Barbecue & wine: Van Ruiten Family’s Matt Ridge tests a tried-and-true theory
Mr. Berardi started up Tin Roof BBQ nine years ago on Guild Avenue in the east side of town as, strangely enough, someone who didn't like barbecue. "I'm a refugee from an Italian restaurant family," he tells us, "and if there's one thing you know about Italians, they're always fighting… I wanted to get away from all that dysfunction and do something different."
And so barbecue it was. The beauty of this is that Berardi applies his Italian sensibilities to his newfound specialty. "Barbecue requires getting everything just right," says Berardi. "Temperatures and cooking times have to be perfect… there's always a very narrow window and you’re not using a lot of ingredients… so you have to pay attention to what you’re doing, just like Italian cooking."
Just like we do at home, Berardi ever-so-slowly smokes and grills his meats in outdoor cookers, stationed alongside the restaurant. "We're more of a smokehouse," adds Berardi, "because I don't do a lot to the food. I use minimal seasonings and emphasize quality of ingredients. I chop all the vegetables and do everything from scratch – I just don't know any other way to cook."
Even Berardi's barbecue sauce – which is pervasive because it goes with everything coming out of the kitchen (including the beans and cole slaw) – is a model of restraint and balance. "I don't like a super-sweet sauce" he tells us. "I used to not like barbecue sauce at all – I always thought, 'what a way to ruin good meat' – and so I make a sauce that I can live with. If there's any secret to my barbecue sauce, it's that I use the smoked pork drippings from the pan as a base, and I add my seasonings on top – molasses, ginger, garlic, olive oil, onions, crushed red peppers, and a little bit of habanero and cayenne."
Having a restaurant in the middle of wine country is ideal, Berardi tells us, "because hearty, flavorful Lodi wines are perfect for hearty, flavorful barbecue. Barbecue never changes much, especially the way I do it. It's simple stuff, but it's simple stuff that lasts – you never get tired of it, just like wines from Lodi."
To test out Berardi's culinary theories, we invited Matt Ridge, the head winemaker of Van Ruiten Family Winery, to sit down and taste six of his wines with dishes right off the Tin Roof BBQ menu. If there's anything Lodi wine lovers know about Van Ruiten Family wines, it's that they're as dependable and long lasting as they come: you never tire of, say, a consistently well balanced, wild blackberryish, plummy and clove spiced red wine like the 2011 Van Ruiten Family Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel ($25).
Also like Berardi's sauce, Van Ruiten's Old Vine Zinfandel is never too strong, never too light, and always just right. A lot of this has to do with the integrity of the grapes going into it, coming off of three of the family's heritage vineyards: 63-year old vines in their Happy Home Vineyard behind the winery, the 53-year old Handle Ranch at Kettleman and Alpine, and the 106-year old James Van Ruiten Ranch at Turner and De Vries.
Also grown in James Van Ruiten Ranch, the 2012 Van Ruiten Family Lodi Petite Sirah ($23) is pungent with blueberry/blackpepper aromas of the grape; not too heavy, but rich, round and voluptuous in varietal fruit qualities. Mr. Ridge also brought his 2011 Van Ruiten Family Lodi Cab-Shiraz ($19) – a medium bodied wine with just a touch of the blocky, herbaceous Cabernet Sauvignon character (53%) blended with the perfumed qualities of the Syrah grape.
Rounding out this barbecue/wine tasting, Ridge also brought his medium bodied, crispy/creamy textured 2013 Van Ruiten Family Lodi Chardonnay ($15); and the lighter, zestier, pure and fresh pear-like 2013 Van Ruiten Family Lodi Pinot Grigio ($14). The winemaker's findings…
Smoked pulled pork with fried onion rings: You would expect Zinfandel to be the easiest match for pulled pork – and the Van Ruiten Zinfandel does have the natural acidity to cut right through the pork – but I actually liked the Chardonnay better. We barrel ferment 40% of our Chardonnay, which gives it that mild, creamy character with just a trace of smokiness that mixes and bumps the flavor of the pulled pork around in the mouth, bringing out the subtle smokiness in the meat. People often forget how well Chardonnay goes with food!
Smoked spareribs: Richard tells us that he smokes his spareribs "forever" (at least six hours), and I just love the way the meat just falls off the bone as soon as you touch it, with just the right amount of molasses caramelized on the crust. The Zinfandel tastes really bright and zesty with the spareribs – its soft tannin and mild acidity cutting through the slight fattiness in the ribs – and the meat adds to the jamminess of the wine. The spareribs are actually so delicate in flavor that the Petite Sirah tastes a little too rough with it – I'd even take the easy drinking Cab-Shiraz over the Petite Sirah, although the creamy, slightly smoky Chardonnay was not bad with the ribs either. This is a good reminder that it is often the simplest, easy-to-drink wines that often work the best with certain foods.
Smoked chicken: The chicken has been brined overnight in apple juice (and other “secret” ingredients), and comes out smoky, tender, slightly pinkish – a natural for the soft, smoky Chardonnay. Even better, though, is the Pinot Grigio, because its acidity and pure, fresh, clean fruit qualities, which bump up and brighten the flavor of the chicken, especially with the barbecue sauce.
Smoked turkey: You expect white turkey meat to be a little drier, which is why you need a purer white wine fermented in stainless steel, like the Pinot Grigio, to fluff up the flavor of the turkey meat – especially with the barbecue sauce, which adds that tanginess which goes great with the acidity of the Pinot Grigio. I thought the creaminess of the Chardonnay dumbed down the turkey a little bit.
Smoked brisket: This is a delicious but leaner cut of beef, almost needing the barbecue sauce. Overall, I thought the tannins in the red wines – especially the Petite Sirah and Zinfandel – overwhelmed the brisket a little bit. Still, the Cab-Shiraz's tannins were soft enough to go with the lean beef, which also brought out a peppery quality in the wine. Surprisingly, the acid in the Pinot Grigio brought out subtleties in the flavor of the brisket – a combination where you taste both the brisket and the wine a little bit more – and the Chardonnay was not a bad combination either.
Beef tri-tip: Richard tells us he roasts his tri-tip for about four hours, which is why it comes out super-smoky and crunchy around the edges – something that really works well with a beefy, full tannin red wine like Petite Sirah. The Cab-Shiraz also highlights the complex smokiness of the tri-tip; and when you add more of the sweet/tangy barbecue sauce, the Zinfandel works even better. Sometimes white wines also go with beef, but not this time – the tri-tip really didn't benefit from the acidity of the Pinot Grigio, and the Chardonnay just brought out a slightly bitter tone of the tri-tip's charred taste.
"Sweet smoky" beans: Tin Roof BBQ's beans are just as special as the meats, especially with the wines. The molasses flavor of these soft, rich beans seem to dance in the mouth with the jammy taste of Zinfandel. The tannins in Petite Sirah may have made the beans taste a little metallic, but not in the Cab-Shiraz – the wine tasted surprisingly rich and full with the beans. For barbecue and wine, we're not looking for one thing to overpower the other – you want one playing off the other.
Which, when you think about it, is why Lodi grown wines are ideal: they don't overpower foods that we love to eat most, like summertime barbecues… they just make them taste better!