The first burger cart is rumored to have appeared in Los Angeles as early as 1894. It was the start of a long love affair between the city and one of its favorite meals—whether at a drive-in, at the beach or at backyard BBQs. Sixteen-year-old Lional Sternberger is said to have created the first cheeseburger in 1924 at the Rite Spot in Pasadena. As far back as 1935, when one dollar could feed a family, The Brown Derby was serving luxury burgers for $1 per person. In the 1950s, guys and gals in muscle cars cruised Sunset Strip pulling into—what else?—burger joints. Los Angeles is the home of long-standing favorites like Fatburger, Astro Burger and Apple Pan. In-N-Out first opened in Baldwin Park in 1948. Johnny Rockets opened on Melrose Avenue in 1986, and McDonald’s got its start just east of the city, in San Bernardino.
Still, Angelenos don’t usually associate burgers with wine: Beer and milkshakes are the drinks of choice. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d sat down with a juicy burger and a glass of red. So, I asked six retailers at wine shops around Los Angeles to join me for a burger and wine tasting.
Immediately, opinions were flowing about who makes the best burger. Eduardo Bolaños of The Wine House and Michelle Gonzalez of Silverlake Wine were adamant about In-N-Out. “I grew up with it,” Bolaños says, “and it’s still my go-to, especially late at night.” Gonzalez is such a fan that she reveals, “It’s the only fast-food burger I’ve ever had. I’ve never had a McDonald’s burger!”
On the opposing side is Ryan Frick of Bar and Garden, who grew up next to an In-N-Out and claims to have “always poo-poohed it.” As a surfer, Frick prefers the beach-side Jalama Burger, for its traditional flat-top smashburger with shredded iceberg lettuce. Coly Den Haan of Vinovore loves the classic Fatburger and Julian Kurland of Domaine LA chimes in that when he was growing up, his favorite was Burger that Ate LA, where a giant burger jutted out of the wall in the dining room. “It looked like a massive hamburger was eating the building,” he laughs.
To narrow down the selections, I chose three distinct burger styles. In-N-Out was the iconic Californian fast-food choice. Tourists and locals alike line up at the drive-throughs, a string of cars often winding around the block. The Double-Double is In-N-Out’s most popular burger, made “animal style”—with grilled onions and special sauce topping two beef patties and cheese.
Next up: Mr. Charlie’s, a vegan fast-food chain that looks eerily like a McDonald’s, with golden arches turned upside down into frowns. Los Angeles has become a mecca for vegan cuisine, and I wanted to know if plant-based patties affected a wine pairing. I chose the Double Not—two Impossible burger patties topped with vegan cheese, pickles, onion, ketchup and mustard.
To complete the trio, a decadent pub burger: Stout Burgers & Beers, a Hollywood staple, is known for…burgers and beer. But how would their patties topped with horseradish cream, blue cheese and bacon fare with wine? This burger also has Gruyère, caramelized onions and roasted tomato—a lot of flavors to compete with a wine.
Each retailer picked one wine from their shop to pair with these burgers; the price limit on the bottle was $30. Then, on a sunny Thursday in April, I picked up the burgers, bagged the six wines, and we sat down to blind-taste them with each burger.
The Wine House
2311 Cotner Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90064
Burger Pairing: Aseginolaza & Leunda 2020 Navarra Kauten Garnacha $28
- Eduardo Bolaños, a paramedic-turned-floor-sommelier at Spago and Osteria Mozza, now buys Spanish, Portuguese, Mexican, and South Ameican wines for The Wine House, a vast store in West Los Angeles carrying upwards of 4,000 different wines.
For Bolaños, when it comes to burger pairing, “Toppings are definitely the most important thing. Pickles do have an effect. In-N-Out’s special sauce is kind of thousand island-ish, and that can kill a lot of things.”
His wine of choice, a garnacha from Spain’s Navarra region, was full-bodied and jammy. When the group tasted it with In-N-Out’s Double-Double, Coly Den Haan found “the weight of the wine is balanced with the meat and the sauce, with just a little more tannin than the lighter wines in the lineup.” But the superripe fruit overpowered the flavors of the Mr. Charlie’s Double Not vegan burger. “When you eat the burger, then go back to the wine,” Ryan Frick noticed, “there’s even more fruit.” It highlighted the fact that we were eating a plant-based rather than a meat-based burger; the patties felt hollow and flavorless. We also discovered that the cheese overpowered the rest of the burger’s flavors because, as it cooled, the texture congealed and stuck to the roof of the mouth. The sharp, artificial flavor—think Cheez-Wiz rather than fresh cheddar—took over the finish. “As if American cheese isn’t tricky enough,” Bolaños joked. “I didn’t take into account vegan American cheese.”
The garnacha found its stride with the blue cheese and horseradish on top of the Stout burger. Frick loved the pairing because the fruit became a little bit smoky when combined with the horseradish. Julian Kurland found that the wine offered elegance in the face of the bold flavors of the burger. Michelle Gonzalez said that while the wine seemed flabby with the vegan burger, it was fresh and crisp with the Stout burger. Den Haan concluded, “This wine brings a little something extra to the table. It’s like the third flavor to the burger and toppings.”
- Coly Den Haan focuses primarily on women winemakers at Vinovore, with locations in Eagle Rock and Silverlake, where she takes the guesswork out of shopping by assigning each guest a spirit animal based on their preferences in wine. If you like orange wine, rosé, or obscure red varieties, for example, then you’re an orange tiger and should enjoy any wine in the shop marked with an orange sticker. Den Haan says she herself is most often an orange tiger; it’s also the category that she thinks will pair with burgers.
Coly Den Haan
4627 York Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90041
Burger Pair: Martha Stoumen 2021 Medocino Post Flirtation Red $29
“When I think burgers, I think juicy,” she says. “We could call that higher in acid, but something juicy, fresh and mouthwatering in my wine is also what I want in my burger. Chillable red is always my go-to because a burger and fries still feels lighter than a steak and potatoes. I don’t want something big and overpowering.” Her pick, Post Flirtation, is a spicy, fruity blend of carignan and zinfandel from Mendocino County, California.
In the blind tasting, Den Haan found the wine “interesting and different” with the In-N-Out Double-Double, but that “some of the other wines are more harmonious.” Kurland described “an herbaceous green tinge at the finish. I’m not sure how I feel about it with In-N-Out, but I like the wine.” Frick added, “It’s so gluggable. If I’m eating a burger at noon, I just want to dump this wine into a Mason jar and drink it like water.”
That stemmy, herbaceous quality turned bitter at the finish when it met the horseradish on the Stout burger but the wine was a winning match with Mr. Charlie’s vegan burger. The ripe, round fruit was more pronounced, and the tart green quality helped to clean the palate from the rich, sticky vegan cheese. Phillip Dunn mused, “When you taste the wine, then the burger, and back to the wine, it completely changes in the best way. It becomes brighter, more streamlined, fruity and juicy.” Den Haan proclaimed, “I think the vegan burger has found a wine!”
6801 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Burger Pairing: Emme 2021 Mendocino Pink Lemonade $29
- Julian Kurland started at Cannibal, a beer and butcher shop in New York City, before moving into wine. He now manages Domaine LA, a Hollywood wine shop focusing on natural wines from Europe. “First and foremost, I hear fat with burgers and think acid,” Kurland states. “I chose a wine that has a little bit of tannin but is sharper in acidity to cut through a big melty, fatty burger. It refreshes the palate for the next bite.” The wine he brought is a field blend of abouriou, colombard, carignan, valdiguié and a touch of zinfandel from Mendocino County, California. At ten percent alcohol, it’s easy drinking—a perfect wine to drink outside while grilling.
Kurland’s acid theory didn’t hold when we paired the wine with the In-N-Out Double-Double. “The acidity of the sauce is a little higher than I thought it would be,” he mused while blind-tasting his wine. “It’s not quite melding together.” But with Mr. Charlie’s Double Not, the wine quickly became one of the group’s favorites. Again, the vegan cheese was the biggest factor for the pairing. The thick consistency the cheese developed as it cooled needed a high-acid wine to cut through it, and Kurland’s wine did the trick. Den Haan nodded after she took a bite and a swig: “It lifts the vegan cheese off the roof of my mouth.” Dunn agreed, adding, “The fruit is coming out of the wine more now.”
This wine also elevated the flavors of the Stout burger, cutting through the horseradish cream and bringing out the flavors of the onion jam. “The fruit really stands out, yet balances all the flavors,” Bolaños said. The consensus was that Pink Lemonade needed rich cheese and toppings to work with its high acidity.
- Ryan Frick started as a wine buyer for Whole Foods before moving into importing. Now, he owns his own shop in Culver City. Bar and Garden offers around 450 selections and focuses on organically and sustainably farmed wines. Describing his wine-pairing philosophy with burgers, he said, “My m.o. is wines that are medium-bodied but extremely bright, to give lift to a food that can be very heavy. Obviously, the wine should have a little acidity to cut through the fat, but also a tinge of smoke, so something like Mt. Etna reds would be my go-to.”
Bar and Garden
6142 Washington Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232
Burger Pairing: Trail Marker 2021 Lodi Mokelumne Glen Vineyard Blaufränkisch $30
Keeping it under $30 for this challenge, he chose a blaufränkisch from Lodi: “It’s a darker variety with light maceration, and there is some of that smoky, earthy tinge to it. It’s extremely drinkable, refreshing, but still can hold up to something meaty.
Frick’s wine was the group’s unanimous favorite with the In-N-Out Double-Double. Bolaños said, “It holds up to the sauce.” “And it brings out the brightness of the tomato,” Gonzalez added. Den Haan agreed: “It all works together; neither the wine nor the burger overpower each other.” After the wines were revealed, Kurland, who found his own choice too acidic with the In-N-Out burger, described the blaufränkisch as “stylistically similar to my wine but with darker, richer fruit. It lowered the acidity and raised the tannins.” That lower acidity and ripe Lodi fruit elevated the flavor of the special sauce, which had become bracingly acidic with the higher-acid wines and overpowered by the bold mencía (see below) and the Plan Pégau blend. While blind-tasting his own wine, Frick said, “This is very middle of the road in the best ways for pairing with burgers. It serves to clear the palate. You can still see through the burger. The wine’s not there to be the star of the show.”
However, the wine didn’t pair as well with the two other burgers, whether plant-based or decadent. The group agreed that the blaufränkisch became neutral and lost all the exciting qualities it offered in the company of In-N-Out. The middle-of-the-road quality that had been its strength with the special sauce left it lost in the shuffle when paired with stronger flavors like vegan cheese or horseradish cream.
2395 Glendale Boulevard A
Los Angeles, CA 90039
Burger Pairing: Guímaro 2019 Ribeira Sacra Mencía $24
- Michelle Gonzalez started as a connoisseur of coffee, running the program at Jon & Vinny’s in Brentwood before becoming a sommelier and store manager of Silverlake Wine, an east-side staple that focuses on natural and biodynamic wines.
When pairing wine with burgers, Gonzalez says, “I think it’s more about the fat content and whether it’s charbroiled or grilled or however it’s made. I want a wine that has some juicy acidity but isn’t
super acid-driven. Pinot noir is a quintessential pairing for burgers, but I prefer something like mencía because it has gritty earthiness while still being light and almost Beaujolais-like.” The mencía she chose was fermented with whole clusters in large, wooden tanks giving it a smoky, savory quality she thought would suit burgers.
But Gonzalez’s pick was too big for the In-N-Out Double-Double. Bolaños found it “deep and smoky—it needs a burger with a lot of char on it.” Den Haan said, “This wine can handle a lot of fat,” to which Gonzalez joked, “It would be better with a McRib Sandwich.” Dunn chimed in, “Or a BBQ burger!” The same held true with Mr. Charlie’s Double Not. “Once you put this wine in your mouth,” Frick said, “everything else is gone.” Dunn suggested, “This wine needs a big sauce or blue cheese.”
That is exactly why this was the wine of the day with the Stout burger. “Oh yeah, that’s good,” Gonzalez said in appreciation as she took her first bite and swig. “The wine brings out a beefiness in the burger,” Frick nodded. “It brings out a smokier quality than the other wines,” Den Haan agreed.
- Phillip Dunn ran the wine program at Spago before transitioning to retail at Wally’s Beverly Hills, a wine shop that sells most of its high-end wines for just forty dollars over the wholesale price; most nearby restaurants mark up the prices on the same bottles three-fold.
Dunn is in the sauce-is-most-important camp when pairing wine with burgers. “Some burgers have a decent amount of ketchup, so grenache makes sense to me, or zinfandel. Something about that tomato-based sauce and that sweet fruit that you get off the wine works. I look at the sauce over the meat unless it’s something crazy, like a foie gras or blue-cheese burger.”
Dunn immediately recognized his “bigger, rich” wine in the lineup and said it was a little too over the top with the In-N-Out Double-Double. Den Haan found that the wine was “blowing everything out.” Frick noted some Brettanomyces—a funky, barnyard scent—which suggested to him that “the wine needs a burger with more meat and less sauce.”
The same was true of this Rhône Valley blend with Mr. Charlie’s vegan Double Not. Most agreed it overpowered the flavors and couldn’t cut through the vegan cheese, but Gonzalez noted one positive: “The wine brings out a little bit of umami in the burger,” she said.
Wally’s Beverly Hills
447 N. Canon Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Burger Pairing: Plan Pégau NV Vin de France $25
The Plan Pégau fared better with the Stout burger, but it was still outsized. “I think the Brett needs brisket,” Frick laughed. When asked if anyone would change their wine choice in retrospect, Dunn raised his hand. “Absolutely!” he says. “White wine!” His pick? A traditional white Rioja.
Post tasting, I asked everyone what the most important factor in the pairings had been and the answer was a loud, resounding, “Toppings!” The special sauce on the Double-Double, vegan cheese on the Double Not, and horseradish cream on the Stout burger had all been the key factors when choosing a winner among their corresponding wine partners. The group also liked Dunn’s suggestion of white Rioja and started to call out others—assyrtiko, viognier, white Rhône, orange wine… Den Haan suggested with a laugh, “Let’s get together next year for the white wine and burger challenge!”
Based in Los Angeles, California, Alissa Bica is the Associate Editor at Wine & Spirits. She is also a sommelier at 71 Above and co-runs the home wine tasting company, Côte Brune and Blonde. In any rare moments of free time, she writes about obscure grape varieties in the blog Off the Beaten Wine Path.
This story appears in the print issue of Summer 2022.
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