The long-standing everyday wine at food writer Matt Lee’s house is Kirkland Signature Ti Point Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, which retails for around $6.99 a bottle and has been described by connoisseurs of Costco wines as grassy, crisp and refreshing.
Lee says the New Zealand white suits his identity as a “middle-aged dad.” But that hasn’t stopped him from noticing its lack of complexity, a problem he’s taken to solving with a sliver of pickled pepper and a splash of brine. According to James Beard Award–winning sommelier Shelley Lindgren of A16 and SPQR in San Francisco, Lee’s theory is sound: A dosing should create aromatics, dilution and acidic pop. Plus, she says, “With so many health benefits in pickles, why not?”
“It was not a great leap to notice the Hatch chile jar in the door of the refrigerator and wonder what an eyedropper of it would do,” Lee says of the habit’s genesis. “Dirtying something up with a little salt, a little heat comes from cocktail culture: It broadens the flavor profile of a pretty boring white wine or rosé.”
Reverence for the winemaking craft has largely kept drinkers from futzing with what they produce, but Lee believes drinkers shouldn’t shy away from customizing big-box retail wine that tastes too sweet or overly alcoholic.
“You can’t argue with just a tiny dash of salt and a little bit more zing in your flabby white wine,” says Lee, who can imagine ancient Romans compensating for wine flaws by tossing fermented anchovy oil into the amphora. A sometime–boiled peanut salesman, Lee has also experimented with submerging shelled nuts in his Sauvignon Blanc, which he admits is “really gross-looking,” but introduces a smack of vinegar from the peanuts’ likker.
At cocktail parties, a back-pocket pickled pepper serves a dual function: Not only does it improve the juice that party hosts tend to serve when they’re pouring in high volume for a thirsty crowd, but it’s a guaranteed conversation starter.
“Float a pickled jalapeño slice and see whether it attracts attention,” advises Lee, who became a special event savant in the course of reporting his latest book, Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business, coauthored with his brother, Ted Lee. “You kind of own the party.”
While the wine industry has thus far relied on flavoring agents primarily to ape particular varieties, rather than to create novelties such as birthday cake Riesling or pumpkin spice merlot, companies such as the Miami-based Fun Wine are already making flavored wines (and selling them in cans). Before long, you might be picking up a six-pack of pickled pepper Sauvignon Blanc at Costco.
Of course, it’s possible that wineries will eventually save consumers the trouble of having to reach for a pickle jar, in much the same way that certain vodka makers don’t expect drinkers to supply their own sweet tea, although Lindgren frets that could take some of the pleasure out of masterminding the alchemy. “Experimenting with flavors seems fun,” she says.