I would much prefer to be boiled in hot oil or eaten by hungry lions than to disagree with my dear uncle Dominic, but I am forced to admit that Gallo Hearty Burgundy is not the only wine worth drinking alongside a good meatball.
Don't get me wrong. I have enjoyed many a bottle of the Gallo with my uncle. Hearty Burgundy is the only wine that you will find in Dominic's home. Like his son, John, I gave up bringing other bottles for my uncle to sample long ago.
"That's crap," I once heard Dominic say about a more-than-respectable Barolo that my cousin had cracked open for his father's enjoyment. "What do you want to drink that for when this (the HB now in his hand) is so much better?"
I respect a man with strong opinions, don't you?
I hope so. Because you are about to become acquainted with just such a man. He is a friend of mine. Goes by a number of aliases (that's him on the left), but Scott Tyree is the name that would likely appear on an official document; a denied parole request, for instance, or perhaps a bench warrant.
Scott knows his wine. He'd better. The guy's a sommelier ferchrissakes. A James Beard Award-nominated sommelier, thank you very much. He lives just a bottle's roll away from me these days, but last he was seen as the wine dude-in-chief at such notable Chicago dining establishments as Tru and Sepia. (He claims not to have fled that town in a high-speed motorcycle chase involving a somewhat agitated band of dockworkers, and out of respect I will accept my friend's story without further comment or review.)
The point here is that, a) the dude is a bona fide wine professional, and b) he likes my meatballs. So I decided to put the arm on him (people from Chicago are used to being manhandled) and get him to tell us all about matching the right wine with the right meatball.
Actually, he is matching the wine with my meatball. Therefore, it is possible that this exercise will only be of benefit to you personally should you prepare my meatball recipe and, for that matter, the Sunday Gravy that they were cooked in. Alternatively you could invite Mr. Tyree, if he still calls himself that, to pair wines with your own recipes, but that is entirely between you and the sommelier.
I ain't running no social network here, you know.
Anyway, so here is how it all was designed to go down: Me and the sommelier would get together over (what turned out to be a liquid) lunch and map out a few reasonable parameters for a (first ever?) meatball-and-wine tasting. As we both pine for the bustle and noise of a big city we grabbed an outdoor table at a restaurant here in town where the traffic comes so close that you could share a pork bun with the passenger of any vehicle that goes by.
My own view of the task at hand was quite simple: I make the meatballs and supply the wines, he writes about the wines once we have completed our little experiment. I explained this formula to my friend while gulping down the first cold beer of the warm late-August afternoon, then motioned to our waitress that it would be splendid if she might please go ahead and collect me another.
The sommelier, who had barely touched his own frosty beverage, quickly displayed a far more complex understanding of our mission. I became hip to this when he brought out a crisp pad of paper, a pen and a pair of what I would describe as handsome yet rather stern-looking reading glasses. This must have rattled me more than I was aware because as our waitress delivered my newly opened beer I instructed her to please go ahead and bring me another at her earliest convenience.
For the next hour I sat and I drank, but mostly I answered my friend Scott's many questions about what exact flavor profiles he was being asked to pair the wines with: "You use carrots in your sauce; that's interesting, but why?" "How much anchovy did you say is in there?" "So, then, it's mostly veal and a little beef; there's no pork in the meatballs, none at all?" "Butter and pork fat, really?" "Can you taste the heat of the pepper?" "Are you sure there isn't anything else in these recipes that you haven't told me about; I've got all the ingredients, every one, listed here?"
I studied his copious notes and assured my friend that, yes, he had all the necessary information to move forward. "You should be all set, yeah," I said grabbing the check before he could put his filthy paws on it. "Sure you're not gonna finish that beer?"
The meatball-and-wine-pairing event was held two days later, at a lovely spot overlooking Casco Bay that Scott shares with his partner, the insane South African hot yoga practitioner (though otherwise quite level-headed chap) Giovani.
And an event it was. Look at this place setting, would you? My meatballs hadn't been given this kind of high-class treatment since... okay, they've never gotten it. We're talking white linens and fine china, freshly cut flowers and enough Riedel wine glasses to cater an event for 30-plus people (we were only four in our party). There were even printouts at each place setting, containing a numbered list of all the wines we would be sampling and ample white space to scribble our impressions. Hell, we even got our own Sharpie!
Before I hand things over to Scott, just a couple of things. First, I want to thank him for taking the time to do this. I don't know what I was expecting when I showed up at his door with a big pot of meatballs, loaves of bread, and the associate who had dreamed up the event in the first place (thanks, associate), but I got way more than I had bargained for. This was a professional-grade wine tasting, folks. And even though I was already familiar with many of the wines, I learned things from Scott that I had not known before. If you're ever in the market for a wine consultant, trust me, this is your man.
Second, never trust a wine geek to do things the way you want. I had delivered fifteen wines to my friend the day before the tasting, plus offered several more, specifically a few Barolos I thought might be fun to try. And how many wound up on the sheet? Just eight. Oh, plus the gallon of Carlo Rossi Burgundy (no HB to be found here in Maine) that the crazy South African had picked up on his way home from the torture chamber he frequents, the chamber that he naively refers to as a yoga studio.
No wine event can ever top sipping the Gallo with my uncle Dominic while sitting beneath his grapevine on a late-summer afternoon.
Still, this Tyree fellow hosted one hell of a party, and so, without further ado, I give you the man himself. (He's the one in the green t-shirt, but keep that to yourself, would you. Should a member of particular band of Chicago dockworkers happen upon this blog post, well, things could become rather ugly here in our little corner of paradise. And in a hurry.)
On wine and balls
They were delivered to the house on a cool Sunday morning in spring by a courier riding a gleaming red and black Moto Guzzi. Plump, silky and perfectly golfball sized, the juicy veal and beef nuggets were accompanied by a generous portion of rich, tomatoey sauce (carrots in the sauce?!) and crusty country bread from a local bakery. G had the sauce, balls and pasta simmering on the stove faster than you can say spaghetti alla chitarra. After a few silent minutes at the table, we declared Mister Meatball's personally delivered meatballs the most delicious we had ever tasted.
So, when MM suggested that we do this meatball-and-wine-pairing experiment, I responded enthusiastically and without hesitation. "Screw the wine," I secretly said to myself. "Any excuse to enjoy copious amounts of the succulent meatballs and flavorful sauce again is fine by me!"
We had rules for this wine tasting. All the wines must be of Italian origin (che sopresa!) covering the country from north to south, including Sicily. All colors and styles of wine should be included: white, pink, red, still and sparkling; dry, off-dry, youthful and mature. A rendezvous with MM to purchase the wines yielded, as he has mentioned, a great number of bottles. I am indeed guilty of editing this selection, and for this I make no apologies. Even a Meatball must succumb to reason occasionally. If we had tasted all fifteen wines, we surely would have ended up rolling on the floor covered in tomato sauce. (Besides, the event took place in my house, not his. Our friend Meatball may be highly opinionated, but he is also adept at social interaction and I was fairly certain he would not make too much of a scene upon spying my eight-wine final list.)
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon we ladled up sauce, balls and pasta and commenced with the down and dirty work of finding the perfect wine for the perfect meatball. We found that there was consensus about most of the wines, which I find common in these settings; it is very much worth trying at home, especially with like-minded friends. Speaking of which, my impressions of our own group are as such: I found MM's associate to be inquisitive, direct and focused. Giovani was somewhat poetic (though he does mutter naughty things when he is drunk). The Meatball was just a wiseass, as usual.
All in all, a successful tasting. Here is what we discovered.
1. Zardetto Spumante Rosé NV, Veneto
Pity the poor frizzante wines. So often, they are unjustly relegated to aperitif status and rarely taken seriously as worthy of pairing with food. Happily, this dry and fruity raboso veronese-based sparkler, so surprisingly rich and creamy, proved a worthy partner with the prized meatballs. This simple wine actually elevated the sumptuous meatballs to even dizzier heights. The most pleasant surprise of the tasting.
2. Falanghina dei Feudi di San Gregorio Sannio, Campania 2009
Many of my sommelier colleagues swear that a mythical wine pairing love affair exists between the falanghina grape and tomatoes. Lemming that I am, I chose this delicious savory wine with the fennel-y nose believing that, theoretically, it would provide an interesting herbal counterpoint while taming the acidity of the sauce. Unfortunately, the dish obliterated the wine. No love affair here. Myth busted.
3. Offida Pecorino Villa Angela Velenosi, Marche 2009
Despite the cheese-associated name, pecorino is actually an indigenous grape variety to the Marche region of southern Italy. This particular bottling showed aromas of wet stones, honey and citrus. The palate of bitter almond and ripe tropical fruit was worrisomely low in acid and blessedly oak free. On paper, this wine should have been outmatched by the assertive balls. But this was the most interesting and thought-provoking pairing of the day. With the balls, the mineral streak and aromatic qualities of the wine soared. I've developed a little school boy crush on this wine.
4. Soave Classico Inama, Veneto 2009
Yes, there are oceans of characterless plonk from the Soave wine zone. Thanks to Bolla (the Blue Nun of Soave), quality wines from the superior Soave Classico zone of the Veneto have been maligned by association for years. Here's a really interesting version from an excellent producer called Inama, a winery which has been pushing the garganega grape to greater heights in recent years. Round, ripe and enriched with a little dollop of oaked chardonnay, we were concerned this wine might be too big for an already rich dish. Though perfectly pleasurable for sipping alone, the wine became a bit disjointed when paired with the meatballs. Alcohol burned the palate and all that ripe fruitiness disappeared. Ixnay the Inama.
5. Dolcetto d'Alba Paolo Scavino, Piemonte 2008
Paolo Scavino is a modernist who makes wines in an opulent, sexy style. While much of the Piemonte region often produces dolcetto that can be thin and diluted, this guy consistently gives us weighty, silky wines with great structure and layers of flavor. We all loved the vibrant acidity, rose petal and violet aromas and bright cherry and earth palate. In particular, this wine stood up to the acidic tomatoes better than any other wine in the tasting.
6. Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Quattro Mani, Abruzzo 2009
Attilio Pagli's montepulciano has a texture as sleek and smooth as Mister Meatball's red Moto Guzzi. The nose is earthy, dusky and meaty. The palate is a spice rack of savory elements: think blackberries spiked with white pepper and oregano. For me, this pairing elicited the most visceral reaction of any of the others. This was complete wine/meatball symbiosis. These two should just move in with each other and live happily ever after.
7. Colosi Nero d'Avola IGT, Sicilia 2009
Sad. Overly extracted, high in alcohol, lacking in structure, cloying and sweet (no, I'm not talking about Mister Meatball himself). If you're looking for a good wine to spread on your toast in the morning, this is it. I half expected that a nero d'avola might overwhelm the meatballs and clash with the sauce, but none of us were prepared for the train wreck of this pairing. Avoid.
8. Fèlsina Fontalloro, Toscana 1995
For those who find it unfair that we included a mature wine of class and elegance in a tasting of mostly value wines, I agree. But Mister Meatball insisted we open this bottle that he had been cellaring for quite some time. Who am I to argue? The Fontalloro was a classic example of mature sangiovese - all cherry, leather and cocoa powder with fine grained tannins and refreshing acidity. Not only was the wine a pleasure to drink, it elevated the humble meatballs to a thing of shimmering beauty and elegance. Unfair, yes. But at that point, nobody cared.
As for the Carlo Rossi Burgundy, well, let me put it this way: I would much prefer an opportunity to while away an afternoon with Meatball and his sweet uncle under that grapevine of his.
One day, perhaps.