As Chicagoans, we understand better than most the notion of food rules. Take the humble hot dog. Top it however you like — hell, there’s an entire garden of fresh and pickled toppings at your disposal — but don’t even think about adding ketchup.
Plenty of us do the same thing with certain food and drink pairings, though we don’t often deem those choices so worthy of soapboxes. The last time you ate a hot dog, for instance, how’d you wash it down? With an ice-cold Coke, lemonade or beer? Probably not wine though, because that’s, well, wrong. Right?
Turns out, you can pair wine with hot dogs — and quite deliciously — if you keep it mostly refreshing, bubbly and crushable. The trickier bit comes in with the toppings — which are at their most basic sweet, sour, or both. That’s why we’ve enlisted a sommelier and a chef to advise us.
Charles Ford is the wine director at boundary-pushing Korean hotspot S.K.Y. in Pilsen, who happens to have a penchant for pairing nice-ass vino with junk food: Sicilian frappato with fried chicken and mac & cheese, and elegant German riesling with Palermo’s frozen pizza. Our resident chef is S.K.Y. chef/partner Stephen Gillanders, the cerebral former chef of Intro and a Jean-Georges protegé.
We meet at discount wine emporium Vin Chicago on the Elston Industrial Corridor before heading to no-frills hot dog joint Redhot Ranch in Bucktown.
“For hot dogs, first off, it has to be fun,” Ford says. “I’m thinking bright, clean, crispy flavors — so almost any white, sparkling and rosé, of course.”
He instinctively reaches for his favorite summer sipper, Furlani, a thirst-quenching, bone-dry pet-nat rosé from Italy. He also grabs Gio Dominico Negro Birbet, a sweet, fizzy lambrusco-like red and potential analog to another familiar throwback: cherry cola; and Chavignol sancerre, an elegant, high-acid white from France.
“Sommeliers across the board will shun me for pairing Chavignol with hot dogs,” Ford says.
“This entire process is a mortal sin for the old guard anyway,” Gillanders laughs.
Ford has also brought a can of Margerum, a minerally pink rosé from Santa Barbara, California, that he’s currently pouring at the restaurant. Twenty minutes later in line at Redhot Ranch, we confront the second mortal sin of the day.
“Don’t you think we should order at least one hot dog with just ketchup?” I venture.
“I grew up eating my hot dogs with just ketchup,” Ford replies.
“Well, I find irony in the fact that there’s a tomato on the Chicago dog, which is obviously the main component of ketchup,” Gillanders says. “Sweet and sour is something you find with hot dogs in general, which is kind of what the crux of what ketchup is. So what makes relish OK?”
That settles it: Two dogs with ketchup and three with everything, which at Redhot Ranch means mustard, relish, onions and sport peppers. Each one comes wrapped in paper with a pile of fries, turning it into a spontaneous Depression dog.
Ford opens the pet-nat rosé first. We admit we could likely polish off this satiating sparkler by itself on this postcard-ready summer afternoon.
“I like this wine with the hot dog in particular because it quenches your thirst after each salty bite,” Ford says. “Each one makes you want more of the other.”
The Margerum rosé’s tingling acidity and chalky, limey flavors evokes similar reactions and an unsurprising revelation: However you top your hot dog, you can’t go wrong with a refreshing pink sparkler. The sancerre comes next. A classic 100 percent sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley, it’s high-acid and mineral, with a crisp citrus flavor.
“This tastes like a hot dog and lemonade for adults!” Gillanders says. Its acidity clashes with the sour toppings of the everything dog, though it’s light-bodied and refreshing enough that it isn’t a deal-breaker.
“This is the wine that everybody would pick as a safety option, because you know it’s going to be good,” Ford says. “Are you going to have the guts to go and do some fun outside-the-box stuff like this with it? Maybe not.”
Finally, we reach the wild-card red. “This may suck,” Ford warns, cascading the ruby liquid into our paper cups. The fizzy red is delicious, smacking of cola-like sweetness, brightened by tart-sweet fruit. Sipping it between bites of a snappy dog slathered in mustard tastes remarkably like a low-brow version of pairing Italian lambrusco and charcuterie with pickles and grainy mustard.
“Of all the wine we’ve had, I thought the red would be the most dominating, and it’s actually the most cola-like and entry-level friendly for hot dogs,” Gillanders says. “This wine with this meal defines removing pretense about wine pairings.” Then again, our experiment has stripped wine pairing to its most basic level—just something you drink with food.
“People pair food and drink all the time without realizing it — beer and pizza, milk and cookies,” Gillanders says. “It’s interesting that the wine world is so intimidating when it’s just a specific beverage.” That’s why it’s so important to figure out what you actually like, Ford says. “If you hate milk, no amount of cookies will change that.”
Polishing off the last dog, all three of us own to liking the ketchup-topped hot dog the most, in no small part because its tangy-sweet, salty profile was a perfect match for all four wines. It just goes to show that in pigheaded matters of wine pairing and food rules, you never know until you try.
Charles Ford’s four picks for hot dog-friendly wines can be found at Vin or Binny’s. Serve them all well-chilled.
Furlani rosato, pinot noir, Italy ($26.99): This unfiltered, naturally sparkling wine made from pinot noir grapes is lip smackingly refreshing with subtle red fruit and tingling bubbles. “It’s bone dry, really bright and red and not a lot of bite, which, for me, when we were saying hot dogs, it’s perfect because it washes everything down,” Ford says. Cleansing your palate between bites makes it a match for the simple and loaded hot dog alike.
Thomas Labaille Chavignol Sancerre, Loire Valley, France ($23.99): Light and citrusy with a silky texture, this classic white may horrify the resident wine snob of your group, but its acidity makes it a perfect match for a dog with ketchup. As Ford likes to say, “it’s aristocratically good.”
Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco di Sorbara, Modena, Italy ($14.99): Because Birbet is a bit harder to find, consider lambrusco if you are in the mood for something sweet, fizzy and low-alcohol (11 percent) with your dog. “You get a really satisfactory medium body and balance, which is perfect for an aggressive style dog,” Ford says.
Alloy Wine Works Blanc de Blancs Chardonnay, Paso Robles, California ($4.99 per can): With yeasty aromas and lemony goodness on the palate, this is a no-brainer for any salty backyard snacks. “It’s a low-alcohol chardonnay sparkler … and a pretty crisp, thirst-quenching solution to salty, ketchup-y dogs,” Ford says. “It's perfect for packing in a cooler, and to be honest it's just fun to drink sparkling wine out of a can.”