually better appreciated on their own. Your typical lagers that you'll find at a bar are usually served ice cold, so you can't taste much. They're watery, which washes the salt out of your mouth. (Which is, after all, the point of salty bar food -- keeps you drinking!) Thanks to the hops, they're also mildly acidic, which counteracts the heat caused by the bases you find in your average jalapeno popper. Beer's your most flexible choice -- but we want wine here.
OK, first off, as with most nights you're going out, start by lowering your expectations. You've got to be realistic. Most bar owners aren't interested in keeping a well-stocked wine cellar. They're often thinking, "Red, check. White, check. Pink, check. OK, on to the Jagerbomb makings..." Thankfully, as wine's popularity permeated the mainstream "going out" crowd, bars began stocking something other than Sutter Home White Zinfandel to feed a particular stereotype.
So, what should you expect? Uncomplicated wines (read: "California or Australian") are the order of the day, so you don't have to worry about screwing up a pairing. You can almost always bet on three wines for sure: a cabernet sauvignon of some kind; a chardonnay (which will probably be the "house white"); and a white zinfandel. Merlot's not uncommon, and there's usually a pinot grigio lying around somewhere. Riesling is becoming more common -- usually the sweet versions, and places trying to be classy might have a pinot noir.
The brand of wine probably won't matter much. I made reference way back when to a friend's descriptions of many cheap quaffs as "pop tart wines" because they're so interchangeable. Most of the wines you'll see are in that category. When the server comes, just ask what kinds of wine they have. If he or she doesn't know, send them back to the bar to find out -- at the very least, that will buy you some time to run down the few pub grub pairing rules:
Rule #1: Bubbly. I've said it over and over again -- the best wine pairing with the salty, fatty foods that you're likely to find in any of these establishments is going to be a sparkling wine. Many bars don't carry it, but if you're lucky enough to be in a place that does, go with it. It doesn't matter what kind -- dry works just as well as sweet for this purpose. Swallow your pride and some Asti Spumante. So what if people look at you crosswise for drinking bubbly in a bar? If there are enough sporting events on, you can always say that you're celebrating something. And before long...you probably will be!
Rule #2: When in doubt, white.
This may sound somewhat emasculating to men who have a strange aversion to wine that's not big, powerful, and dark -- but get over it. If you want a good flavor, this is generally going to be the way to go. Wines that are tannic or high in alcohol don't generally play well with foods that are high in salt. Salt and tannic wine combine to taste "hot" and a bit unpleasant. White wine has a couple of other things going for it, too. The higher acidity makes for a more flexible food pairing. Acidic wines like pinot grigio will either quiet spices or go more easily with flavors. Also, as anyone who's ever eaten French fries with ketchup or chocolate covered pretzels can attest, sweet and salty make a delightful combination. Inexpensive white wine often has a little bit of sweetness, because a little bit of sugar covers up a whole lot of poor winemaking. Use this to your advantage. Actually, while white zin gets a particularly bad rap for being sweet, bubbleheaded plonk -- the very thing that makes it palatable to people who "don't like wine" make it particularly good with your typical bar menu. It's sweet and tart -- so it'll work with just about anything. However, if you go that route, tell everyone that it's actually a dry rosé so you can maintain a modicum of dignity.
Rule #3: Remember the four food groups. When you peruse the menu, keep in mind the four pub grub food groups: spicy, meaty, fried, and cheesy. These are used in various combinations and permutations, but almost anything you're going to order will slide into one of these categories. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to determine which flavor will be dominant. If you're getting a burger or barbecue -- your reds will be better. Spicy foods call for something acidic or sweet -- which is going to bring you back to pinot grigio or Riesling if they have one around. If you really want red and you're lucky enough to have a red Zinfandel as an option, you could go that way with it. With fried foods, pretty much anything white will beat anything red, especially if it's battered up. And with cheesy? This is where you can break out some of that house chardonnay that you may have noticed we haven't discussed at all...