Pairing Off: Sonic Hot Dogs

Perhaps I'm treading new and uncertain ground here. There's nothing as American as hot dogs...except perhaps for baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet, although a couple of those are in the midst of death throes. And, of course, if we call them Frankfurters, they somehow become a German sausage.

Otherwise, there's nothing as purely red, white and blue as an eight pack, speared on sticks and steadied over an open flame. And if this were a beer column--like Hophead, say--I would be on pace to warble something about finding the country's soul in a dog, some suds and a ballgame.

Or in this case, a drive-in.

But several years ago, sales of wine began to creep ahead of St. Louis' finest. The next logical step: pick out a decent vintage, drop by Sonic and order a few hot dogs.

Here's where we enter uncertain territory. The old rules--red for beef, white for fish, jug wines for visiting relatives in Arkansas--still apply to some extent, although the modern sommelier is more likely to take risks. No set of criteria exist for pale processed "meat" in a bun.

"It depends on the condiment," says Todd Lincicome, wine director at Al Biernat's. "Hot dogs are relatively salty and mustard has unique characteristics--for me, I would say a dry red wine."

Vincent McGrath of Y.O. Ranch Steakhouse heads in a similar direction: "I would try a Louis Jadot Beaujolais--it's a little earthy, but with some weight to it."

Despite their general agreement, they address the problem from uniquely different perspectives. McGrath believes a Beaujolais would pull some spice from the bland meat, tying it to the mustard. Lincicome, on the other hand, hopes to use the main dish to find something special in the wine.

"The salt would cut into the tannins [of a dry red]," he explains, "and make the wine smoother and softer in style. It will make the wine more elegant."

Now there's an interesting thought: hot dogs bringing sophistication to a glass of wine. I had to try it. Lincicome points toward Penfold's--either a Koonunga Hill blend or Thomas Hyland Cabernet. And since Goody Goody was out of the former...

Penfold's is a drinkable Cab--young, with some weight, yet also bold and fruity on first splash. It finished with a long, smooth pipe tobacco sensation. None of that resonant aged leather and oak of fancier Cabs. The hot dog itself releases a flow of nitrates across the palate, but that's about it. Together (and depending upon the amount of mustard splooched across the surface), the wine did actually ease up, ad Lincicome promised, until a flavor comparable to toasted walnuts rolled in dried fruit and sugar emerged...more complexity, in other words, than I found when just sipping before dinner.

Too much mustard tends to frighten the wine, however--sending pricks of harsh pepper across your tongue before it settles back down. Oh, well. It's a serviceable choice--and something worth trying next trip to the ballpark...if you want to hear "the soccer stadium is in Frisco" or "go back to France" catcalls.

Anyway, it works. Put down the Budweiser and reach for a bottle of Australian Cabernet.

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