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five tips on wine pairing and ordering

The holiday season is upon us and this time of year always brings a flood of questions about wine. In fact, I'm asked all the time what my favorite wine is. My answer, without fail, is: "it depends on what I'm eating." That normally leaves a confused look on the person's face as if I had just answered their question with a question of my own (I, secretly, love that expression). However, it is completely true. I find wine that matches the food and vice versa makes for an unforgettable meal. If you can have it with people you enjoy, that's even better.

Most of us shy away from pairing wine with food because the myth is that it is an extremely scientific process and that the formula must be kept under lock and key somewhere in Napa Valley. The truth is, wine pairing is very easy and basic in most cases. By just knowing a little about the food and a little about the wine, you can accurately pair them up at any given moment. The same is true about ordering wine at finer restaurants. Some of these places can make you feel intimidated or nervous about approaching the wine list. For places like this, my advice is to never eat there again. Wine should be a fun, learning process when you eat out. By just knowing the questions, you can dissect a list in seconds. Here are five simple guidelines in wine pairing and ordering to help you impress your holiday guests this season and get the most for your wine dollar.

The old rule of red wine with meat and white with fish isn't a bad tenet. While I do find it too straight forward in today's wine world, in most instances it will work out fine. What about turkey? If you are having a traditional holiday turkey, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir both are great starting points. Pick out a flavor in the food and match that with a flavor in the wine. Most wine labels will have descriptions on the back that will list some its flavors. An example, and generalization, would be matching the lemon that you squeeze on grilled fish with the lemon peel flavor in Pinot Grigio. Or matching the pepper flavor of a Steak au Poivre with the spiciness of a big Cabernet Sauvignon. If you identify a specific flavor in the food and accent that with the same flavor in the wine, you will be doing just fine. Drink what you like (or what your guests like). In every wine class I have taught, this is the first lesson. If you don't like a wine by itself, you probably won't like it with food either. You may find it more palatable, but that will probably be where it ends.

You can find a good wine within your budget. I've created dozens of wine lists all over the country and, without fail, there is that one bottle that is a steal on every menu. There are many reasons for this that I won't bore you with, but it works out great when the savings are passed along to the customer. If you are buying for a gift, I would say that for $10 to $15 in a wine shop, you can get a good bottle of wine for any occasion. If you go into a wine shop and ask for a nice white wine for around $14, I'm sure you will have no trouble getting the direction you need from the staff. Keep in mind that price and quality are, usually, related when you are talking about wine, but that doesn't mean that you can't find a decent bottle at a lower price. Ask for help. I have studied wine for years and I always ask questions about the wine list. I don't know everything about wine, nor do I claim to, and I employ the people who are supposed to be experts on the wines that I'm looking at to help me along. If you are eating with other people, asking your guests "do you prefer red or white" is a great start to narrow down the list. Once you have that established, enlist the help of the staff. Again, if you say "I'm looking for a versatile, red wine in this price range (as you point to a price on the menu so your guests don't see or hear), then you will find that a successful server will be able to help you. Most wait staff will enjoy speaking about wine for a moment while you decide. It gives them a chance to show off their knowledge and earn the 20 percent tip that's coming their way. Plus, they may have a recommendation that isn't on the menu or know of that special bottle that isn't very expensive. There they are. Five simple ways to pair and order wine this holiday season. If you take the right approach, know the right questions to ask and consider all the elements involved, then, you will have a very successful dinner out with friends and family. If you are looking for gift ideas, consider a nice Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley or any Brunello di Montalcino. Cheers!

Kevin Hoover, a local food and beverage manager, is engaged in the endless pursuit of the perfect cocktail and dining experience. Check out his blog at