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Instagram’s Taco Bell Sommelier is matching wines to wet burritos

Tarun Sinha is nacho average wine enthusiast

Written by
Stephanie Breijo
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Before the man behind one of our favorite Instagram accounts could walk, he ran—which is to say that before Tarun Sinha could drink wine, he ate Taco Bell. 

The Washington, D.C.-based photographer and government employee isn't a certified sommelier, but he spends a lot of free time pairing vino to Taco Bell menu items under the Instagram handle @TacoBellSommelier (a public service, if you ask us). Sinha grew up in an era when most chains never considered a vegetarian option, let alone meatless substitutions. So when you have one parent who doesn't eat meat, you spend a lot of time at one of the few fast-food spots that does: Taco Bell, the land of endless beans-for-meat substitutions with an eye-opening amount of flavor combinations.

Decades of Taco Bell experience and an eye for keeping things accessible—for both price and diet—have helped shape his novelty Instagram account into a fun and inclusive space where everyone can learn how to pair high with low, no one needs to feel too fancy, and by god, you can have a full-bodied Bordeaux with a steak-and-egg breakfast quesadilla. We caught up with the self-titled Taco Bell Sommelier to learn how to pair and recreate Taco Bell at home—with plenty of wine, of course.

You started posting in 2016, so you’ve been at it for a few years. How did this start?

I think the first few pictures I took in 2015, way before I even started the Taco Bell Sommelier account. I was hanging out with my brother up in Pittsburgh and we did a late-night Taco Bell run, and back then, they were selling these habanero ghost pepper grillers, so we picked some of those up and came back home and realized we didn’t have any beer left. We had wine—he had a riesling—and it was the only thing to drink in the house. When we poured the glasses and had the Taco Bell, I think the juxtaposition of having fast food and these fancy wine glasses was pretty comical. I started taking photos of it and I would post it to my personal Instagram every couple of months, but in 2016 I had enough friends think it was hilarious, so I created a separate account just for Taco Bell and wine.

When it comes to wine, what are some of the flavor notes or varietals that work well with, say, something beefy like a Grande Stacker?

There are traditional rules of pairings where people will mostly do steak with full-bodied rich, deep red wines and shredded chicken or grilled chicken with white wines. However, since I don’t eat steak very often—I usually substitute whatever dish I’m getting with black beans—I have discovered that the creamy earthiness of the black beans that Taco Bell uses (I guess whatever seasoning they put into their black beans) does tend to pair really well with richer wines. Instead of just taking pictures of red meat with red wines, I’m trying to present that even if you’re vegetarian, they have black beans or what were the potatoes; those are fantastic pairings for richer, spicier, peppery-note red wines.

For chicken dishes, it’s usually a mix; I have stuck with traditional white wines like pinot grigio or even a chardonnay, but I have been finding that the grilled chicken has a unique smoky char component to it, so there are some very, very delicious red wines that also pair well. I’m definitely looking for rich, earthy, umami flavors in the Taco Bell and then pairing it with either a wine that might complement it, or a wine such as a chardonnay that’s buttery and may tame out any spiciness in the dish.

What are your personal favorite pairings so far?

The most recent one was a brut rosé sparkling wine out of a winery in Colorado called Vinnie Fera. My brother-in-law’s friend works at this winery, and when we have to be in Boulder we stop by. I brought some Taco Bell and he took out all the wine he thought would taste good, and what came to be a group consensus was that the Mexican Pizza was absolutely fantastic with the brut rosé sparkling. My classic go-to was always a Mexican Pizza with white wine, usually something that was slightly more acidic like a pinot gris—something lemony and citrusy. Another pairing that really stood out: I was pleasantly surprised by the BellGrande, which was just amazing with the nacho cheese and the jalapeño cream sauce it had in it, and I paired it with a red on the sweeter end, and the sweetness paired deliciously with the spiciness.

Do you happen to have any pairing recommendations for items still on the menu? I know we sadly lost the Mexican Pizza recently.

Yeah, Taco Bell has taken away everything in 2020. But one of my go-to items is the cheesy bean and rice burrito; I always substitute the refried beans for black beans, and I really love pairing this with a rosé. The rosé is floral, it’s not too sweet, it’s a little dry, and the cheesy bean and rice burrito has so many creamy textures to it that it can be overwhelming, so I think a drier wine with a slight sweetness to it definitely helps.

What do you think it is about Taco Bell specifically, over other fast food brands, that lends itself so well to wine?

I just feel like Taco Bell just has a lot more dimension and texture and flavor, and it’s the combination of all these different toppings you can add to it. Just comparing it to Burger King: Burger King has its standard Whopper, chicken sandwich, fish sandwich, but I think all the ingredients are pretty one-dimensional—mayonnaise, ketchup, lettuce, mustard, whatever you want to add on. But with Taco Bell, with their seasonings (especially in the refried beans and black beans), their grilled chicken, the shredded chicken, the steak and the ground beef—there’s just a wide range of flavor profiles that can be worked with. Then with all the combinations, we can do an abundance of toppings such as onions and jalapeños and guacamole and pico de gallo and a variety of sauces like avocado ranch and the red sauce, which is almost like an enchilada sauce—there’s just so many more options and combinations.

Have you found one or two wines that tend to pair well with the whole menu? Sort of catchalls?

There are two wines I absolutely love that tend to go with any Taco Bell I’ve had. One is the Apothic Crush, which is sold in most grocery stores, and another go-to wine of mine is the Ménage à Trois Silk, and that just has a velvety texture that I think pairs deliciously with spicy foods. Even though they’re both reds and they’re both on the bolder side, those are the two wines I can comfortably say go with everything on their menu.

Did you get a chance to try Taco Bell’s wine, Jalapeño Noir?

No! I messaged Taco Bell Canada but they said it was against alcohol laws to ship it outside of Ontario, so it was not possible for me to sample it. As soon as that hit the news everyone messaged me thinking I had something to do with it and I was like, “I wish!”

I know you recently moved to D.C., and as someone who lived in D.C. for a couple years I can say their Taco Bell situation is lacking. I noticed you’ve been pairing with more home meals made from Taco Bell packaged ingredients; any favorite products for home cooks looking to use those?

Oh yeah. The double-decker taco was one of my go-tos at Taco Bell, and like everything else, they got rid of that within the last two years. But the double-decker taco is so easy to make, and there’s a lot of different variety I can do with it. You can get soft tortillas and hard shells from any grocery store, and Taco Bell does sell their own seasoning at most grocery stores; they have a mild, and a fajita, and a hot seasoning blend that comes in these packets for 89 or 90 cents. 

After years of running this account, have you ever considered taking the certified sommelier exam?

I just enjoy wine. I have not. I just feel if I start thinking too much about the wine I may not enjoy it as much. I’m having fun, and if I have to start studying, the fun is going to go away if I need to open up a textbook and start memorizing things.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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