Buzz: Hey, Marnie, my mother-in-law insists on using only Italian red wine in her Sunday gravy. She says a California wine would ruin her red sauce. She's making that up, right?
Marnie: That depends on how much wine she's using, Buzz. The more wine she uses, the more noticeable effect it will have.
Buzz: I've never thought of a red wine ingredient as a big part of meatballs and pasta.
Marnie: It would be one thing if she were making a red wine sauce, where the wine provides the dominant flavor. But if she's just spiking her tomato sauce with some red wine, I doubt anyone could taste the difference between batches made with Chianti versus cabernet sauvignon.
Buzz: Now, that actually makes sense.
Marnie: It sounds more like a familiar habit than a serious concern, but Italian red wines do have some very distinctive traits, and many home cooks prefer them rather than something fruitier from California.
Buzz: I don't know how much of the wine is really going into the stewpot. I always thought she just drank it, not mixed it in.
Marnie: That might be another reason for her hard line on this, and not just because of her personal preferences. The characteristics of the wine we're drinking will always change our perception of the food we're tasting alongside it, and vice versa. Italian reds tend to be lighter in alcohol, lower in acidity, and lower in sugar than California wines.
Buzz: So what's the big deal on this if she starts drinking a California?
Marnie: Well, if your mother-in-law normally sips her Italian wine while cooking, this would make her sauce taste sweeter, less salty, and less acidic as she samples at each step. Switching to a California red might throw her palate off kilter.
Buzz: I keep telling her to just buy the cheapest jug of wine she can find to cook with and save the good stuff to drink.
Marnie: That makes sense, but only to a point. I don't recommend that people use truly fine wines in the saucepan – anything that costs you over $20 per bottle is probably a waste (unless it has sat open too long to enjoy in the glass). But, any home chef will tell you that the very cheapest wines are often also quite sugary, and that can throw off the flavors in a sauce or marinade.
Buzz: And I don't want that, so what's your advice?
Marnie: My advice is to stick to affordable wines for cooking. But if it isn't something you'd enjoy drinking flavor-wise, you shouldn't expect it to improve the flavors of the final dish, either.