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Cheetos and Sancerre: The pandemic art of junk food and wine pairings

Vanessa Price’s book "Big Macs & Burgundy" proves that wine pairings don't have to be stuffy.
Cheetos, roast beef sandwiches and ice cream: Dana McMahan's menu was made up of all the stuff she would love to eat but never does.
Cheetos, roast beef sandwiches and ice cream: Dana McMahan's menu was made up of all the stuff she would love to eat but never does.Courtesy Dana McMahan

It took a bag of Cheetos and pile of Arby’s roast beef sandwiches to remind me that wine can be a culinary experience. That, and Vanessa Price’s book "Big Macs & Burgundy."

I don’t think I’m alone in viewing wine for the last year as just one of the major food groups seeing us through pandemic life. I’d honestly forgotten the joy of appreciating a new-to-me bottle, when COVID-19 has called for a box of wine that I serve in bistro glasses to be on the grocery list on repeat. Besides, I’m more of a bourbon girl.

Then I heard about this book written by a fellow Louisvillian that pairs nice (read: not boxed, and upwards of single digit price tags) wines with the food we eat in the real world. Yes, Cheetos. Also grocery store sushi (Grüner Veltliner); Trader Joe’s cult favorite cauliflower gnocchi (Langhe Nebbiolo); Krispy Kreme doughnuts (Crémant de Bourgogne), cheap pizza (Montepulciano D’Abruzzo); and Shack Burgers (Australian Shiraz). And suddenly nothing in the world sounded better than a tasting menu of junk food with wine paired by an expert who wants us to understand wine doesn’t have to be a stuffy, snooty affair reserved for fancy dinners. No, even breakfast cereal (Lucky Charms!) and ice cream deserve a wine pairing.

So I called my trusty quarantine crew to reel them in to this dietary catastrophe, and spent a delicious afternoon studying the book and dreaming up an epic wine pairing event at home. Better still, when I got to my local wine shop, Louisville’s institution Old Town, the employee helping me with my shopping list was thrilled to hear about the project. She grabbed her copy of the book, because she, too, is excited to try the pairings, and steered me to reasonably priced bottles (all below 30 bucks) that would go with my dream team line-up of junk food — even going so far as to lend me her copy since I only had an e-version and wanted the pleasure of flipping through the pages.

Dana McMahan munching on Cheetos while drinking Sancerre.
Dana McMahan munching on Cheetos while drinking Sancerre. Courtesy Dana McMahan

Maybe it’s a result of a year without jet travel or splashy restaurant experiences, or the fact that I so rarely eat the likes of these foods, but I was nothing short of giddy at the promise of the dinner (do you call it dinner when there’s not a vegetable to be found?).

The menu was basically all the stuff I would love to eat but never do: Cheetos and white Sancerre (Le Manoir Vieilles Vignes); mozzarella sticks and Austrian Zweigelt (H.u.M Hofer); french fries two ways (waffle and curly) with brut cava (Juvé & Camps); Arby’s roast beef sandwiches with all the sauces and Cabernet Franc (Chinon Gourmandise), and Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia and Valpolicella Ripasso (Tommasi). I went all in, busting out the single nice piece of stemware I own, a Riedel creation the size of a goldfish bowl but ever so elegant.

Reader: it was astounding, reaching a crescendo, as Price put it when we chatted, with the Arby’s and cab. How, our friends and my husband and I marveled, could they just play off each other so perfectly? Even more marvelous was that a human brain dreamed up that combination. And all of the combinations in the book. All I can say is bless Vanessa Price, because in every wine class or pairing dinner I’ve sat through, the information so earnestly imparted by sommeliers and experts has gone in one ear and out the other, but this? She had me at the rapture of crunching into a poof of fake cheese followed by the crisp acidity of Sancerre (followed by another Cheeto).

The last course was ice cream floats made with the Cherry Garcia and Ripasso.
The last course was ice cream floats made with the Cherry Garcia and Ripasso.Courtesy Dana McMahan

Our quarantine bubble gatherings often feature wine or booze, but this was no mindless slugfest. We took turns reading the sections aloud that described the pairings (Price’s wicked humor causing more giggles than the wine itself — “juicy freshness and firm thrust of acid” sending us over the edge), finding ourselves genuinely interested in just how the bubbles of the cava played off the saltiness of the fries. And forget any sense of hushed reverence about the wines. Nope, by the end of the meal we were making ice cream floats with the Cherry Garcia and ripasso.

Price roared with laughter when I told her. “That makes me so happy to hear!” she said. We’d discovered new wines. We’d renewed our interest in how food and wine can play so happily together. And we’d had an absolute blast in the process, all the very reasons she wrote such a book. “Wine creates community,” she said. There’s nothing magical about pairing, she went on, and the fundamentals that make wine work with “fancy” food (also represented in the book) work just as well with take-out and snacks.

Nobody thinks they have to be a fashion designer to have an opinion on a dress, Price said, or a musician to know whether they like a song. But when it comes to wine, people feel like they can’t share their opinion if they're not an expert. We shouldn’t be intimidated, she said. Just open yourself up, and think about why you like something.

One dinner of junk food did for me what 10 years of writing about food has not, and although I can’t eat that way every night, I can’t wait to work my way through more of the pairings (she does include salads and more healthful options in addition to the section on McDonald’s nugget sauces and Halloween candy pairings, to be fair). But my new party trick, and the pairing I can see going back to again and again, is the Cheetos and Sancerre. You won’t be able to stop either, so, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Looking for a few fun pairings for Valentine's Day? You're in luck. Here's what Vanessa Price shared with TODAY:

  • Melon and prosciutto appetizer and prosecco (Altaneve Prosecco Di Valdobbiadene SRP $27.99): It’s an instant upgrade for salty, razor-thin prosciutto and ripe melon, which are transformed by prosecco from an easy antipasto staple into something truly memorable.
  • Spicy tuna roll and rosé Champagne (Louis Roederer Brut Nature Rosé, $99.99): The bright acidity of the blush-toned bubble works well with the powerful flavors of a spicy tuna roll.
  • Lasagna and Morrocan syrah (Graillot Syrocco, $18.99): Graillot’s Moroccan Syrah has the tannins for the meat, the red fruit for the red sauce, and finesse for the tomato acid, with enough pungent wet earth to withstand melted mozzarella and Parm.
  • Filet mignon and Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon (Napanook by Dominus Estates, $79.99/second offering $34.99): There’s a reason most steakhouses have Bible-sized wine lists disproportionately filled with Napa cabernet sauvignon. Together, red meat and Napa cab can move nations. Few wines deliver the kind of high-alcohol and tannic body blow required to tangle with such a full-flavored protein. That tag team creates tension with the beef and helps the experience linger after the bite is gone, like a vinous A.1. sauce.
  • Dark chocolate peanut butter cups and Olosoro sherry (Lustau Solera Reserva Olorosa Sherry, $23.99): One of the most popular items at Trader Joe's, 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. Oloroso is a sherry that never gets its flor, which is a type of yeast that can form a layer over sherries to protect them from oxygen. So it is oxidized from the get-go. Spicy and packed with a walnut signature, it’s usually dry but also so rich that it can trick you into thinking there’s sugar present.