Food & Drink

Exclusive Book Excerpt: Demystifying Wine Culture in “36 Bottles of Wine”

Seattle magazine wine writer Paul Zitarelli’s first book is one of the year’s tastiest tomes, highlighted by his signature clever food and wine pairings and his brilliant storytelling

By Paul Zitarelli September 5, 2018


This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Seattle magazine.

This article appears in print in the September 2018 issue. Click here to subscribe.

Paul Zitarelli’s approach to wine has always been simple: Have fun, drink what you like and drink seasonally, just as you eat seasonally. In his first book, 36 Bottles of Wine (September 18, Sasquatch Books, $19.95), he recommends a trio of wine categories to explore—one red, one white and one wild card—along with a wine-friendly meal for each month of the year. Although this excerpt is from the February chapter, we loved the universality and timeliness of nachos, this glimpse into Zitarelli’s world and his lyrical writing style, and perhaps most of all, his ode to navigating rosés, one of our favorite—and fastest growing—Washington wine categories.

Food Pairing: Pregnancy Nachos 
The research on pregnancy cravings is mixed. Some evidence points toward hormonal underpinnings, some toward psychological, some cultural. And if you think that I, as a man—a man whose closest analog to childbearing was a kidney stone, where the pregnancy was short, the labor-and-delivery excruciating, the baby unattractive, and the only craving for more Dilaudid—am going to offer an opinion on this topic, you’re sorely mistaken.

What I will say is that throughout much of my wife’s second pregnancy, she craved one specific food. Nachos. And so cooking nachos once each week (conservative estimate) became my Zen practice (if a Zen practice can include copious amounts of melted cheese). Every element was considered, tested, settled.

Round tortilla chips or triangles? Save the circles for your banal salsa dipping. Triangles, with their three sharp angles that emerge from a pile of nachos like whitecaps on a choppy sea, offer the perfect fingerholds.

The right meat? I started with plain ground beef. Too boring. Then I moved to ground beef with taco seasoning, which was attractive in the same way that a salt lick must be attractive to deer. I tried carnitas, which tasted great but quadrupled the overall cooking time. And I settled on fresh chorizo, which offers flavor intensity, nuanced spiciness, and porky umami goodness.

For cheese, I mostly stayed in the tried-and-true melty lanes of cheddar and jack. Either on its own is flawed: the cheddar too greasy, the jack too staid. The perfect blend, in my experience: two parts jack to one part cheddar.
Because this recipe was developed with a gestating baby in mind, I was also eager to introduce a few healthier elements. Black beans were an easy call, their earthy flavor and textural snap complementing the chorizo beautifully. Lacinato kale added a bitter counterpoint to all the richness, and a pleasing crunch.

For years, my favorite nacho topper has been pickled raisins from Seattle chef Renee Erickson’s Boat Street Pickles. If nachos have a weakness (blasphemy, I know), it’s that they can be a little one note. The first bite tastes great, but then it’s all salt-fat-umami, over and over again. Pickled raisins break the cycle. They’re little acid-sugar balloons, and when they pop, the balance is enough to make women swollen with child—and their partners swollen with the kind of gallantry that only repetitive nacho cookery can provide—swoon with pleasure.

Paired wines (for supportive partners and friends): Mosel Riesling Kabinett, Chilean Carménère or Last Year’s Rosé

Wine Pairing: Last Year’s Rosé

One way we can seek value is to push back against widely held beliefs about wine.

Especially those that happen not to be true. Allow me to introduce you to one such belief: that rosés have an expiration date set to December 31 of the year following harvest. This is a persistent belief in part because it contains a kernel of truth. Terrible rosés do indeed expire quickly, and up until recently, there were a lot of terrible rosés on the market. But we’re riding the crest of a rosé movement, and the quality has never been higher. Good, purpose-built rosés with bright, acidic spines—those can age just like white wines, which means an extra year or two of bottle age will barely budge the needle.

To understand why there is such value in rosés with an extra year in bottle, let’s place ourselves in the calendars, and minds, of rosé producers and importers:

April: Confidence abounds. Just as the weather is warming up, we’re ready to release our rosé made from grapes harvested last October.

July: Height of summer. Peak rosé season. Sales have increased each month, but, hmmm . . . there are a lot of other rosés on the market, and at this pace, we’re not going to sell through our entire stash this summer.

September: Beads of sweat forming on brows. Damn, that unseasonal cold snap in August didn’t help with rosé sales. And now kids are back in school; people are thinking about autumn. Nobody’s buying rosé. But that’s okay; people always drink rosé at Thanksgiving. We’ll offer a little discount and blast through the rest of this pink goodness. In the meantime, let’s harvest next year’s grapes!

December: Full-on op sweat. Oh sh**. Turns out some of our competitors, who have been down this road before, offered more than a little discount. Their rosés hit copious Thanksgiving tables; our rosé sales are stagnant, and we’re still sitting on two hundred cases.

February: Palpitations. Rosé was supposed to be our cash-flow play, and now it’s turning into a balance-sheet anchor. The new vintage of rosé is going to be bottled in like two months. What the hell are we going to do with last year’s?

Do you know what they’re going to do with last year’s vintage? They’re going to dump it for dimes on the dollar. And that’s how, in months like January and February and March, rosés that used to cost $20 now cost $10 and rosés that used to cost $15 now cost $5. Has the quality plummeted by 60 percent? No, it has not. Only the price.

Purchase these rosés in February and hold them until the warmer-weather months, if you like. Or pop a few bottles in the fridge and see if you don’t end up choosing one for a midweek meal. Even in midwinter, rosé’s food-pairing versatility shines through. A bracing rosé dazzles with a roast chicken, cutting through butter-and-thyme-crisped skin. Or drink it with Saturday French toast; you can upgrade to the fancy Vermont maple syrup with the money you saved on your rosé.

Excerpted from “36 Bottles of Wine” by permission of Sasquatch Books. Copyright 2018 by Paul Zitarelli. All rights reserved.

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