By Rick VanSickle
The news arrived in my inbox via a Google alert from CNN: “Taco Bell is now selling its own custom wine.”
I subscribe to “Ontario wine” as a Google alert and wondered why the hell I was getting this from one of the world’s most important news outlets about a fast food joint selling wine. It became perfectly clear by the end of the day. The story was going viral, and in just a few hours, a wine made at Niagara’s Queenston Mile Vineyard in St. David’s was the most famous wine in the world — if only for a few days.
The marketing campaign behind the new Taco Bell Toasted Cheesy Chalupa and limited edition Jalapeño Noir was a stroke of kitschy genius and sparked an avalanche of comments — both good and bad — especially about the wine that no one had even tasted at that point. One commenter on Facebook said:
“Oh wow … this would be highly entertaining after enjoying a WHOLE BUNCH of really good wine, I wonder if it comes in a box? Maybe a little “jalapeño juice box” … lmao, just wow.”
As the stories were written and shared, the comments got uglier and uglier. Again, no one had even tried the wine and they assumed it was something to be loathed because it was being paired with fast food, and like, who pairs serious wine with fast food? Answer: You’d be surprised.
I think a lot of people missed the point of the marketing campaign, which was designed to be fun and clever at the same time. After all, putting a chalupa beside a fine wine is no mean feat.
“Wine and cheese are simply meant to be together, so launching a new wine to go with the craveable, cheddary Toasted Cheesy Chalupa made perfect sense,” said Kat Garcia, Director of Brand Marketing, in a news release. “At Taco Bell Canada, we love to raise our glass to big, bold ideas that elevate our menu items, and pairing our Toasted Cheesy Chalupa with this Jalapeño Noir is no exception.”
The release went on to describe the wine: “The rich taste and crunchy texture of the beloved Toasted Cheesy Chalupa complements notes of wild strawberry, cherry and beetroot in this silky limited-edition red wine.”
But is like that all? The wine sold out in about 10 minutes (word is Queenston Mile is scrambling to make more due to the demand) but I was able to snag a bottle of the Jalapeño Noir today (Friday) and immediately called Wines In Niagara contributor Peter Rod to ask if he wanted to try the wine with the chalupa to see if it passed muster — both as a wine and as a pairing. He agreed with more glee than I expected, and I got in my car with the wine and bolted to Taco Bell. To be honest, I didn’t even know if there was one in St. Catharines.
Fifteen minutes later, I was at Peter’s house, Pinot and steaming hot chalupas in hand.
The Jalapeño Noir is actually a Pinot Noir (and, no, there are zero jalapeños in the blend) from the 2018 vintage made from estate fruit grown on the St. David’s Bench. It is made by Rob Power, above, one of the region’s most awarded winemakers and well respected in the industry. He told Wines In Niagara that when he made the wine “it wasn’t a knock-off at all — it is a good cuvée, an alternate blend taken from pool of barrels that were made for our Mile Pinot 2018, but with more newer wood (oak).” Both the Mile Pinot and Jalapeño Noir are listed on the website at $25, but the latter is sold out, with more being made as this is being written.
Power, who has been fielding calls for interviews constantly since word broke about the wine, said the Taco Bell wine was made from a distinct, more savoury and spicy cuvée from the estate vineyard. “It’s a textural bomb, not about the fruit,” he told Wines In Niagara.
Power said 110 cases of the wine were made, but it all went quickly. “As soon as it went viral, everyone wanted a case,” he said. “Twenty years at Creekside (he is also the winemaker at that sister winery) and this is the thing that goes viral. It’s funny.”
The nose suggested savoury raspberries, bright cherries, leather, bramble, some herbaceous notes and spice. Peter called it a “serious” Pinot with woodsy spices, nicely complex, earthy and “bone f—ing dry” — ahem, he loves dry wines! It is a complex Pinot Noir with red berries, damp earth with plenty of racy acidity on the finish.
We both rather liked it. “I think the varietal typicity is spot on,” said Peter. “At $25 it’s a steal.”
We then ventured into trying the Pinot with chalupas. As Peter chomped down on his fast food hunk of crispy cheesy chalupa, he found a similar “level of intensity” between the chalupa and the wine. “There’s nothing off-putting, but not a lot of harmony, he said. “Not bad.” The highlight was the acidity in the Pinot that complemented the cheese and fat.
“The wine makes the food better,” he concluded.
Let’s face it, Taco Bell might not be our first choice of restaurants in the area — OK, not sure if either had eaten there ever — but this whole thing was kinda fun. That a Niagara wine — a good Niagara wine — can get its 15 minutes of fame around the world is just the icing on the cake.
The Toasted Cheesy Chalupa is available now in-store and online here starting at $5.49. The wine is sold out, but, as mentioned, more is coming.