Every Fourth of July, I find myself contemplating the same three questions: How were the Founders so smart, does anyone else notice that those fireworks look like sperm, and what wine goes best with hot dogs? That last question is no trifling concern: According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, Americans consume 150 million hot dogs on Independence Day, and a lot of wine is undoubtedly drunk alongside all that processed meat. Hoping finally to solve the wine-and-wiener conundrum, I recently did a taste test with someone intent on making an outsized contribution to our annual hot dog feeding frenzy: competitive eater Sean "Flash" Gordon, who'll be participating in the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. I brought the wine, he brought his appetite, and we spent several gut-busting hours exploring the synergies between frankfurters and fermented grape juice.
Our tasting took place on a picnic bench outside a Bruster's ice cream stand that sells Nathan's hot dogs in addition to its frozen treats, although evidently not in the numbers that we demanded: At one point, they ran out of buns and had to dispatch an employee to a supermarket to replenish the supply. Sean, dressed in a white T-shirt with the word "Flash" emblazoned on the front, came with his wife, Nicki—a lighting designer for QVC—and their sons, Brendan and Colin. I was accompanied by my 9-year-old son James, who I suspect may have a future in competitive eating. A few weeks ago, he inhaled four chili dogs in a single sitting, and he is totally hooked on the show Man v. Food. It is never too early to try to put kids on a career path, and I thought he might benefit from meeting a true horseman of the esophagus.
A burly 35-year-old systems administrator from Downingtown, Penn., Sean has been stuffing his face professionally for four years and is currently ranked 11th in the Major League Eating standings. He took part in the last two Nathan's contests and earned a return trip to the Coney Island boardwalk this year by shoveling down 30 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes at a qualifying event in Las Vegas, equaling his personal best. If the weather isn't too hot and he can avoid an early onset of the "meat sweats," he hopes to get to 35, possibly even 36 on Monday. But he concedes he has no chance of winning—four-time defending champion Joey Chestnut, who in 2009 obliterated his own world record by ingesting 68 franks en route to retaining the title, is untouchable.
Although Sean is not an oenophile, he uses fruit punch to moisten the buns during hot dog competitions, so wine wasn't going to be too much of a stretch for him. I brought eight bottles to our tasting, along with three Spiegelau Bordeaux glasses and a couple of plastic cups in case he preferred to chug. Figuring that the wines should be popular summertime choices or good cookout fodder, I went with the following:
2009 Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre
2009 Pierre-Marie Chermette/Domaine du Vissoux Beaujolais Cuvée Traditionnelle Vieilles Vignes
2010 Domaine de Fontsainte Gris de Gris Corbières rosé
2009 Crios de Susana Balbo Malbec
2009 Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir
2009 Dashe Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel
Champagne and Riesling are both reputed to go smashingly with hot dogs, so I also tossed in a bottle of bubbly, the Agrapart & Fils Brut Blanc de Blancs Les 7 Crus, and the 2009 Willi Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett.
Sean has had ample opportunity to consider the nuances of the Nathan's beef frank, and before we put our jaws and noses to work, he warned me that they were fairly spicy dogs and could be a tough match with wine. While it is standard practice in competitions to eat hot dogs unadorned—no one has the time or inclination to add condiments—we decided that in the spirit of inquiry we'd slather toppings on a few of the wieners. Once our plan of action was set, I got us started by ordering four chili dogs, three cheese dogs, and four plain ones. We applied mustard to two of the plains, and left the other two naked. Halfway through the tasting, I purchased another half-dozen dogs. I ended up eating three in total, James and Nicki had two apiece, her sons each had one, and Sean graciously took care of the rest.
So, what did we find? One thing we learned is that wine and chili dogs do not mix—the chili was too fiery and completely smothered the taste of the wines. If you want a chili dog, stick with beer. The cheese dogs weren't all that wine-friendly, either, although as Nicki pointed out, it wasn't real cheese on our dogs—it was a gloopy, DayGlo-orange cheeselike substance. A slice of American or cheddar would surely be an improvement, but if you plan to put cheese on your wiener, I'd go with a white wine. (In general, whites are more simpatico with cheese than reds.) We also discovered, much to my satisfaction, that sauvignon blanc is terrible with hot dogs; the Sancerre's shrill lemon-lime flavor and strong grassy note pummeled the meat. I've said it before, I'll say it again: Sauvignon blanc is a dud of a grape.
We were underwhelmed, too, by the malbec and the pinot noir; they were pleasant wines but just didn't click with the hot dogs. The rosé, on the other hand, paired nicely with them: it had a fairly neutral taste that was a good foil for the franks. The zinfandel and the Beaujolais showed well, too. They are polar opposite wines—zinfandels tend to be dark, rich, and high in alcohol, while Beaujolais is typically pale, crisp, and low-octane—but both proved very compatible with the dogs. Nathan's wieners have a smoky edge that found a nice echo in the smokiness of the Zinfandel, while the Beaujolais, which I served lightly chilled, had a thirst-quenching quality that was the perfect antidote to all that seasoning and fat.
However, it was the Riesling and the Champagne that fared best. I'd assumed the hot dog/Riesling thing was just more propaganda from Riesling evangelists (no grape attracts as many true believers), but that wasn't the case. The Schaefer Kabinett was great with the dogs; its gentle sweetness, set against their spiciness, made for a terrific yin-yang effect. Sean thought the Riesling handled the mustard particularly well. "It has a citric tang that mellows the mustard, tames its flavor," he said, a display of tasting acuity so impressive that I immediately offered him my job. (He declined.) The Champagne was the big winner; it not only parried the spiciness of the franks, its brisk acidity soaked up the salt and fat and left my palate feeling thoroughly refreshed after each bite. It occurred to me we'd found Sean a magic bullet: If he used Champagne as a lubricant instead of fruit punch, he might even hit 40 hot dogs. But he quickly nixed the idea: "You can't do anything that might compromise your motor skills. As it is, you get lots of injuries in these competitions—bite wounds to the thumbs and lips, stuff like that."
After we'd finished sampling the wines, I asked Sean if he'd mind demonstrating his technique. He was happy to oblige, and per his instructions, I ordered one more plain dog and a cup of water, no ice. As soon as I placed the food and drink in front of him, he stood up, flipped his baseball cap around, and removed the dog from the bun (also a standard tactic). The girls working the counter all broke out their camera phones, and one of them came scurrying outside to videotape the moment. James stood on a chair to snap a photo.
I counted down from three, whereupon Sean split the dog in half, dipped the bun in the water, shoved the meat in his mouth and crammed the bread in there, too. The whole thing was over in six, maybe seven seconds. I heard several bystanders gasp. James looked awestruck. Nicki cast her husband an indulgent smile, shook her head, and said, "I had no idea what I'd be getting into when he asked me to the senior prom." I told Sean that at that rate, he could put away10 franks in a minute. He pointed out that the alimentary canal get a little clogged after the first few dogs, and the pace inevitably slows. Fair enough, but judging by the speed with which he consumed that hot dog and his relaxed, confident demeanor, I suspect he's going to have a big day on the Fourth. I'll be pulling for him, nervously chewing through a pack of Tums as an expression of solidarity.