Pair Like a Somm

"The Ground Rules" by Chris Hoel

My Pairing Process

Chris Hoel and Martha Stewart in Ventura, California at the Food & Wine Experience where they spoke to guests about wine. (Photo by Brandon Bibbins)

There's a litany of books and articles written on the concept of how to pair wine with food. Some are overly simple like "white with fish, red with meat" while others borderline on verbose with overly flowery language and neither do anyone any good. Pairing wines with food is easier than you think, but there are some ground rules. That said, rules are made to be broken. They say some of the best inventions in the culinary world happened by accident. I've had complete missteps with food and wine pairings that ended up working surprisingly well and made me rethink my pairing process.

Accidental Invention

One night as a sommelier at The French Laundry, I had several unmarked wine decanters in the cellar. There were two decanters containing very different wines that were poured out of sequence. I didn't discover this at first, but after asking a table how they liked the pairings, I noticed that against the white tablecloth the wine was more golden yellow than pale. This was not the right color wine I should've poured, so I immediately went back to the cellar to try the wine and discovered it was Viognier, a Condrieu in fact, and not the white Burgundy I'd intended. I rushed to the table to apologize to the guests but before I could, I was met with a standing ovation, receiving praise and admiration for what I had given them. The only problem; I gave them it by mistake. Lesson learned. Try everything when it comes to food and wine pairings, because you never know when you're going to have your "ah-ha" moment. Assume nothing.

The Ground Rules

pairlikeasomm.jpg(Photo by Kharen Hill)

As a basic set of ground rules that would surround how to approach pairing wines, I follow these few simple norms: First, follow the fat - this means that understanding the fat content of the dish will allow one to choose a wine that will be complementary to the complete dish. Fatty dishes need wines higher in acidity and the opposite occurs with leaner dishes. Second, how is the protein prepared? If it's grilled, it will require a different wine as opposed to one that is steamed or poached. Third, I want to find something in the dish that will "hold hands" or complement certain aspects of the dish. Is there a vegetal note in the sauce? Use a wine that also has vegetal notes in it. It's as simple as that. The fourth factor is what does that person like to drink, period. Most young sommeliers miss this completely and just focus on the dish and the wine, while forgetting what's most important - the guest. If the guest loves white wine but is eating meat, I might suggest a full-bodied older white or Rosé wine. If they love red but are having fish, no problem, I'll find something lighter or older or both and they are happy as a clam. Never forget what the guests or your friend likes when considering a wine pairing.

What Grows Together


Another easy and simple metric is to understand the origin and location of a dish. There's a classic saying in the somm world: "what grows together goes together." When you are having an Italian dish, start in Italy with your wine options. If it's a Northern Italian dish, go with a wine from Northern Italy. Simple, right? More often than not this is one of the best ways to choose wines, especially for a group that wants to be adventurous. This guides most of my own wine decisions when I'm dining out. Rarely will you find me drinking wine that doesn't regionally match what I'm eating, unless, of course, it's Champagne because it goes with everything.

At the end of the day, I think wine pairings are fussed over way too much. Yes, you want to get it right, but what I recommend to people is to try combinations they normally wouldn't. It's important to consider preferences either individually or of the group, but don't let it stress you out from enjoying food and wine together. With the right approach, your next food and wine experience will be a blast and you just might find a surprise pairing of your own!

Chris Hoel, owner of Harper's Club and previously sommelier at  The French Laundry, collaborates with Martha Stewart Wine Co. as an integral part of our expert panel. "Pair Like A Somm" is a recurring series for our readers.