The ultimate goal of wine training is to help servers recommend wines that pair well with specific dishes. So why do we focus on how wines are made and where they’re from instead of on what tastes good with what and why? The majority of guests ask questions that pertain to food pairing. If your staff can rattle off a wine’s varietal composition but aren’t sure whether to suggest it with pasta primavera or puttanesca, you need to add wine-and-food-pairing principles to your education agenda.
Sauce-Based Pairing Training
Few restaurants train beyond vague pairing platitudes such as “white with seafood, red with meat” and generally provide pairings to memorize. Teaching how wine and food interact, however, is more effective and empowering, especially when it comes to the influence of seasoning. Yes, the fluidity of sensation and subjectivity of tastes makes pairing more challenging to explain than teaching the grapes of Bordeaux. But training oriented to sauce components will provide invaluable insights into basic food chemistry and how the senses operate. More importantly, such lessons require no prior wine experience and can help instill wine curiosity among inexperienced servers.
Most food-matching talk centers on the protein; for instance, whether the main ingredient is tuna or beef. Yet professionals know from experience that the strongest flavors on the plate—usually resulting from preparation method, seasoning, and sauce—should really drive our pairing decisions. Grilled tuna with demi-glace might call for bold Pinot Noir, but zesty Sauvignon Blanc would better suit tuna ceviche. Dense Cabernet Sauvignon is a natural partner for steak au poivre, but delicate Prosecco is more flattering for classically dressed carpaccio.
To instill such knowledge, we must allow servers to taste combinations for themselves. As a trainer, illustrate how common sauce elements such as salt, fat, acidity, and sugar each spin a wine’s flavor in a different direction. Demonstrate how our senses typically operate by showing how similar sensations in a wine and in a food don’t seem stronger together, they seem weaker. Help your servers learn what you already know—that how a dish is seasoned and sauced may be more important than the identity of its protein—and they’ll feel more confident choosing wines to flatter the food you serve.
Key Sauce Components and Preparation Cues
Salt (e.g., kosher salt) Salt in food makes wine taste less acidic, while wine’s acidity makes food taste less salty. All foods have some salt, while all wines are acidic, so wines will taste more acidic alone than with food.
Sugar (e.g., honey) Sugar in food makes wines taste less sweet and more sour. Since most wines are dry and acidic, this usually creates a “toothpaste and OJ” effect. With sweet sauces, however, off-dry wines taste drier and rich wines more refreshing.
Fat (e.g., butter) As oil is to food, so alcohol and body are to wine. Because similar sensations neutralize each other, full-bodied wines seem lighter with butter and heavier with lemon. Oily foods alone can seem greasy, and tannic reds alone can seem harshly astringent. Together, each pleasantly mitigates the other’s strong attributes.
Acidity (e.g., lemon) Pure vinegar or lemon will compete with wine’s acidity, making it seem flat and cloying. Sour foods will need wines with extra-high acidity to complete.
Spicy heat (e.g., hot sauce) Spicy heat leaves a burning sensation. Alcohol amplifies the burn, like gas on a fire, while residual sugar softens its impact.
Training Tips for Pairing Principles
Taste before and after. Taste a wine alone, then again after tasting a food component or a finished sauce. A flight of three wines allows comparison.
Exaggerate for effect. Effects are toned down in balanced sauces, so start with a pinch of pure salt before salty food items or honey before sweetened sauces.
Show the flip side. Negative combinations are more memorable than positive ones, so show your staff some mismatches. Avoiding unpleasant combinations should be a priority.
Go easy on exceptions. Teach the most common patterns first, and save caveats for advanced sessions. If something happens 75 percent of the time or more, it’s true enough to be a general rule.
Use everyday food items. Start with staples (salt, honey, lemon, butter, and hot sauce). Graduate to more complex foods such as cheese cubes, smoked nuts, cold cuts, and cherry tomatoes. Reinforce principles with samples of sauces from your menu.