Posted on: January 25, 2024

Mastering Wine Selection and Food Pairing

The first time you work in a restaurant steeped in wine culture can be intimidating. Which wines go with different foods? How do you know what labels to suggest? How do you increase your table's margins without offending your customers?

Below, you'll find a guide for bartenders and servers new to the art of wine selection. We’ll explore popular varietals and their ideal food pairings, as well as provide valuable tips on how to upsell wine selections effectively.

The Principles of Wine and Food Pairing

Pairing wine with food is an art. As with all arts, it takes practice and experience. It's hard to cover the nuances in a hurry, but if you're a beginner, here are a few of the most important guidelines to remember.

  • First, consider sauces: Rich, creamy sauces call for full-bodied, low-acid wines. Light citrus sauces want light-bodied, high-acid wines. In other words, match the weight but separate acid from fat. For reference, weight and richness correlate with fat content for food; with wine, weight, and body correlate with alcohol content – and, with reds, tannin content as well.
  • No sauce? Match the meat: If your dish isn't particularly saucy, you'll match the weight and character of the meat. Red wine for red meat, white wine for fish or chicken.
  • Make flavors consistent: Look to pair foods and wines with similar intensity and character – peppery steak with a spicy red or lemon chicken with a citrusy white.
  • Meet or exceed the acid or sugar: When it comes to sweetness and acidity, you want the wine to be at least the same level as the food (and, likely, more extreme).

Perfect Pairings by Varietal

Another shortcut for newbies is to know common examples of well-established pairings.

Here are a few classic pairs:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon pairs perfectly with rich meat like steak and/or duck.
  • Bordeaux stands up to the gamey flavor of lamb.
  • Pinot noir has a medium body that matches both meaty fish (salmon, swordfish, or tuna) and light red meat (like pork).
  • Zinfandel has a spice that pairs well with bar-b-que chicken and pork.
  • Riesling balances out spicy cuisine like Indian, Thai, and Mexican.
  • Chardonnay provides a complement to buttered shellfish.
  • Sauvignon Blanc does well for a lot of seafood, from citrusy shellfish to flaky fish.

Using Pairings to Upsell Wine

Upselling can be a delicate business. You don't want to make the process obvious or bothersome. Ideally, an upsell should be framed in terms of the customer's best experience.

Here's where knowledge of wine pairings can be an asset. You should familiarize yourself with the possible wine pairings for every item on the menu. Get into the habit of suggesting a wine that pairs with someone's meal at a slightly higher price point.

Pair and Upsell, But Don't Overserve

As you navigate the complicated worlds of wine service, food pairings, and upselling, it's important to remember that you have a fundamental duty to public safety as an alcohol server.

In many jurisdictions, this responsibility isn't theoretical – you may have criminal or civil liability for your customer's crimes if they result from illegal alcohol sales.

Responsible alcohol server training like TIPS can provide you with the tools you need to minimize your risk and liability. Learn strategies for encouraging responsible drinking, avoiding underage sales, and judging when someone is too intoxicated to be served.

Enroll today