In a Tesco grocery store in Exeter, England, there it was: a bottle of white wine labeled “Great with Chicken.” No grape, no location, just “Great with Chicken.” The shop was down the hill from the university I attended that year, and I was the target market—an indiscriminate undergrad on a budget. Still, that bottle left me with more questions than answers: Why chicken? Any kind of chicken? Was there a magical flavor in the bottle that made it so great with
There is, of course, plenty of wine that qualifies as the opposite of “Great with Chicken.” It might come with an information-overload wine label, the bottle described in such a way to ensure you can’t do it justice unless you roast a whole duck over cherry-wood lump charcoal and serve it strewed with fermented nettles and sea buckthorn berries. But drinking wine you like, with food you like, doesn’t have to be either extreme. This book is about finding the happy middle ground, the wines that charm you with food to eat alongside and make the exploration more fun.
My own understanding of wine started when I was about eight years old, on a family road trip to the Napa Valley. Back then, Napa didn’t have nearly as many wineries as it does today, and for my parents, this trip was as much about having a picnic as it was about tasting wine. We tumbled out of the back of a sticky Chevy station wagon into a parking lot off Highway 29, already cranky from what was only an hour’s drive. My brother, sister, and I filed into a cool tasting room that smelled of wet stone, and while my parents sampled the local red, the staff offered me a glass of slightly frothy homemade grape juice.
I took a big sip and spit it back into my cup. Made from what I now believe were wine grapes left over from harvest, it was sharp, sour, and had most likely started to ferment. According to my eight-year-old self, this was not grape juice! It would take me years to realize that juice that is a little fizzy and unexpected is actually way better than the plain ol’ purple stuff. We all start somewhere.
Back then, wine drinking for grown-ups was simple. My parents, who cut their teeth on sweet bottles of Blue Nun in college, had graduated to buying wine from the local grocery store, where an enterprising staffer would announce a deal on a case over the loudspeaker. This kicked off a stampede of shopping carts to the far side of the store as customers loaded up on whatever he was offering. The loudspeaker specials always sold out, and everyone trusted the wine guy to make the decisions easy for them. Most of the time, the decision was easy—a bottle of white or a bottle of red, something charming for every-day occasions. What’s changed since those days is selection and information. Wines can be white or red, sure, but they can also be pink, orange, sparkling, sweet—or nearly all of those at once. There’s a style to suit any taste, though the irony is that the bottles I love to drink today may not be so different from the lighter, everyday wines my parents bought by the caseload from their favorite grocery-store wine guy.
Years after that grumpy family trip to Napa, I ended up living there, cooking professionally and turning into a casual observer of the rhythms of summer tourism and fall grape harvests. My fellow line cooks and I couldn’t really afford to drink the local wine—most of it Cabernet Sauvignon—so we stuck with bottles of picnic-style reds that friends made on the side for themselves. When I was at work on a hot summer day, one of those bottles exploded in my tiny studio apartment—my first lesson on the effects of what happens when a wine is bottled before it has finished fermenting and then starts to ferment again when the room temperature reaches above 90°F. (Today, making wine that finishes its fermentation in the bottle is done intentionally, but the bottles are stoppered in a way that prevents such explosions.)
It was only after moving to San Francisco and taking a job at A16, a restaurant known for its extensive collection of southern Italian wines, that I had an opportunity to taste a wide range of styles. The best part was that I could do this without any expectation of expertise—at the time, no one else knew much about the wines made in Campania, the region encompassing Naples, so rather than feel pressured to judge one bottle as superior to another, I started to think of how wines fell into certain styles. Nearly all styles—from bone-dry sparklers to deep reds and the rare dessert wine—had a place. Though as a line cook, the wines I gravitated toward most back then were lean, savory, and slightly chilled—kitchen work is hot and messy, and sometimes you just need refreshment.
Today, most of the wines I seek out fall into the “charming and affordable” camp, the kind of wines that make people smile without taking over the conversation. Friends I’ve known from childhood get together once a month for what we call Porch Time. The idea started as a joke (none of us had porches), but the name lost its irony ages ago, and some of us have graduated to homes with backyards, if not quite porches. Porch Time usually hinges around a potluck mishmash of things we are able to scavenge together paired with a bottle of affordable wine. Most of the food at these events can be served at room temperature, with maybe one or two things coming hot from the oven. And since Porch Time was born around tiny apartment kitchens, the recipes we relied on needed to be made without a lot of extra fuss. Popcorn, some good cheeses and salumi, olives, and store-bought hummus all helped fuel our conversations.
This book is for occasions like that: porch times, game nights, picnics, book clubs, hangout sessions, or any other excuse to get together with friends. Some recipes take longer than others, but most hinge on curating food with the wine to facilitate sharing and exploring. There are no “Great with Chicken” rules here (pretty much any wine can be “great” with chicken, depending on how you season the bird). Instead, it’s about reclaiming the idea that any time we can get together with friends and family is worth celebrating—now more than ever. Taste, explore, form opinions, and have fun while you’re doing so.