Wine Knowledge – Rookie or Pro?

So many restaurants moan about their large wine inventory that is not selling, but may not take the mystery out of wine selling for their staff. Service training wine knowledge is so important to your bottom line. Many hospitable staff speak volumes about the menu and descriptions roll off their tongues. Could the best chance to increase your bottom line be enhanced with just a short workshop on wine presentation, service, essentials and pairings? Check out this interview I did with a fabulous sommelier and (also) my beverage educator at the time. Let School for the Service Arts take the mystery out of wine sales for your staff!

Food and Wine Pairing 101: Are you a Rookie or a Pro? Published in Catering Magazine September 2008

by Debbie Thomas CDP CSEP Emeritus

The old adage “keep it simple” applies here. As some subject matter experts say, there is no one definitive theory on matching food and wine. Let’s examine some simple ideas that would be of interest when your restaurant/wine bar server approaches the table with the wine list. Service training should include wine knowledge. Are you a Rookie or a Pro? Maybe your banquet sales staff is about to perform a tasting, or a guest asks for suggestions, or your event specialist needs that extra special push to close the contract. Nevertheless, when both your restaurant and/or banquet staff are more knowledgeable about your wine list, sales will soar!

In 2008, I have asked my beverage educator and sommelier, Tracey Wallace, to answer a few questions to assist you in increasing your bottom line.  I do hope this article will peak your interest to delve further into the world of grapes.

Debbie: Tell me something about the four principles of wine making. Any kind of fruit will make wine, but there are two things required to make wine; sugar and yeast. The wine making process is called vinification. Let’s talk abut the four “principals” or conditions, that impact the wine-making process?

Tracey:First, you need to know the “Main Grapes”. There are many hundred species of grapes, but let’s talk about just two of the most popular ones.

The Chardonnay grape is the most popular white grape that grows all over the world, but first came to maturity in France. For example, all white wines from Burgundy, France are 100% Chardonnay, like the buttery, spicy, lemony qualities of wines made in the towns of Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet.

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of most commonplace grapes and easy to grow, because it has a small thick skin with a high skin-to-juice ratio. A master vintner can make deep powerful wines with this grape. This red grape is often blended with Merlot to soften the harshness and high acidity, which describes the tartness of the wine and can be unfavorable, or undrinkable if there is too much of it.

Second, you need to know where the vines are grown and the variations of weather conditions. Increase your staff’s wine knowledge. For example, the Chardonnay grape needs to ripen over a long, warm, but not too hot summer, where the nights are cool to enable the grapes to attain limited acidity. In the United States, Napa and Sonoma County in California are perfect for this grape, because the Pacific fog rolls in from the west coast cooling the nights and disappears by 11:00am in the morning to allow the vines to heat up again.

Third, you need to know what kind of soil the vines grow in and if it is properly irrigated.Some vines are grown in shale so that the water leeches evenly down to the roots. Irrigation is so important to the growing process. Some vintners use the drip watering method. In the European Union countries, irrigation is normally forbidden, so the vines suffer an occasional drought. Often times the more the vines “suffer” the better the wine.

The fourth and most important principle is the grape grower and winemaker, who may be the same person. Important decisions are made in the field as well as the winery and have a great influence on the quality and quantity of the wine. Let’s talk a bit about color and tannin, that bitter, raspy taste like immature bananas taste in red wine skins and stalks that is so important to the wine’s ability to age. In the field, the vintner chooses how long the skins stay in contact with the wine for color and flavor.  In the winery, the pressure of the fermentation process pushes the skins to the top of the steel vat or oak barrel and is called the cap. The cap must be pushed down again or circulated to keep the skins in contact with the wine to prevent bacteria from growing and increase or decrease color and flavor once again.

Debbie:Thank you so much for this great information. I feel our readers are no longer rookies! Finally let’s talk about the wines in relation to the catering menus to increase the caterer’s bottom line. What are three simple rules to use when pairing food and wine?

Tracey:First, pair according to the occasion. Wine pairing increases your bottom line. A bubbly Asti from Italy or a sparkling wine from South Africa would be great with a light lunch. The South Africans drink sparkling wine like ice tea. Maybe the dessert calls for a sweet Muscat that is as decadent as the dessert.

Secondly, the weight of the wine should match the weight of the food. Wine knowledge makes the staff more comfortable when selling wine. Choose power with power.  A salad with raisins would go well with a white wine Riesling or a Semillon. An oak barrel fermented, buttery Chardonnay would go well with grilled salmon served with a beurre blanc or a picatta sauce.  In the same vein, choose light with light. Asian foods scented with lemon grass go well with cold, spicy, fruitier wines like Gewürztraminers, as do herbaceous California menus presented with basil, and fresh thyme, like light chicken salads with a white wine vinaigrette. Even a Balbera de Alba, a light bodied red wine with a taste of sour cherries and a hint of herbaceous spice goes well with a light lunch. But really there aren’t any rules! Go with your taste buds!

Finally, choose contrast. The same grilled salmon, served with a fresh citrusy mango salsa, would go well with a metallic, tart, Chenin Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc, which takes on the taste of the metal tanks in which it is fermented. It opposes the fatty fish and cleanses the palette. A spicy Tex Mex menu really shines with a Riesling, contrasting sugar with spice.

Debbie:I bet you could go on all day, Tracey! Thank you so much for a little insight into the world of food and wine pairing.

Tracey:My pleasure!

Debbie Thomas CSEP CDP is the CEO of the School for the Service Arts. She travels with her impassioned team, raising the level of dining professionals around the globe. Debbie can be reached at Or follow her Facebook or LinkedIn,  or

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