The Wine Lover's Guide to Chili

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—Kara Newman
Photos by Penny de los Santos

Break out your favorite tasting spoon, because June is the height of chili cook-off season. And no one does chili—or cook-offs—quite like Texas.

Just ask Melissa Guerra, owner of Melissa Guerra Latin Kitchen Market at Pearl Brewery in San Antonio. She’s an eighth-generation Texan, James Beard Award-nominated author for her writing about Southern Texan cooking and a one-woman chili encyclopedia.

“Chili is the quintessential Southwest dish,” she says.

In many ways, it’s American history in a bowl. 

The earliest stews included venison or rabbit alongside the all-important chili pepper—all ingredients indigenous to the Americas. After Christopher Columbus brought cattle to the New World, chili evolved into the beefy comfort-food dish present-day Americans know and love.

Even the cook-off has Texan roots. San Antonio, a key point along the cattle drives north and west, was home to camps that would set up each night, offering pots of chili by gaslight.

“It was served by legendary chili queens,” who were judged for their beauty as well as the deliciousness of their stew, Guerra says.

These chili queens—ultimately banned from San Antonio’s plazas in the 1940s over health department concerns—were the forerunners of Tex-Mex cuisine.

“Chili and competition has always been a natural,” Guerra says. “It’s a gathering dish. It’s made in large quantities. It’s a dish that brings people together.” 

With its bold, spicy, long-simmered flavors, it’s also a natural companion to Longhorn libations including beer and whiskey—and wine from Texas Hill Country. 

For pairing chili with wine, Guerra points to full-bodied reds produced in the Americas, particularly those with caramel, chocolate or plum notes. That broad range of possibilities includes Malbecs from Argentina or Chile—countries also known for beef—or sturdy Californian reds. And, of course, Texas-born bottles. 

“This is our dish,” she says. “These are our wines.”

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The Wine Lover's Guide to Chili

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