Feature Story

Retailer Challenge The NY Slice
Eight top wine buyers set out to find the best wines for pizza

There are some pairings that are tried and true: Muscadet and oysters, Champagne and caviar, Sauternes and foie gras, Barolo and truffles. But these classic pairings aren’t everyday food. Pizza is, and as Wine & Spirits’s East Coast office is in one of the best cities in the US to get a slice, we set our colleagues on a task to find pizza’s perfect partner.

First we asked retailers across NYC if they were up for pairing the city’s specialty with a wine from their shop priced $20 or less. Buyers from eight stores signed on to the challenge, and each sent two bottles to our office, where we brown-bagged the wines before meeting up to order slices and put the wines to the test.

There was no opposition from the retailers when we announced Joe’s as the pizza purveyor of choice. At all four branches, the crust is thin, crispy and blistered in parts, the cheese-to-sauce ratio is on point, and, because of the volume of slices they sell, the quality is consistent.

“I’m guilty of eating at Joe’s twice a week,” said Chris Leon of Leon and Son. “Joe’s, for me, is all about the sauce. There’s a sweetness to it. I don’t know how they do it.” Jonathan Kemp from Vine Wine agreed: “You can taste the tanginess of it but never get lost in it. I’m from the Midwest and you just get so much tomato there. At Joe’s, you get a little tang, a little cheese, but nothing dominates.” And Clara Dalzell of Flatiron Wines backed us up on consistency: “We get it delivered. It’s cheap and delicious. And it’s always the same—it’s really good.”

Many of our competing retailers copped to doing some experimentation before the main event. “I grabbed eight friends—none of them in the wine industry—and some wine from my shop and said, ‘Let’s just see where everyone lands,’” Leon said. “It’s funny how people come home to Italian wine with pizza. I brought the world of wine, but it was still sangiovese and barbera that people wanted to drink.”

On the day of the tasting, publisher Joshua Greene, tasting director Sarah Sutel Looper, tasting coordinator Allison Bart and I each grabbed a few of the brown-bagged submissions and schlepped to Joe’s with our retail partners. Just like the pizza, we kept the rules simple: The wines would be tasted blind, and the slice had to be plain.

At our sidewalk tasting, Gabriel Rattiner of Dandelion Wine and Jonathan Kemp of Vine Wine discussed going in an offbeat direction with orange wine or unfiltered Prosecco. Andy Paynter of Chambers Street, Joe Salamone of Crush and Dalzell of Flatiron considered options ranging from rosé Champagne to Dão reds, assertive falanghina, grüner veltliner and, of course, cheap beer. Jeff Taylor of Verve intentionally strayed from tradition. “I thought Italian would be the easy go-to,” said Taylor. Then, nudging Mariko Kobayashi of Vintry Fine Wines, who also ventured out of Italy, he added, “Great minds think alike.”

With so many tasty and diverse options, what wasn’t so simple was finding a pairing we could all agree on.

Andy Paynter, Chambers Street Wines
San Ferdinando 2016 Toscana Rosso Ciliegiolo $18
Imported by David Bowler Wine, NY

Why Paynter picked it:
“I was worried that it may not have had enough acidity. I’ve done it with pizza before, but more in a sit-back-and-drink-the-stuff way, as opposed to thinking about it. And my first pick—Monte Bernardi—was in a fiasco, so I didn’t pick it; it would be too obvious [in a brown bag]. It’s a very light, fresh Chianti, just perfect for this sort of food. But I went with the ciliegiolo instead. It’s carefree; it has that rich texture even though it’s not heavy. There’s not a lot of alcohol to overwhelm the pizza.”

“The tannins and the tart cranberry with the grease and the cheese…that’s the way to do it. This wine really elevates the pizza. It has a bit of a ’70s-horror-movie vibe to it. It’s sort of bloody. It’s sort of cheesy.” —Gabriel Rattiner, Dandelion Wine

Mariko Kobayashi, Vintry Fine Wines
Causse Marines 2015 Gaillac Les Peyrouzelles $18
Imported by Louis/Dressner Selections, NY

Why Kobayashi picked it:
“I chose based on the body. The wine is all funky, indigenous grapes—it does have some syrah in it, but it still feels light. I think that’s important because pizza can be greasy and heavy. This goes down easy and has a pepperiness. Red pepper flakes would go nicely with it.”

“It goes black and blue pretty quick. It’s soft, not super high acid— I’d serve this with a hard chill. If you had a sausage on this pizza, or some protein that was spicy, the black and blue fruit would be perfect.” —Chris Leon, Leon and Son

Joe Salamone, Crush Wine & Spirits
Coudert 2016 Fleurie Clos du la Roilette Cuvée Christal $20
Imported by Louis/Dressner Selections, NY

Why Salamone picked it:
“I would have picked the Castello di Verduno Pelaverga—Italian, high acid, low tannins—but we sold out of it. I did the Beaujolais because I felt like there’s high-enough acidity, low-enough tannins, and it’s fairly light, which would make you want to eat more pizza and drink more wine. And I was curious how a non-Italian wine would work.”

“The acidity in the wine really brings out a sweetness in the tomato sauce and cleans up the oiliness of the slice. It’s like there’s a little sign in my head fl ashing ‘More Wine, More Pizza.’” —Deanna Gonnella, Wine & Spirits Magazine

Jeff Taylor, Verve Wine
Guímaro 2016 Ribeira Sacra $18
Imported by José Pastor Selections, Fairfax, CA

Why Taylor picked it:
“It’s crushable. I could easily drink an entire bottle of it and not think much about it. I constantly recommend it to people looking for an under-$20 bottle—it’s very food-friendly, with a little bit of a spicy red-pepper note, but still fruity.”

“While it’s fun to drink this alone, the pairing doesn’t make me want to eat more, or drink the wine more. I think the world of tomato sauce is a tough world for non-Italian wines.” —Joe Salamone, Crush Wine & Spirits

“But there are plenty of tomato-based dishes in Spain. I don’t know necessarily about Ribeira Sacra, but pizza’s not that different from a lot of Spanish food.” —Andy Paynter, Chambers Street Wine

“It calls for meat. If we had sausage on this pizza, the spice [in the meat] and the spice [in the wine] would kick, but with the plain cheese, everyday, the simplicity of a barbera works.” —Clara Dalzell, Flatiron Wines & Spirits

Clara Dalzell, Flatiron Wines & Spirits
Roagna 2016 Dolcetto d’Alba $19
Imported by Polaner Selections, Mt. Kisco, NY

Why Dalzell picked it:
“Immediately, my fl oor manager and I said the same wine at the same time. The basic answer is because you need something delicious but simple for cheese pizza. Roagna Dolcetto is not showy, but a wine of pristine technique.”

“It’s quaffable. With pizza, I want a wine I can ‘glou-glou’ gulp. In terms of tannin, fruit profi le, acidity, this is well-rounded, with that crushable quality that I like in a pizza wine.” —Jeff Taylor, Verve Wine

Jonathan Kemp, Vine Wine
Fiorini NV Lambrusco Grasparossa Becco Rosso $16
Imported by Skurnik Wines, NY

Why Kemp picked it:
“Before I worked in wine, I used to go to the slice place in Washington Heights and I’d taste-test all the flavors of soda they had, and it was the Boylan’s grape soda that did it. So the closer you get to grape soda, the more it works.”

“This wine is delicious! It has that candied fruit but it’s not sweet. Lambrusco with a touch of structure is the real deal. The carbonation is cleansing. There’s lift—and it’s charming. It makes you want to have one more slice than you’re supposed to have.” —Chris Leon, Leon and Son

Gabriel Rattiner, Dandelion Wine
Bricco Maiolica 2014 Barbera d’Alba $18
Importer: Golden Vines, DC

Why Rattiner picked it:
“Part of me wanted to pick an esoteric or even shocking wine…and honestly, if I were with close friends, I probably would. However, after checking my ego, I remembered that pizza is not complicated. It’s universally loved, the Rolling Stones of food. I want an easy, humble, crowd-pleasing red wine that plays lead guitar in one of my favorite rock-and-roll bands. This barbera is unpretentious, fruit forward but with stony minerality, bright and lively, with soft tannins and a silky mouthfeel. It’s an absolute no-brainer with pizza.”

“There’s a lot of tart red fruit, so I think it’s a real sauce-pairer. And when I buy a pizza wine I want something that isn’t going to be a showstopper. It’s about two simple things that are not going to overwhelm each other.” —Clara Dalzell, Flatiron Wines & Spirits

Chris Leon, Leon & Son Wine and Spirits
Castello di Montegrosso 2010 Barbera d’Asti Monterosso $19
Imported by USA Wine Imports, NY

Why Leon picked it:
“I went super classic: barbera from a super-traditional producer, Castello di Montegrosso. They’re based in a town next to Asti, Montegrosso. The proprietor is an eccentric guy: He and his wife live in this castle—the Castello di Montegrosso. It’s the size of a New York City block, and they don’t keep it up at all; there’s nothing ornate about it. When I went there in a freezing January, his wife brought out, essentially, pizza—this pan with dough she’d made, with red sauce, anchovies and olives. He only releases his wine when he feels like it’s ready; his basic barbera has eight years of age on it. It kind of tastes like a cellar, but it still has fruit, it still has acid, and no new oak. You just want to destroy pizza with it.”

“You’ve got some of that tomato-leaf thing going on there. It’s got the acidity, which is really important to cut through the cheese and fat and all that stuff.” —Jonathan Kemp, Vine Wine

This feature appears in the print edition of June 2018.
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