What Wine Goes With That?

We used to know a guy who worked for a wine distributor. From time to time they needed a hand to work wine tastings at area wine shops and liquor stores. Helping out, I learned a lot along the way. We’re not an expert, but can usually pick out a decent bottle of wine for any meal or occasion.

Unless you grew up drinking wine, your eyes probably glaze over when you look down a long aisle of bottles from all around the country and the world. There are reds, whites, rosés, blush, concord, kosher, local, national, Italian, French, South African, Australian, German, Californian, New York, Oregonian and undoubtedly more that I can’t think of right now. How’s a bachelor to choose?

Choose what you like. You’ve probably heard that there are rules about selecting wines. But I say throw those all out the window. The best wine is the wine you like.

The rules of thumb for choosing wines are a reasonable place to start. But don’t limit yourself. In general, foods that are light and delicate should go with a wine that won’t overpower the dish. Similarly, a hearty or spicy dish can stand up to and be enhanced by a wine with a strong or assertive taste. The color is not as important as the flavor and scent.

That being said, the rule says that white wine should go with white meat like chicken and fish; red wine with red meat like beef, lamb and pork. That’s because chicken and fish dishes are usually lighter and white wines are usually also lighter. But that is NOT an absolute. You can have a hearty, spicy fish dish that would go well with a hearty red wine like a burgundy or a cabernet.

The best first step is to find a good wine shop. Yes, you COULD buy wine at a liquor store or a grocery store. But just try asking something there to help you select a wine. You’ll probably hear something like, “It’s all good. I like Mad Dog, myself,” as he scratches himself. For those who don’t know, Mad Dog is Mogan David 20/20, a powerful concord grape wine that tastes like cough syrup and has strong alcohol kick from the addition of brandy. It’s also cheap and thus a favorite of professional drunks.

A good wine shop should be clean and well-lit. There should be more wine than other spirits or liquors. It should also be cool. The shelves should be clearly marked and organized in a logical way.

The most important thing to look for in a wine shop are the people who work there. They should be friendly and more than willing to answer questions. They’ll probably ask some questions of you, as well. If their response to a question is to reach for the nearest bargain bin bottle, run, don’t walk, out of the store and find another. In a good wine shop, the sales people regularly taste wines from various makers, wineries, countries and grapes. They should have learned a great deal about wine before they’re allowed on the sales floor. They should never look down at you or become less attentive when they find out how much you want to spend.

The kinds of questions the sales person should ask when you ask for a wine recommendation are:

  • What is the occasion?
  • What kinds of wines have you had that you like?
  • What kind of food will be served with it?
  • How much are you looking to spend?

If they don’t ask those questions or if they don’t pay attention to the answers, leave and find a better shop. If you say I’m looking for a bottle under $15 and they trot out a $50 bottle, leave. But if they bring out an $18 bottle, hear them out. It might be worth it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, they should be as interested in teaching you as you are in learning.

Once you find a good shop, go there often and develop a relationship with YOUR sales person. They will get to know your tastes and you will get to trust their judgements. Most wine shops have tastings from time to time. Go! You will get to learn about some new wines, have a chance to talk to the staff and meet some people who might share your interests. You can attend a tasting even if you don’t buy something.

Don’t let wine intimidate you! It’s just fermented grape juice, for goodness sake. It’s one of the oldest, simplest drinks humans have every known. Later on, we’ll look at some of the different types of wine and what you might expect from them.