On any given night in the pre-pandemic days, there was a four-top at a restaurant with a small-share-plates-so-order-several-items-and-I’ll-course-it-out-for-you type of menu, and, inevitably, someone in the group would want the sommelier to recommend a wine to pair.
Many times that sommelier was (or is) me, and often in that moment, I’ve hesitated. You want to know what I, a stranger, think you should have with your meal, with no clue what you actually like? Sometimes I just want to look you in the eye and say, “This is your dinner; it’s not about me.”
There is a long history of the all-knowing wine guru telling you that you absolutely must have X with Y. Sommelier courses like the Wine and Spirit Education Trust train and test students on traditional, tried-and-true pairings, maximizing the enjoyment of food and wine. This skill is among the most important components of the sommelier’s expertise, a supposedly quantifiable measurement that, in reality, is completely subjective. It’s also wildly outdated in terms of how we currently eat. Shared plates have transformed the job of the sommelier into something new: Where we were once asked to recommend a bottle to complement a few entrees, now we have the impossible task of finding one that pairs with seven different things, ranging from Sichuan lamb ribs to shrimp and grits to hamachi crudo. It can be done, certainly, but that’s not the point. If the meal has changed, it’s time for the way we think about drinking with it to change, too.
And the truth is, there is no secret code for choosing wine. When folks blindly ask a sommelier or server what wine they should be drinking with their order, there is an underlying notion that the taste of a wine professional is inherently superior, that somehow the somm knows a formula that will unlock the full potential of a dish and charm their palate, or at the very least not kill it. But people’s palates are inherently personal — individuals have different sensitivities to certain flavors and aromas. There is no such thing as an objectively perfect pairing.
It’s time for us to rethink the traditional wine pairing, to move on from what we “should” be drinking to what we want to drink. Because again, it’s not about sommeliers.
The New Rules
Pair to the vibe, not the plate
When people ask me about a pairing, my first question is, “What’s the occasion?” Or, “What’s the vibe?” I avoid immediately asking the obvious, “What are you eating?” Instead, I want to know: Are you dining out with an old friend? Entertaining your boss? Hosting your parents or family? A welcome-home bash? Each of these scenarios will lend a different energy to your meal, and ultimately, affect the way you’re going to experience the wine.
For a wine pairing in a restaurant setting, it’s important to consider what kind of restaurant you’re at, who you’re dining with, and maybe even the playlist. Think ’90s R&B versus ’80s power ballads versus Detroit House. Now you get it. A bottle of Montesecondo Chianti Classico and a Pithon Paille Grolleau might both be great matches for the spread of four or five dishes on your table. What’ll break the tie, then, is whether you’re there with your partner’s parents or your best friend who loves glou-glou reds as much as you do.
This applies to drinking outside a restaurant, too. A good wine shop should ask you more about where and why you’re drinking than what you’re eating alongside. I, like you, wouldn’t necessarily drink the same thing at a family reunion and a catch-up with my best friends. If the occasion is a birthday party at the beach, I want a cold, rosé pet-nat from the Loire with the tiniest hint of residual sugar — it’s refreshing, it’s playful, and it’s something fast and easy to drink while basking in the sun. But if that same birthday party is a movie marathon snuggled up on the couch with my closest friends, I want a creamy white wine, like a chardonnay from the Mâcconais — something refined and thoughtful, coating my cheeks with its long finish and encouraging a slower enjoyment. From the pace of the party to the folks surrounding you, the finer details of the atmosphere can and should dictate the kind of wine experience you want to have. And as far as the food in both scenarios? We could be eating buttery seafood or cold sandwiches and the wine would probably seem great either way.
Change the vocabulary
Wines can be acidic, tannic, oaky, and fruit-forward, but they can also be brooding, elegant, soulful, and charming. Describing wines in the latter manner is not only more accessible — what are tannins, anyway? — it helps dissolve preconceived notions around what you like, and don’t. You may say no to all “tannic reds,” but yes to, and ultimately enjoy, a bottle of Marenas LaVeló tempranillo that’s described as “moody” instead — just how you’d feel if you were stuck inside on a rainy day off. Going beyond traditional wine terminology will allow you to experiment, and explore the vast possibilities of what a well-rounded pairing can do for a meal. This, in turn, leaves you feeling empowered to drink a wine because of the way it makes you feel, rather than limiting you to the flavors that are on your plate.
Just drink what you like
The key to wine knowledge is a willingness to explore. The “wrong” wine is not a villain out to ruin a meal. Food is what’s bringing complex taste interactions into the mix and may affect the balance of the wine, not the other way around. A great somm is so much more than a blind authority on what flavors go well together, the same way a great decorator is about more than matching paint samples. It’s about knowing the diner or customer and the experience they’re craving. So please, when asking about pairings, prioritize the moment and the occasion: What do you want out of your meal? When you get used to thinking about dining out in this way, you’ll be surprised at how much you actually understand about pairings. There is so much to consider beyond complementary flavors. It’s about the experience a person wants to have, taking into account their personal preferences, mood, company, and occasion. And sure, yes, the food.
Here’s an important thing to know: Most wines will taste pretty okay with most foods. So often people ask for a pairing suggestion to avoid the “wrong” wine that makes their food somehow inedible — that is actually pretty rare. Most wines will not turn your meal into an inedible mess. It’s more likely you won’t notice a connection between what’s in your glass and what’s on your plate. But even that doesn’t matter so much if you think the wine is delicious.
Am I saying that sommeliers are irrelevant? Or that pairing doesn’t matter? Not at all. There’s something very romantic about the wine-pairing ritual. But these days, most of us are attempting to pair to the wrong thing. In the end, it’s about you.
Bianca is a Miami-based sommelier and co-owner/operator of Paradis Books & Bread, a bookstore, wine bar, and bakery opening soon in North Miami.