Pairing Off: Wendy's Spicy Chicken Nuggets

Each week, Pairing Off attempts to find just the right bottle of wine to go with ordinary food.

National restaurant chains know how to stretch the limits of almost any word. Olive Garden tries to sell us on the "Tuscan" influences in their dishes--you know, the grilled shrimp caprese, five cheese ziti and such. Applebee's introduced an "Asian" crunch salad to go along with their "Oriental" chicken salad.

Recently Wendy's began advertising their "spicy" chicken nuggets--five wads of breaded white meat for 99 cents that, as their commercial segments admit, aren't too spicy.

They've seasoned the crust with a non-threatening black pepper and cayenne mix, judging by the flavor (and ruddy color). But what the hell. You're up for a bottle of wine, you don't really want much to eat and there's a Wendy's around the corner.

So which wine goes with bland white meat, breading and dusty cayenne?

"Diet Coke" said James, working at Crush and hoping to shoo me off the phone. Then he paused and added "you could do a Viognier--they're more aromatic and have some tropical notes." But, he admitted, "I don't want to put too much thought into it."

I don't blame him, really.

But I was stuck with two containers of rapidly cooling nuggets, so I turned to Denise Jones, wine director at Vino 100. "A full bodied Zin," she replied, suggesting a label called Hullaballoo out of Napa.

"Zinfandel has a spicy quality and vibrant fruit--that's always my first choice for fried chicken," she explained

The guy at Goody Goody--I can never remember his name, though I stop in quite often--agreed that a "jammy" Zin would work. Unfortunately they don't at the moment carry Hullaballoo, so I ended up with Gnarly Head's 2006 Old Vine Zin.

It's a simple wine on the nose: lots of juice, some woody, leafy vanilla and the impression of a bite. But it comes to life when tasted, hitting you with overripe plum, must and bitter herbs, with a fruity finish.

On the plus side, the wine remains pretty much intact when paired up to spicy nuggets. Although the resonant musty notes fade, a peppery edge emerges and piques whatever is left of Wendy's cayenne seasoning after processing and deep frying by kids on work release. It also brings out more salt from the nuggets' crust.

The downside? Well, the nuggets...though I have to admit my cat was very interested in Wendy's product.

Really, the pairing probably does more harm than good to the wine. Yet this damage is so slight, it hardly matters.

I'm gonna score the pairing a win...and then never attempt it again.