Wine Pairing 101: What Your Restaurant’s Waitstaff Needs to KnowDiners usually don't know about wine pairings, so your waitstaff should know how to help them.
When people go out to eat, they not only look for great food flavors. They also want to taste delicious wines that pair well with their meal.
According to research by the Wine Market Council, wine is popular among millennials. In 2015, this cohort consumed more than 150 million cases of wine and had an average of 3.1 glasses per sitting. To compare, Gen Xers averaged 2.4 glasses and baby boomers 1.9 glasses per sitting.
Though many customers love wine, they don’t always know how to properly pair it with their meal to bring out the distinct flavors of both the beverage and the food. It is up to you and your waitstaff to guide them.
Understand your dining audience
While some restaurant guests are educated about wine pairing, many are not. Some diners will order based off their personal preferences, some will do the basic protein-wine pairing, and others may be more adventurous.
Stavros Aktipis, who owns the Greek cuisine restaurant Kellari Taverna in New York City, said 50 percent of his diners know how to pair wines, 30 percent stick to what they always drink and the remaining 20 percent typically request house wine.
At the French-southern fusion bistro Purlieu in Charleston, South Carolina, beverage director and certified sommelier Jacob Fuhr said in most cases, customers prefer the most common pairings, but “wine buyers and collectors, and the geeks like me, tend to be a little more adventurous with pairing wine and food.”
Brian Albe, founder of Modern Restaurant Group in Delray Beach, Florida, said most diners “like what they like and will drink it no matter what they are eating.”
Consider what kinds of wine drinkers are attracted to your restaurant and learn to read individual diners to help you make compelling pairing suggestions.
Let them know pairing advice is available
In the hospitality industry, your business’ success is determined by how well you serve your guests, and wine pairing is no different. Let them know that you and your waitstaff are available to give wine pairing recommendations, if they’re interested.
Pairing suggestions can be given verbally through a sommelier, beverage manager or server, listed on the menu next to relevant menu items, or displayed on a chalkboard in the restaurant, said Jeanette Hurt, author of “Drink Like a Woman: Shake. Stir. Conquer. Repeat.”
Hurt said to give suggestions, “the same way you’d let them know you’re available to give advice about food. You observe, see if they’re interested or perplexed, and talk to them to get a sense if they need or want advice in navigating the wine list.”
When you talk to customers, make sure you and your waitstaff do not seem condescending.
“You don’t want to talk down to them, and you will also want to recommend pairings that work within their own personal preferences — if they hate red wine or prefer certain varietals over others, for example,” said Hurt.
At Kellari, Aktipis said he has a sommelier on the floor almost every evening who asks customers if they have questions about selections. The sommelier will also approach a table if guests are spending extra time mulling over the wine list.
Pair by protein
A basic pairing that many customers follow is pairing wine based on the type of entree they are ordering. For example, fish and chicken typically go well with white wine, and heartier meats like steak typically pair with red wine.
At Kellari, Aktipis commonly recommends grilled octopus with assyrtiko, lamb chops with xinomavro and oysters with a crisp, sparkling moschofilero. Albe said he commonly suggests Muscadet with oysters, zinfandel with barbecue, syrah with steak and chardonnay with lobster.
Pair by geography
You can also pair according to where the wine and food grow: French food with French wines, Italian food with Italian wines, etc.
“Both the cuisine and the wines in any region grew up together, and they tend to work really well as a general rule,” said Hurt.
While this rule may apply to European wine and food, it can get a little tricky when it comes to California’s food and wine.
“There’s such diversity in both wine styles and cuisines that you can’t immediately match them up,” she explained.
Pair by weight
If the food is fusion, Hurt suggested looking at the “weight” for pairing. A heavier wine will likely overwhelm a lighter dish so try to pair heavy to heavy and light to light. For spicy dishes, suggest sweeter wines, and post-meal wines should be sweeter than the dessert.
Pair by flavor profile
The weight, protein and geography guidelines will not apply to all dishes. Remember to pair by flavor profile as well.
“Remember to pair by flavor and not by protein,” said Fuhr. “White wines with fish and red wines with meats limit the flavor discussions regarding the dish itself. Bold complex flavors in a dish can leave the same with wine at very high regard.”