If you’re looking for someone to help you pair tailgate dishes with Pennsylvania wines, you can’t do better than Dustin Bilger. The Fine Wine & Good Spirits Wine Specialist not only has ten years of experience, he’s also a Centre County native and rabid Penn State fan with a lifetime of tailgates under his belt. This task combines his enduring fandom with his current love.
“Wine has definitely become my passion,” says Bilger. “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life and then I stumbled into the wine [world] — not only selling it, but everything that has to do with it, making it and just learning as much as I can.”
When it comes to football, the Nittany Lions “run in my blood,” he adds. “There are so many traditions with Penn State, between the Blue Band, the parade, and the [Berkey] Creamery. Every time we go up there, we have to do it all. We take a huge pot of chicken-corn soup that we make in advance. Then we reheat it on the grill. It’s perfect for a cold November day.”
Before getting his advice on our menu, we needed to know what PA wine he would pair with that creamy, sweet soup.
“I’m a big fan of Gewürtztraminer,” he says of the aromatic white wine. “Nothing too heavy.”
The key to a good tailgate is plenty of snacks. Choose things that do well cold or at room temperature so you can keep the chafing dishes to a minimum.
Cocktail Shrimp with Spicy Cocktail Sauce
Pairing: Grüner Veltliner
Cocktail shrimp with spicy sauce — horseradish, ketchup, lemon — is the perfect one-handed snack, so you can grip your wine glass (or cup!) with the other.
“When it comes to the sauce, the spicier the better,” says Bilger. “I’d absolutely pair this with one of my favorite wines: Grüner Veltliner from Fero Vineyards in Lewisburg. They make the best Grüner I’ve had and I’ve had Grüner from all over the world. You get that nice pepper note. It has some acidity, but you also get that touch of sweetness right at the end.”
This party staple has all the pleasures of nachos in a much more portable package. The combination of guacamole, beans, sour cream, pico de gallo, cheese, sour cream, and pickled jalapeños will get your tastebuds firing.
“You can either go white or red, but I would say shoot for the middle with rosé,” says Bilger. “Mazza Vineyards makes an outstanding rosé: Their Bare Bones Rosé is all from Chambourcin [grapes]. It won a Double Gold award at the PA Farm Show this year. You get some nice fruit and a little bit of herbaceousness as well.”
Bratwurst with Mustard and Sauerkraut
If you’re going through the trouble of packing a grill, think beyond hot dogs and burgers. Pick up a pack of Bratwurst, some good whole-grain mustard, and a crock of funky sauerkraut.
“Sauerkraut is always going to have that sourness and that bitterness,” explains Bilger. “Traminette is going to give you a [contrast] with a little bit of sweetness. It’s going to leave your mouth watering.”
Devils on Horseback
Pairing: Cabernet Franc or Chambourcin
When you’re enjoying a daytime tipple, the best drinking companion is a dish that combines sweet and salty. Devils on Horseback are blue cheese-stuffed dates, wrapped in bacon. These can be made in advance and are sure to draw a crowd.
“Mount Nittany Vineyard’s Montage is a Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc/Merlot blend,” suggests Bilger. “It has nice earthiness, a little bit of that bacon-fat note, and a little bit of herbaceous on the back end. It’s going to pair so beautifully.”
Pairing: Merlot or Saperavi
Staying on the sweet-and-salty kick, fill a crockpot with mini-meatballs (pork, turkey or veggie) tossed in a sweet soy-and-ginger glaze.
Bilger also suggests Saperavi, a Georgian (country not state) varietal that is gaining traction in Pennsylvania. “Fero does an outstanding Saperavi,” he says. “It’s nice, it’s light, it’s easy-going. You get that black fruit-forward and it’s just so silky smooth at the end. The finish is really what makes it.”
Pair: Late-Harvest Vidal Blanc
For an easy dessert, Bilger traditionally snagged sticky buns from Ye Olde College Diner in State College. Tragically, the iconic local eatery shut down in 2018, but the owners are still slinging “grilled stickies” from a production facility in nearby Boalsburg, which they ship across the country.
“I would probably choose a late-harvest wine,” says Bilger. “Mazza does a nice ice wine from Vidal Blanc.”
So the next time you’re packing the coolers and prepping the snacks, be sure to stow a couple bottles of Pennsylvania wine. Win or lose, it’ll be a great day.
Listed below are the wineries mentioned in this article:
- Fero Vineyards (Grüner Veltliner; Saperavi)
- Waltz Vineyards (Baron Red)
- Mazza Vineyards (Bare Bones Rosé; Ice Wine of Vidal Blanc)
- Mount Nittany (Montage)