Odd Pair: Wine Pairings for Fast Food (Part I)

"Sonic, a drive-in chain a based in Oklahoma City," reported The New York Times this week, "added beer and wine to the menu in its new Homestead, Fla., location in July. The addition was based on nearby restaurants' menus, and it was meant to bring in customers at night, said Drew Ritger, senior vice president for business planning and purchasing at Sonic." ("Alcohol Isn't Worth the Trouble for Some Chain Restaurants," September 26, 2011.)

The story was just the excuse I needed to head to the closest Whataburger and indulge in one of my favorite guilty pleasures. After all, I thought, if I'm going to contemplate the pairing of wine and fast food, I want to think globally and munch out locally at a Texas-based and homegrown burger joint chain.

We have been conditioned to look down on fast food, however much we enjoy it. And as much I believe that the fast food system is a link in the chain of the Military-Industrial Complex, I am also convinced that fast food in our nation does have some redeeming qualities -- especially when you're butt drunk at 2 a.m.

I was reminded of what the great chef Eric Ripert (of Le Bernardine, New York) told Gourmet (July 28, 2008) a few years ago about his "Quest to Build the Perfect Burger." In researching a menu he was to create at the Westend Bistro (in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington, D.C.), Eric had dined at various fast food chains and was impressed by how "the burgers are a perfect size. You can grab them in both hands, and they're never too tall or too wide to hold on to. And the toppings are the perfect size, too -- all to scale, including the thickness of the tomatoes, the amount of lettuce." Even though he was disappointed by the quality of the meat, he liked the consistency of the end result and he found that "there is something about these ingredients that creates a harmonious combination, and the textures also work very nicely together: You get crunch from the pickle and lettuce and softness from the ketchup and tomato."

However reluctant we are to admit it, even fast food chains, Eric noted, can deliver a "harmonious combination." (Eric seemed to be particularly fond of the Big Mac.) And Eric's observation begs the question: If a fast food chain can deliver sensorial balance in a burger, why can't a wine pairing do the same?

The most famous (or infamous) pairing of a fast food burger was depicted (however fictionally) in the 2004 movie Sideways, where Miles pairs a 1961 Cheval Blanc -- one of the great wines of the 20th century -- with a burger and fries (and serves the wine in a Styrofoam cup). In his glowing review of the movie, revered American wine writer Mike Steinberger wrote ("A Connoisseur's Guide to Sideways," Slate.com, November 5, 2004): There was "one thing I hope I only ever see in a major motion picture: Late in the film, sad sack Miles takes a 1961 Cheval Blanc to a local diner and proceeds to drink it out of a Styrofoam cup while chomping on a burger and onion rings. True, he is borderline suicidal at this point, and maybe this is his death-row meal, but a '61 Cheval Blanc certainly deserves a better death than that." (Wow, wine pairings for a last meal on death row... Not sure I'm prepared to go there, especially in the light of the fact that Texas abolished the practice last week.)

Miles's pairing (supposedly based on a real-life event) was as extreme as could be imagined. You can buy a magnum (1.5 liters or two 750 ml bottles) of 1961 Cheval Blanc at the Park Avenue Liquor Shop in Manhattan, New York for $9,000 (that was the only offering I could find online). So for sake of argument, let's say that a bottle would cost $4,500 (even though, technically, wine in large format is more valuable than wine in standard format). Typically, a 750 ml bottle contains 6 six glasses of wines. According to my math, a glass of 1961 Cheval Blanc, if purchased retail, would be $750. My bill for the bacon cheeseburger, fries, and medium drink (including Styrofoam cup) at Whataburger the other day was $6.70.

To my knowledge, fast food chains do not allow corkage, i.e., BYOB (for the obvious legal reasons). In the movie, Miles has to sneak his wine into the restaurant.

What wine would you like to pair with a fast food burger? I recently discovered that one of Houston's favorite burger joints allows corkage (at no charge!).

To be continued...

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