The following is an excerpt from sommelier Vanessa Price’s new book, Big Macs & Burgundy: Wine Pairings for the Real World, which got its start as a column right here on Grub Street.
Chances are good that you’ve never picked up a bottle of wine on your way home and thought to ask yourself how it wound up at the store. But I can tell you that, thanks to an archaic set of laws left over from Prohibition known as the three-tier system, the answer to that question is far more complicated than it should be. In the United States, wineries can’t sell their products directly to stores, bars, or restaurants outside of the state they make their wine in. They can only sell them to suppliers, and those suppliers can’t sell directly to those retailers either. They have to sell to distributors, who then sell the wine to your local shop or restaurant, and those distributors are the only ones allowed to actually deliver that wine in trucks to the stores and restaurants you buy them from.
Critics of the system don’t like that each tier takes a cut along the way. Its proponents argue that it allows for rare and coveted bottlings to be more fairly dispersed to retailers and restaurants across the country, instead of all the inventory being controlled by a select few.
As a sales rep for a distributor, you’re given a “book,” which is the inventory you’re tasked with moving, and a “run” of accounts, which is your assigned territory. My run consisted of restaurants and hotels, and my job was to reach out to those accounts, track down the buyers, and convince them to buy the wines in my book over someone else’s.
The distributor I worked for was and still is the largest and most powerful distributor in New York State. Because of the major brands they represent on the spirits side, which include pretty much every vodka, gin, bourbon, rum, and tequila you’ve ever heard of, they’re kind of like the Amazon of alcohol, able to dictate terms and impose fees that restaurants and retail shops have no choice but to put up with. For this reason, they’ve earned the label — which I’m changing ever so slightly here — of the “Death Star.”
When I first started as an eager young sales rep at the Death Star, it didn’t take long to realize that even on the fine-wine side of the company, where we had none of the power of the big liquor divisions, that reputation would precede me every time I walked through a door — if I could actually get someone to agree to meet me.
My second day on the job, after a fruitless morning of phone calls trying to land my first in-person appointment, I reached a beverage director at a hot restaurant in Chelsea. I got about halfway through introducing myself before he cut me off.
“Look, I don’t know you from a hole in the wall, but let me be clear,” he said. “I think your company and anyone who works for them should be drawn and quartered and dragged through the streets. Never call here again.” He hung up before I had a chance to exhale.
I thought for sure I was on my way to being fired. But when I told my boss, Frank, he shrugged. “I probably should’ve warned you about him. There are a few more on your list like that. Don’t let it faze you.”
In my first year as a sales rep, I was called a cockroach, a leech, and even shit on someone’s shoe, but I quickly developed skin as thick as a plump Syrah. I’d bounce back every day to put wine “in the bag,” our term for the 30-pound suitcase you wheel around the city for miles at a time, in snow or sweltering heat, filled with wine samples for your buyers. They might not like a single thing you bring them, but you still have to find a way to be charming and knowledgeable — and hope that the sweat from carrying that damn bag up the subway stairs isn’t showing.
The head of the company, David, noticed my early success as a rep, and when I asked if there was any way to get some employer assistance to pay for my sommelier education, he said there wasn’t but he’d figure out a way. It made me want to work ten times as hard and do ten times as well, which I did. Over time, I figured the whole sales thing out, breaking through on prestigious accounts that hadn’t always wanted to do business with us. Formalizing my education played a big part in it. I took as many classes as I could through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, graduating from one level to the next until I eventually made it to the fourth and highest level, which takes several years, five written exams, multiple blind taste tests, and a thesis to complete. On top of the wine schooling, I also learned that I worked for a good company and that the axiom “big is bad” isn’t always true. It’s the people that define a place.
Along the way, what started out as a hostile, uphill battle hawking cases for a company everyone called the Death Star turned into a rewarding mission. The more I learned about wine, the easier it was to talk to sommeliers and the more my confidence grew. And the more wine I sold, the more respect I earned and the better my client list got, until I was regularly dealing with the best restaurants and somms in the city and winning Sales Rep of the Year. Before long, no one was calling me shit on a shoe. And the guy who wanted to drag me through the streets? He became one of my best clients.
As a sales rep, I worked on 100 percent commission. I ate what I killed, which in the early days wasn’t much. Trader Joe’s was my lifeline. As tough as the job was then, I loved it. And that’s because I worked in an environment with great bosses from top to bottom. After four rewarding years, I started feeling like I had peaked in the position and needed to move on, and when I told David, he was instrumental in helping me find the job I wanted — at a different company.
By the time I left for Maisons Marques & Domaines, which became my second home for the next six wonderful years, I was doing well enough that I didn’t need to rely on Trader Joe’s purely for survival, but my love for it has never waned. You can always find some cauliflower rice and mandarin-orange chicken in my freezer. There’s a reason Trader Joe’s is everyone’s favorite grocery store. Quirky, confusingly cheap, and consistently delicious is a combination that’s hard to beat. And while I can’t make any promises about their Two Buck Chuck (the wine they can sell so cheap because you never know what vineyard it’s from), I can guarantee that you won’t do better at home for the price than these surprisingly good TJ-inspired matchups.
Cauliflower Gnocchi & Langhe Nebbiolo
The first three times I tried to buy this insanely popular item, the neat little freezer row it was supposed to be stacked in was empty. When I finally scored a bag and prepared it with brown butter and sage, it was obvious why they can’t keep this stuff on the shelves — and so was what I needed to drink with it: Langhe Nebbiolo.
A large subregion of Piedmont, Langhe contains within its borders exalted areas making celebrated wines, such as Barolo and Barbaresco, from the grape Nebbiolo. But these wines are very tannic and take a tremendous amount of time to come around to being ready to drink. A more accessible version, in both price and readiness, is a designation called Langhe DOC. The wines are still made from Nebbiolo, and they have the same emblematic truffled sage and dried rose-petal bouquet — except with even more sass and freshness because they aren’t aged for as long in oak, if they are aged at all. The tart-cherry fruit and sizzling red licorice are the counterstrike to the indulgent pasta side of this mostly healthy cauliflower dish. But since even unoaked Nebbiolo has enough astringency to strip a rusted griddle back to its original luster, the stubborn bits of gelatinous residue stuck in your mouth from this gooey gluten substitute will be polished clean with each sip.
$ Produttori del Barbaresco Nebbiolo Langhe
$$ Giuseppe Mascarello e Figlio Langhe Nebbiolo
$$$ Giovanni Rosso Ester Canale Rosso Langhe Nebbiolo
Eggplant Cutlets & Naoussa Xinomavro
Eggplant is one of those rare vegetable-fruits with a meaty enough texture that you really can interchange it for animal protein in a recipe without losing any of the satisfaction. The cutlets from TJ’s are so thin the eggplant never gets soggy, and the crust becomes the main event, which is pretty much what everyone wants from fried eggplant. They even retain that hint of sweetness you get from fresh eggplant, without the hour of prep and cook time you need to actually make eggplant cutlets from scratch.
They tend to take on the flavor of whatever you’re serving them with, so while dishes like eggplant Parmesan might call for a leaner, more tart wine like Chianti, when you’re eating the cutlets more or less unadulterated, you want Naoussa Xinomavro.
It’s all Greek to me too, so to break it down: Naoussa is the appellation in Northern Greece. Xinomavro is the grape; xino means sour and mavro means black, and it’s pronounced ksee-noh-maw-vrow. In Naoussa, which is a protected designation of origin, or the Greek version of a French AOC appellation, it’s the only grape allowed. With the Xinomavro grape, Naoussa grows one of the great challengers to Barolo’s Nebbiolo, with wines that have a similar medium-full body and tannins chewier than jerky. It even has the same aromas of anise, dark plum, and tobacco and rivals Barolo’s ability to age. But the very best bottles barely scratch the $50 mark, meaning you can go top shelf for what would be the bargain basement of the Italian version. The wine has tannin to spare for the crust and the layer of meaty eggplant inside, with enough plump, crimson, southern Mediterranean fruit to bring the mild aubergine sweetness to life from the frozen depths.
$ Thymiopoulos Vineyards “Young Vines” Xinomavro Naoussa
$$ Dalamára Naoussa
Cauliflower-Crust Pizza & Romanian Fetească Regală
If you’re like me and walk the fine line between hedonism and respectability, cauliflower crust was made for you. Sprinkle some nut cheese, a few veggies, and a little hot sauce on top and you have a healthy version of your favorite cheat food. Or just get it over with and drown it in mozzarella and marinara. Either way, Fetească Regală (fey-teska rey-gala) will be a good-time buddy, and it’s up to you how much of it you drink. They might not be in every wine shop, but you can find them online, and they’re worth the effort — particularly if you like tasty wine at TJ’s prices. They’re often dry and strongly fragrant, like someone washed the dishes with Mrs. Meyer’s hand soap and left just a hint of it in your glass. But their lower acidity keeps them soft, just like the veggies on your crusty pizza.
$ Jidvei “Clasic’” Dry Fetească Regală, Tarnave Region
Mandarin-Orange Chicken & Clare Valley Riesling
The Mount Lofty Ranges in South Australia has to be one of my favorite names for a wine zone. Just how lofty are they? Well, they make dry Rieslings that soar — and in the region called the Clare Valley are among the best Rieslings in the world. These wines have exotic citrus fruits and fragrant floral blossoms that are riveting and a mineral spine with acid for miles. Wines from Clare Valley start on the inexpensive side, and even the best of them won’t cost as much as the equivalent Rieslings from Germany. High-quality producers make versions that can age as long as some of the greatest red wines. That’s convenient for TJ’s sweet and tangy chicken, which can age in your freezer until you’re ready to eat it and tastes like it’s straight out of the wok — for less than the cost of a Chinese delivery tip. Pop it in the skillet for a few minutes and you get crispy little orbs of juicy meat in a surprisingly tasty orange sauce, which goes down like a mountain stream with the Riesling’s fresh citrus, minerals, and acid.
$ Pikes “Traditionale” Riesling
$$ Grosset “Polish Hill” Riesling
Black-Bean and Jack-Cheese Burrito & Ribera del Duero
TJ’s manages to turn what could be a grim gas-station packaged-meal situation into a genuinely tasty little lunch pill you wish you had doubled up on. Behind the surprisingly thick and flavorful flour-cloaked veil, the black beans are earthy, the cheese has a lovely melted zing, and there’s a mysterious sauce with a faint sweetness that gives it another gear.
When it comes to Ribera del Duero, you have to roll your R’s so you can let every syllable of this sensual region come in contact with your tongue. I’ve described these wines as “sex in a glass.” From one of the most prestigious wine regions in Spain, the greatest examples are revered with the same affection (and price) granted to first-growth Bordeaux and the cult wines of Napa. Made primarily of Tempranillo grapes, they’re the color of deep, opaque garnet with construction-man-tough tannin and are a mouthful when they’re young. There can be grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Garnacha blended in with the Tempranillo as well. All things black, from mountain cherries to mocha to truffle, dominate these wines with the kind of fresh-tilled earth people roll around naked in. Although the blue-chip offerings are what make the headlines, there are plenty of stunning options for $25 and under. Even at the entry level, there aren’t many dogs from this region, making it a fun place to start without worrying about the variance between bottles.
Wines from RdD tend to be more robust than those from the neighboring Spanish region of Rioja, which are also based on Tempranillo. This works out for your burrito because the dark cherry, dried fig, and blackberry fruits that are the hallmarks of Tempranillo are even riper in RdD and primed to take on the hearty mud of the black beans and the mildly sweet snap of the Jack and sauce.
$ Bodegas Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero
$$ Familia Fernández Rivera Tinto Pesquera Reserva Ribera del Duero
$$$ Vega Sicilia “Único” Ribera del Duero
Dark-Chocolate Peanut-Butter Cups & Oloroso Sherry
My best piece of advice is to lock them up or share them if you don’t want to eat every single cup in one sitting. Beyond that, you’re on your own with your willpower.
With sherry, there are a number of styles that range from desert dry to sticky sweet. Some are fresh and smell like a bag of raw, unsalted almonds. Others are oxidized and packed with a nuttiness similar to the roasted candied nuts you get from street carts. Names like fino or oloroso are telling you the style that’s in the bottle (see page 117). The lighter ones are usually consumed before dinner as an aperitif, while the oxidized styles go with dessert as a digestif.
$ Emilio Lustau “Solera Reserva” Dry Oloroso Don Nuño
$$ Valdespino Oloroso VOS Sherry “Don Gonzalo”
$$$ Equipo Navazos #74 Oloroso Montilla
Excerpt from BIG MACS & BURGUNDY, by Vanessa Price.
Text copyright © 2020 Vanessa Price.
Illustrations copyright © The Ellaphant in the Room.
By permission of Abrams Image, an imprint of ABRAMS, New York, NY.
All rights reserved.