Training Your Staff to Pair Food & Wine

Wine and food pairing, at its best, is when you put them together in such a way that the guest is happy with the flavor combinations, the selection process and, in the end, the entire experience.

As simple as this sounds, we all know that simple is not always easy. There are a number of variables that can confound you when trying to develop strategies to pair dishes with drinks. How big is the wine list? Is your floor staff trained in (and curious about) wine? Is the cuisine you sell wine-friendly? Do you even have a wine list?

Because it’s so easy to get lost in the details, it’s important to keep things conceptual and simple when developing your first staff training session. The real success is in making your guests happy, to the degree that regular customers start buying wine to go with their meals every time they come in. A couple of simple strategies and rules can get you started.

We’ll start with the Quadrant System, a relatively simple concept that can help your staff understand what a wine will taste like by merely looking at the label on the wine bottle—and then how to pair it with food. Sometimes, people forget that wine is an agricultural product. Where the grapes are grown has a profound effect on the final product. Simply, the further from the equator, the colder it gets. So in more northerly regions (in the northern hemisphere), fruits tend to get less ripe than further south. This means that grapes from colder places tend to have less sugar, which is what yeast eats to create alcohol.

Less sugar means less alcohol. Since alcohol is the main determinant of the wine’s body, less alcohol means lighter body. Conversely, wine from a hot place like Sicily will often have higher alcohol, thus fuller body. The wine’s body translates directly to mouth feel, with lighter-bodied wines feeling like water in your mouth, but full wines like a light cream perhaps. Why is body so important? Because a light-bodied wine should be paired with a light dish. The Sancerre that’s perfect with a goat cheese salad would taste like water with cumin-rubbed salmon with ancho butter, and the Napa Chardonnay for that dish would obliterate the salad.

The next axis divides the New World from the Old World. This is partly because of climate (France is much farther north than the United States), but mostly because of perspective. The French and Italians use wine as a condiment for food, not as a cocktail. So, many European wines taste better with food than by themselves. Remember, lemon juice and hot sauce don’t taste good by themselves.

On the other hand, Americans like to drink wine by itself and so are effectively looking for a cocktail. Cocktails taste good by themselves, and don’t need food. In fact, their flavors can clash with some food flavors. This is precisely why Merlot is so popular: it’s usually low in acidity and has soft tannins, so it provides a soft, not-too-sour glass of wine to sip by itself. It is not great at making food taste better because of the low acidity.

To wrap this axis up, Old World wines tend toward dryness (even if they’re full-bodied) while New World wines tend to have obvious fruit, or even true sweetness in the form of residual sugar. Now, looking at your mental map, you should have a line drawn from north to south, and east (Old World) to west (New World). You also have four quadrants with fairly predictable wine styles. So a wine from northern Italy will be light-bodied and dry, like a Pinot Grigio from Friuli, but a Zinfandel from Paso Robles will be full-bodied and filled with fruit. Looking to the other ‘corners,’ lower-right, or southern Old World, would yield dry, full-bodied wines, whereas the ones from the upper left (north, New World) would tend towards light body and fruit.

What does this do for us? With four basic wine flavor profiles, you and your staff can cover more ground more quickly while at the table. With some basic pairing rules, you will all be able to use the quadrants to find wine that will work for your guests.

Three simple rules

Grows together, goes together
This works best for traditional dishes from established cuisines. Cassoulet, for example, comes from southwest France, so pick a wine from there and there’s a good chance it will work. Veal stew from the Veneto? Try a light red or white from that northern region of Italy. This also works for regions and countries that do not produce wine, like the Caribbean. What do they drink down there? Rum punches and beer. Choose one of those to go with your Jerk Chicken.

Where this plan falls apart is in countries where there hasn’t been enough time to establish a traditional cuisine or the classical beverage pairings to go with them. We Americans have some great chefs and food, but with such a melting pot of cuisines and the ability to make any wine style we want (because of climate and technology), no real patterns have developed yet. Your best bet is to figure out which traditional dish yours comes closest to, and pick a wine that would go with the old-school dish.

Wine at least as sweet as the food
This is not just about dessert. Think about how many savory foods have some sweetness and how much we do to make them sweeter. We caramelize onions, sear scallops and saute mushrooms, in every case to accentuate sweetness. Now, if the wine isn’t as sweet as the food, you get the orange-juice-after-brushing-your-teeth experience. An acidic wine without any fruit (or true sweetness) will taste extra sour after something sweet. So seared sea scallops with a tropical fruit salsa would probably go better with something from the New World.

Don’t forget body
The simplest example here is just a broiled steak with a baked potato and boiled broccoli. Here’s the trick: what kind of steak? Filet mignon has very little interior fat and dries out pretty easily during cooking. It is (for a steak) light in body. A top sirloin is very tasty, and somewhere in the middle of the range. The big dog here is a rib eye. One of the richest, most tender cuts of beef, it is loaded with fat, both inside and out. Let’s make this even trickier: the grape has to be Cabernet Franc. All we have to play with now is climate. For the lightest steak, the filet, we need something from a cooler place, like the Loire Valley in France. Let’s pick a Chinon from there. The sirloin needs some more weight from the wine, but not a monster, so how about a Cabernet Franc from Long Island. Now for the rib eye: let’s go for a wine from the heat of the Napa Valley.

If you don’t know where the place is that’s on the label, look at the alcohol content. The middle of the road is around 13 percent. At 10 to 11 percent, things are pretty light, and over 14 percent you’re getting some pretty full body.

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