It’s summer. Has been for what seems like months now. But if you can bear the heat it is also time to get out into the backyard and do some grilling. Burgers, maybe. At the very least, burgers — homemade or from your favorite patty purveyor — should be more on your mind than they might be at, say, Thanksgiving. Such was the suggestion of the folks at Gourmet Burger Grill — owner Jorge Casio (formerly of Cibal), chef Mike Davis (recently at Piatti), and their wine mentor, Eric Rodnite (still at Republic). We will always take a good suggestion, and the notion of promoting wines as burger partners had its almost-perverse appeal.
“It’s got to be tough to educate `people` to gourmet burgers — even tougher to wean them away from beer,” commented Bill Stephens, former Express-News wine critic and tasting panelist. Agreed. But Alvaro Elias from Saglimbeni Fine Wine, Cosio, and yours truly had assembled with Stephens at GBG’s Highway 281 and 1604 location to try to make the point. Or not.
We were set up in the middle of GBG’s colorful dining room, but it’s amazing how quickly one can tune out an audience. (The fact that none of the diners laughed helped.) Rodnite, present but not voting, had courageously begun the flight of 12 wines with two rosés, but both their wine-alone scores and BWQ (Burger-Worthiness Quotient) ruled them out of the running. Maybe with a salmon burger …
While juggling the 12 wines, more than we usually taste, the panel was also dealing with a quintet of burgers — far more food than the accustomed bites of this and that to clear the palate. Many found the classic bacon cheeseburger best with most of the wines. The portobello version on whole grain (the bun made an amazing difference) cried out for a big pinot noir. But most, sensational as they might have been in their own right, were simply too accessorized to make coherent wine-matching easy. An undressed Kobe burger was called for and made much better music with the wine; both were improved, in fact. The bison (a personal favorite) wouldn’t have worked at all if the smoky sauce hadn’t been served on the side. Goat cheese contrasts nicely with the lamb but tends to confuse the wine palate (a traditional Tavel rosé might actually have worked here). Chef Davis’s extremely good sweet potato fries frankly call out for beer, however. Maybe it’s the salt. Obstacles aside, here are the panel’s impressions.
Caramel nose, boysenberry fruit, classic zin
The top wine of the tasting was the 2005 Simi Sonoma County Zinfandel. “It has a great caramel nose and just got right in there with the burger meat,” claimed Stephens.
Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, $17
Mature fruit, blackberry, and some petroleum
Following at a decent distance was one of three Rancho Zabaco zinfandels, by far the oldest wine tasted but still lively in its brick-tinged middle age. Elias called it his favorite of the bunch and praised its “old-world” character, while Cosio envisioned it with paella — and even a bowl of fideo.
Amador County, Zinfandel, $28
Coffee, deep black cherry, nice intensity
“Very, very, very good,” said Cosio of the number-three (and most expensive) wine, while Elias found it his least favorite due to lack of balance, and Stephens proclaimed it his winner with all the burgers. (In this, he is seconded by the folks at Build a Better Burger, who voted it one of their partnering faves.) This happens; it’s why we taste blind and average the scores.
Alexander Valley Zinfandel, $27
Brambly nose, lively blackberry flavors
Of the Ravenswood, Elias said, “It was a great wine; I hoped it was a great value, too.” (At $27, not really.) Stephens found “a sensational nose but not much behind it.”
Dark fruit, slightly astringent, modest finish
Artezin’s Zinfandel, made by the retired winemaker from Hess, “has some candied quality and is meant to be an entry-level wine,” offered Rodnite from the sidelines. Omniboire found sweet fruit on the palate and more raspberry than the usual blackberry.
Pepper and tar on nose, good entry but finish fades
On first tasting, Omniboire admits to not picking out the only red ringer in the bunch; the McLaren Select Shiraz. “It’s a well-made wine but did nothing for the burgers,” commented Stephens. Cosio agreed that it got lost in the Kobe and all its trimmings.
Valley Sonoma County Zinfandel, $20
Dark fruit, correct but lacks spice, best with food
But in a reversal of sorts, Stephens found that the ’04 Rancho Zabaco Russian River Valley Zinfandel “didn’t seem to have enough fruit until I tasted it with the burgers.” Yes, the synergy works both ways.
Extracted fruit, tannic finish
California Red Wine, $10
Bright boysenberry fruit with some tea and tannin
Rancho Zabaco’s ’06 Sonoma Heritage Vines Zinfandel (“a best-selling wine in restaurants,” mentioned Rodnite) tied for the next slot with Folie a Deux’s Zin, Merlot, and Cabernet blend. “Now that I know the price ($10), I like it a lot more,” said Stephens of the Menage. “We sell a ton of it,” confirmed Elias. Omniboire’s observation of tea-leaf aromas seems unnecessarily erudite in that context.
The BWQ was based on a simpler five-point scale than the wine tasting’s 20-point format. Interestingly, one wine that didn’t make the tasting cut, the Murphy-Goode Liar’s Dice Zinfandel, was among the top four burger choices, the others being the top-rated Simi, the middle-of-the-pack Artezin, and the mid-range Rancho Zabaco Russian River. The most expensive wine, the Terra d’Oro, scored lowest on the BWQ scale (though the point spread was wide), while two low-scoring (and low-priced) contenders, the Rancho Zabaco Sonoma Heritage Vines and the Menage a Trois ranked right beneath the winners. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this it may be that quality and suppleness will win out (in the case of the Simi), but that it doesn’t pay to pay too much for wine when burgers are on the table; subtle attributes tend to get lost. Ditto with the burger trimmings. Which is probably just what we want to hear in summertime anyway. •
Most wines can be found at Central Market,
Saglimbeni Fine Wines and other specialty wine shops