High on the Vine: Wines for Backyard Cookouts

Patrick Guilfoil of Woodfire Grill talks about wines we can all enjoy wearing a bathing suit.

Last Saturday I pulled back the creaky wooden doors to Woodfire Grill and walked inside with a package wrapped in a brown paper bag under my arm. I had come to talk with Patrick Guilfoil, the sommelier since January, about wines to pair with backyard cookouts.

As servers prepared for that night’s dinner service, Guilfoil led me beyond the bar past a roaring grill—the centerpiece for the restaurant—to the back of the dining room. The wood-panels lining the walls, warm lighting and tables cloaked in white cloth spoke of an old-school country club. It’s a classy place, but I had brought Guilfoil the opposite of fancy: a chili-cheese slaw dog from The Varsity and a bag of Lay’s Potato Chips.

“If you’re up to the challenge, do you think you can pair a wine with this?” I asked. The man didn’t hesitate.

In an instant he ruled out red wines, flirted with the idea of whites but quickly settled on a wine I wrote about last week and one that pairs with all things summer: rosé. The pairing was perfect, which Guilfoil had nailed 20 seconds into the challenge. Success.

Guilfoil became a certified sommelier in September 2011 and joined Woodfire Grill two months later as a server. After earning top honors at his level-two examination in April last year, Guilfoil became the assistant sommelier before taking over the program early this year.(He’s now training for his advanced sommelier certification.) Jumping off of chili dogs, Guilfoil discussed wines ideal for grilled food, preferably consumed in a bathing suit.

Is it difficult to pair wine with food when you’re grilling out because you have to factor for the hot weather outside?
We all like to get together, and we’ll go to somebody’s pool and throw some stuff on the grill. When you have a lot of different foods—kilbasa, steak, hotdogs, some vegetables, guacamole—you have this smorgasbord of appetizers and tapas. You don’t want to go with a big wine that will overpower everything. You don’t want big alcohol or big fruit because you won’t taste anything.
I almost always buy a light refreshing white wine that I can throw on ice and enjoy cold. That’s what I think of when I think summer. Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley can be good. Vouvray can have some good stuff. I think of wines with low oak and moderate alcohol levels under 12.5%. Big oak and butter from Chardonnay doesn’t come to mind. Fruit flavors, mentality, high acidity—that’s what you want. We spoke about rosé, there’s also Muscadet from Loire.

The entrees at Woodfire Grill—bacon-wrapped pork loin, oven roasted fish and steak—are very heavy meats and similar to what people might grill. How do you approach those pairings?
We don’t just pair with a protein. We more often find that the protein is more versatile and can have a wider range of wines. I’m often pairing to what’s with the rest of the dish. The pork loin here has smoke but comes with a Carolina mustard BBQ sauce and a buttery succotash. Pinot Noir worked really well with the mustard. I tried the dish with Zinfindael and a Grenache-based wine, and they were too big. So despite the fact that you’re thinking about these big smoky flavors, a lighter style wine is better.

As for the steak, you can do whatever you want with it. That’s big red wine country. It’s a fatty cut of steak, and I’ve gone from Cabernet Sauvignon to Malbec to Zinfindel. They all work beautifully.

You mentioned Rrosé but what else is there when it comes to cheeseburgers and hotdogs?
Zinfandel is your traditional grilling wine since it has big fruit flavors and often some smoke. Zinfandels are good for barbecues, like a sweet barbecue chicken that has been marinating overnight.

Zin is also one of those grapes that’s strictly American. If you look at all the grapes that you’re familiar with in the U.S.—Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon—those are all from France. Zinfandel most reflects the American palate: big fruit, big alcohol, and a lot of flavor. Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County makes some killer Zinfandels. Napa and Paso Robles make some big style Zins, as well as Lodi.

Pinot Noir, especially those from Willamette Valley in Oregon, work for grilling too. Pinot is almost always lower in alcohol, fruit content and oak. There’s more balance. You can taste more earth in the wine. When I grill, I do a lot of pork, sausage, and chicken and the lighter meats are better with Pinot Noir. For heavier meats, pinot tends to fall off.

What’s a good price point for Zinfandel?
Zinfindael isn’t that expensive. You can spend $12 on Zinfindel and be thrilled. Personally, I can’t speak to what the quality level will be when it’s under $10. That’s when wine quality very much varies. I find that to be a big problem when people say, “I don’t like Merlot,” or “I don’t like Chardonnay. To be fair, they probably haven’t had enough of those grapes to really say, but somebody went to a Kroger or Publix a bought a $7 bottle of wine and they didn’t like it and now they don’t like the grape. That’s just not fair.