Pairing wine with food is based on tried-and-true principles. But as wine drinkers become increasingly sophisticated, the approaches to pairing become more sophisticated too. From new ways to offer samples and train staff to iPad wine lists and “junk food” wine pairings, operators are getting more creative with pairing strategies.
Complements and contrasts
The starting point for pairing wine—or any beverage—with food is a choice between two philosophies, either complementary or contrasting pairs. First, off, don’t worry about the nuances, says Jill Silverman Hough, author of 100 Perfect Pairings: Main Dishes to Enjoy with Wines You Love and 100 Perfect Pairings: Small Plates to Enjoy with Wines You Love. It’s the broad characteristics—acidity, sweetness, tannins, weight and intensity that matter most, Hough says. “It might seem contrary to logic, but acidity plus acidity equals less acidity.”
The contrasting approach is a bit tougher, says Hough, who refers to it as “wine pairing 102.” An example of a contrast that works is pairing a creamy and rich dish with a light and bright wine that can cleanse your palate, she says. The pitfalls are clear: While you can pair a green salad with cabernet sauvignon, the contrast will completely cancel out what you are tasting.
Another basic pairing principle is “what grows together goes together.” But in today’s world of restaurant concepts, there are many cuisines and styles of dining that don’t have traditional wine pairings or don’t lend themselves to set pairings.
P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, a chain of more than 200 upscale-casual Asian-theme restaurants, sells plenty of wine. But when it comes to pairing, director of beverage Mary Melton says that “we really don’t promote it because everybody eats family style, so it’s hard to pair—this goes with that.”
Instead, Melton has servers feel out guests’ comfort level to trying something new. “Our guests don’t have a preconceived idea of what goes with the food, so it’s more open,” she says.
With Chinese food, Melton recommends something a little sweeter with spice, such as moscato—a wine she says is doing well at the moment. With ginger or stronger flavors, she likes sauvignon blanc with good acidity. But chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are still the two biggest sellers at P.F. Chang’s, an indication that most people still like to drink what they like to drink, regardless of the food.
While many operators predetermine wine pairings, you can also take a more consultative approach. This is a good way to facilitate sampling.
For instance, at San Francisco-based American restaurant Maverick, “we pour tableside, because that way the guest sees the wine,” says owner and wine director Michael Pierce. “I bring a couple of things. If it’s open, I will gladly pour it and encourage people to try it.” Pierce also offers half glasses for those guests who can’t make up their minds.
The Grill and Daily Grill, dining chains owned by Grill Concepts, have started a policy of encouraging the servers to offer two to three samples. The initiative has been a tremendous success, says vice president, beverage Arthur Meola. “They don’t always choose the most expensive wine, but we’ve also had no problems with loss of product,” he says.
Training and technology
When it comes to training, the first challenge is the fact that everyone’s taste in wine is subjective. What you may taste, let alone like, can be vastly different from anyone else. But the effect that wine has on food is undeniable.
To illustrate that, Hough shared a training technique: She gives her classes a wedge of lemon and a cube of sugar with a glass of wine. She has them try the wine as the winemaker intended it, then after a lick of lemon, and again after a swipe of sugar. The extremes help to illustrate the effect wine has on different flavors.
Meola holds a minimum of two classes a month. “What we do is focus on a similar wine that’s the same varietal, like merlot, with a less and more expensive one; both might be great with the short ribs,” he says. “So we have them taste with the dish, and get them to sip the wine with food in their mouth so they really find their own path.”
It’s important to let each server coming up with his or her own script, Meola says. “We give them the technical wine information, etc., but once they try it they come up with their own descriptors.”
Many beverage directors are experimenting with using iPads for wine lists. And the opportunity for sharing more pairing information in that format is huge. Another unexpected benefit is in the training the technology provides.
“Our servers are enjoying the iPad as an educational resource,” Meola says. “We are a pretty traditional concept—people like thumbing through the [wine list]—but the servers really like being able to look up anything they like and refresh their memory. It’s a study guide tool.”
Special events are a great opportunity for both restaurants and winemakers. One restaurant that has had a lot of success with wine pairing dinners is Campton Place at the Taj Campton Place, a San Francisco boutique hotel.
“The biggest key to success is to find a winery that is enthusiastic about doing them,” says Campton Place sommelier Richard Dean. He explains that when the winemakers are very involved, they promote the event with their customers and wine club members, and all of their friends show up.
The format at Campton Place includes a reception at which guests meet the winemaker prior to the dinner for an hour of tasting. Dean says winemakers typically bring their best wines, which helps make the experience even more special for guests.
Some hotel guests will even plan their trips around wine pairing dinners, so Dean schedules them a year out. He knows the convention schedule in town well so that he can avoid times when the restaurant will be particularly full.
Another special aspect of the Campton Place wine dinners is that they occur in the restaurant as opposed to a private dining space or banquet room, which showcases the main dining room. It’s a better experience for the guest, and it’s easier from a service standpoint, Dean says.
Winemaker dinners are not the only way to draw a crowd, however. Maverick’s Pierce is on the forefront when it comes to offbeat pairings and events. For instance, he has led a series of classes on pairing wine with “junk food” such as cheese curds and Fritos.
Maverick also hosts mystery dinners at which guests must try to guess what wine is paired with their food. Adding an element of fun and levity with a subject like wine attracts a younger, hipper crowd and helps build new audience for wine.