I remember my cousin’s meat-stained apron as he tended to the enormous smoker. I remember his sister’s cowboy hat which she always paired with turquoise jewelry. I remember their father’s MU button downs (my immediate family were more KU folk ourselves). I remember running fades and buttonhooks as David, only a few years my elder, zipped the Nerf Vortex into or over a continuous procession of blue jeans and boots. I remember handfuls of ribs, and countless rolls loaded with brisket. I remember the vibrant pulse of laughter emanating from brightly lit tents. I remember barely keeping my eyes awake as my father led me back to our golden Toyota Previa, parked at the edge of where Kemper Arena ends and the sketchiness of abandoned stock yards begins.
Growing up in Kansas City — home to the world’s largest barbecue contest in the American Royal — “barbecue” is a tradition that transcends meats and rubs and sauces and styles. Like my still pungent memories of afternoons and evening and nights wafting through the West Bottoms, food is only part of the bargain. Barbecue elicits a truly visceral response that speaks to family and friends and a fullness that is greater than how much you ate. There is a shared sentimentality surrounding the cuts and racks and slabs seasoned by salt and pepper or a layered rub with nuances only a few fully appreciate. And so on and so on.
And so it goes with wine. The entire experience from winemaking to swirling, sniffing, sipping, and spitting invoke that round yet raw reaction. Wine and barbecue are both peppered with intimate notes of this and that and everything in between while harboring this undeniably honest aura. To paraphrase a favorite movie character of mine, Uncle Henry Skinner in A Good Year, picked too early or cooked too long, it matters not... the wine and barbecue will always whisper into your mouth with complete, unabashed honesty every time you take a sip or bite.
Ultimately, they are incapable of lying, and that lends to an unparalleled appreciation and engagement among enthusiasts.
"You have to know what barbecue you’re going to eat, and the flavors that you have to understand what you want to pair with," expert smoker Forrest Tempel says.
Forrest and his team of pitmasters have competed regionally, nationally, and even internationally for more than 25 years. As one would assume, he knows a little when talking of barbecue. But he also grew up drinking wine, his father having turned him on to both, a bond they maintain to this day.
For Forrest, the deep complexities of each are what make them the perfect pairing.
"To me, really good barbeque isn’t just smoked meat,” he says. “Really good barbeque has a lot of flavor layers in it. If you go to Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous in Memphis, you’ll notice in their rub these layers these herbal layers, like celery seed. In Texas, it is simple: salt and pepper. But Memphis, Kansas City, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia— there’s a lot more complexity to those pieces of meat and I find it is a great match with a good wine that can a.) stand up to the bold flavors and b.) provides flavor layers.”
Amy Jungk, Executive Vice President of Marketing for BBQ Spot and daughter to the founder of Old World Spices & Seasonings, agrees, albeit with the caveat that the flavor profiles don’t compete.
“If I am grilling shrimp, asparagus, and artichoke, I’m going to pair that with a sweet white, a Pinot Grigio,” she explains. “It will compliment and round out the flavors so much better. If I’m doing a big crown prime rib, a expensive piece of meat I want to impress people with, I’m going for a high dollar dry red and I personally like a little oak-y flavor."
And this balance isn't only in simply complimenting one another, but boasts the capacity in delivering above the normal threshold.
“If you get the right wine and pair it right,” Forrest continues,” it brings out those flavor layers, those little nuances in the food you don’t get as well and often go unnoticed.”
The level of aforementioned appreciation and engagment expectedly takes a long time to develop. Like Forrest, Amy's family had a lot to do with this.
"My grandmother was French and believed in a small glass of red wine with breakfast," she says. "For the grandchildren, that meant wine spritzers. Grandmother would have special wine glasses into which she would pour red wine and 7 Up. I’ve pretty much been drinking wine since i could hold a glass.
"But when I got in the food business, I learned to aprpeciate the complexities and different flavor profiles in wine. The first time I did a wine tasting was with my father. We took a trip to Buena Vista Winery in Santa Maria, California. When they began explaining the background — and me understanding that there was a science to putting it together — that was the point at which I was hooked."
It makes sense. Amy is a third-generation purveryor of spices. And Old World Spices & Seasonings is the foremost distributors of rubs and seasonings in North America. They even have an Research and Innovation lab from which they experiment with and produce a vast selection of barbecue sauces and rubs.
And while complexities abound in both barbecue and wine, there is an underlying simplicity to them in an increasingly crowded world.
“I like being outdoors,” Frosty appreciates, “especially smoking and grilling. And whether you’re visiting a vineyard or enjoying a glass, a lot of the wine culture is about being outdoors. They’re both just natural.”
But as with my own memories, it goes beyond simplicity and being outdoors.
“Great barbecue and great wine are something you always want to share with your friends and family,” Amy says. “You would never create a barbecue meal or open a premium wine bottle for yourself at home — you do that when you want to give a gift.”
Want more on wine and barbecue? Check out the stories below!
8 Quotes on Pairing Wine with Barbecue From People Who Know
11 Wine Pairings for 5 of Kansas City's Best Barbecue Joints