October 10, 2006
Tri-Tip World Cup: The Final Round

Tomorrow, I get my cholesterol checked. But I'm not waiting for the results to suspend for the year my search for the best wine to accompany the State Cut of Beef, which, of course, is tri-tip. The grilling season in California never really ends, but, frankly, I've had my fill of tri-tip for awhile.

This journey began in June, when I threw a lightly seasoned tri-tip on the grill and opened a mixed assortment of the kinds of red wine I thought would go best with the slightly sweet, slightly salty, slightly spicy tri-tip.

Since then, I've overseen six subsequent rounds. The themes have ranged from such California stalwarts as cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel to promising newcomers like tempranillo and malbec.

For Sunday evening's last tasting I rounded up some pinot noirs, customarily the most versatile red wine at the dinner table. I still believe that, though pinot noir wouldn't be my first choice to pair with tri-tip, which calls for a wine with a bit more spine and fruit. The exception would be the pinot noir that on Sunday had the most pronounced aromatics, the solidest structure and the most complexity and persistence. That was the Goldeneye Winery 2003 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir ($52), a pinot not only alluring in its smells of blueberries, cherries and mint but elegant as well as firm and deep. It's truly a noble pinot noir, showing that Mendocino County just might be California's best-kept secret when it comes to sturdy yet refined examples of the varietal.

So if not the Goldeneye pinot noir, what would be my first choice with tri-tip? Certainly a couple of zinfandels linger impressively in my memory, most notably the solidly built, freshly fruity and pleasantly spiced Artezin 2004 Zinfandel ($15). A couple of juicy and firm cabernet sauvignons went very well with the juiciness and sweetness of grilled tri-tip, but at $65 and $90 they are too pricey to consider seriously pairing with such a casual cut of beef, I now recognize. Two tempranillos combined clean fruit and agile tannins to compliment tri-tip, and they're priced for a parking-lot tailgate soiree, the earthy as well as richly fruity Scribner Bend Vineyards 2004 Clarksburg Black Hat Tempranillo ($15), and the ripe yet vivacious Conde de Valdemar 2002 Rioja Crianza Tempranillo ($12).

In the end, though, I have to go back to the very first match in June for the two wines most at home with tri-tip, and those would be the youthful and sprightly C.G. Di Arie 2004 Lodi Petite Sirah ($25) and the bright and lush Charles Spinetta Winery 2004 Amador County Barbera ($18).

The petite sirah is a much firmer wine, though the barbera compensates for its slighter frame with a refreshing acidity that cuts into muscle and fat of the beef with the authority of one of those big ol' Buck knives that steakhouses like to throw on the table. What do these two wines have in common to make them such starring mates with tri-tip? They're firm without being hard, and fruity without being jammy, with oak kept respectively in the background. They're bright and accessible. This whole matter of attempting to match food and wine is such an inexact science that it's best not to think of it as scientific at all. Someone else will find an entirely different kind of wine best suited to their palate when it is paired with tri-tip. If there's one thing we no doubt can agree on, the search sure is long as that cholesterol is held in check.

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