Can you really pair wine with popcorn?

Americans—or most of us, anyway—love popcorn. We stuff 14 billion quarts of the fluffy kernels into our mouths every year, which means the average person accounts for 43 quarts.

That’s according to the Popcorn Board, which made sure to clarify that the data includes only popped popcorn. How much unpopped corn we consume is a little hazy, I guess.

And come to think of it, who orders popcorn by the quart, when movie theaters provide bulging tubs, dripping with suspiciously amber-hued butter?

But then you’re confronted with the soda machine. Yes, there are options—Coke, root beer, orange and so on. None of these, however pair with popped popcorn was it you suggested?

“It’s all about the Champagne,” says Kerry Winslow, a Carmel Valley wine consultant and educator who works with local labels such as Big Sur Vineyards. “Most people will default to Champagne—the richer styles, like Brut or Blanc de Blancs.”

Yes, sparkling wine. Where a fountain drink splatters corn syrup and artificial flavorings over the delicate canvas of popcorn, the wine gleans something more from the combination of butter, salt and kernel. And when you begin to consider the crisp acidity, the lean fruit, bready notes and hints of chalky earth or salinity of a decent bottle, the pairing makes sense.

Salt deflects some of the more bracing edges of an acidic wine. Meanwhile, the fruits tend to soften and perk any saltiness. Genteel toast and minerality in the wine find common flavors hidden in the corn.

Yeah. Popcorn and bubbly.

Thamin Saleh, a sommelier and owner of Jeninni Kitchen + Wine Bar in Pacific Grove admits to sneaking Prosecco into theaters. But, he points out, “There are a lot of wines that can go with popcorn.”

Popcorn unadorned by...wait, did he say he evades the ushers and slips sparkling wine into cinemas? That’s genius!

Popcorn unadorned by salt or butter—why?!—works nicely with an unoaked Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc. For those who prefer just a sprinkle of salt, Sauvignon Blanc would be a match thanks to the brisk fruits.

Yet Chardonnay is also recommended by experts for popcorn dripping with butter. This time, however, the nod is toward those bigger, oaked wines.

“A white wine that’s gone through malolactic fermentation will have a butteriness to it,” says Michael Simons, winemaker and owner of Comanche Cellars in Monterey. “Chardonnay—that’s a good pairing right there.”

What if someone favors a red?

“You can do whatever you want, but you don’t want powerful tannins,” Winslow observes. He suggests something fruity and light in body.

That popcorn and wine—particularly popcorn and red wine—is gaining a following may have something to do with the Olivia Pope character on the television series Scandal. Fans of the show noticed her diet consisted mainly of glasses of red wine and handfuls of popcorn, along with the occasional steak. So watch parties gathered, gorging on the combination.

Or so I’ve read.

St. Louis, Missouri blogger Sarita Gelner went so far as to post a recipe for red wine popcorn on her The Ritzy Mom, breaking the rules by using a bold and presumably tannic Cabernet Sauvignon.

Winslow just shrugs. “People should have fun with it,” he says of the wine-popcorn thing.

The addition of red wine popcorn to the entire popcorn spectrum brings up another matter. Just which wine would one pair with it? Or any of the other gourmet versions out there. You can find jalapeño-cheddar, sea salt and chocolate, cinnamon-sugar, smoked paprika—there’s even a cumin flavored version.

So this week’s Burning Question comes with a degree of difficulty. “Popcorn comes in a lot of flavors now,” Simon warns.

Some gourmet popcorn and wine pairings are naturals. Chocolate calls for a Merlot or Malbec or any other wine famed for its affinity with cocoa. Maybe you’re seated at the Sardine Factory in Monterey and are ready to dig into their vaunted truffle popcorn. Saleh suggests a Pinot Noir, Barbera or maybe a Dolcetto.

There are, however, challenging versions bringing chile and lime into play. What then?

“It depends how hot it is,” Saleh observes. “Riesling, or Pinot Grigio that has seen some skin contact and is a little richer. Pinot Gris if you have some heat.”

It’s even possible to get away with a Zinfandel or Syrah, bringing spice to fend off spice.

“There are two ways to pair: contrast and parallel,” Saleh explains. That’s why the Chardonnay or Champagne recommendations for plain old buttered popcorn. Chardonnay’s oaky richness complements the butter. The sparkling wine’s acidity and leaner body slices through it.

Not so complicated, after all.

But it seems like we’ve overlooked...hang on. I’m told by some guy in a suit carrying a sheath of documents that in this paper’s opinion, sneaking wine into a movie theater is not genius and that we do not condone such behavior.

It’s still pretty coo...No, not that, either.

Anyway, it seems like we’ve overlooked two of the original “gourmet” versions of the popped stuff. Kettle corn is a little sweet, a little salty and calls for something like a sparkling Rosé that tips between ripe fruits and soft spice. And caramel corn?

“If you really wanted something interesting, Pedro Ximenez Sherry,” Winslow says. “That would be a fun pairing.”

And, as he pointed out, it’s all about having fun.

“All pairings are very subjective,” Saleh concludes, pointing out that if a bottle of vintage Port and a bag of stale store-bought popcorn is your thing, go for it.

“If you enjoy it, that’s perfect,” he says. Just don’t (wink) enjoy it in a theater.