Being a good sommelier isn't about knowing every wine producer and vintage in the universe. It's about pairing wine with food -- specifically, with the cuisine of a particular chef in a particular restaurant. After all, when you strip away all the fancy names, technical data and extreme adjectives, wine is really just a beverage that we drink with food.
When customers ask me how I know which wines go well with which foods, my answer often disappoints. It's not because I possess some secret text or oenological database. It's because, whenever my chef creates a new dish, I sit in my office and taste it with dozens of wines, so that I can talk intelligently to customers about the virtues of various pairings. Much has been written about wine-and-food matching -- no wine book is published without a whole appendix on the subject -- but books and rules can only take you so far. There's no substitute for tasting.
That said, when entertaining at home, most people serve wine and food that they've never even tasted separately, let alone together. They run out to the wine store the day of the party and they choose a white and a red based on the recommendation of some pimply-faced kid who works Saturdays at the liquor store to earn extra spending money. If you really want to wow your guests, you'll need to do a little homework. And what assignment could be more enjoyable than tasting a lot of wine?
Five rules for successful matchmaking
When I taste wine candidates for a particular dish, I don't do so at random. First, you need to narrow the field, and the easiest way to do that is by following the golden rule of wine-and-food pairing: white with fish, red with meat. This eminently sensible rule has come under tremendous attack lately, but it's still the best starting point. When you think about it, it's shorthand for the principle that compatible food and wine should be of a similar weight: light wine with light food, heavy wine with heavy food. As with all rules, there are exceptions. Sometimes you find a heavy fish dish, perhaps with a red wine sauce; similarly, some white wines are quite full-bodied. But if you always keep the equal-weight principle in mind, you'll be off to a good start.
Second, keep in mind that what you're looking for in a good match is synergy. You don't just want wine and food to tolerate each other. The wine and food together should be greater than the sum of their parts: Each should enhance the other while preserving its fundamental character and integrity. The only way you can figure this out is through a simple but rarely utilized procedure: Taste the wine, taste the food and only then taste the wine and food together.
Third, as you progress through a lifetime of eating and drinking, there's no substitute for good record keeping. You can dramatically deepen your experience of wine by maintaining a notebook and recording the wines you've enjoyed, with particular emphasis on the wine-and-food combinations that have worked best.
Fourth, draw inspiration from the time-tested classics. There are a few combinations that almost everybody thinks are superb: Sauternes with Roquefort, Chablis with oysters, Bordeaux with roasted lamb, champagne with scallops. Use these as a starting point, and build from there.
Finally, if you're not willing to do all this work, I suggest you cheat by getting your guests to do your job. Instead of pouring one wine with the meal, why not pour three at once and make the meal into a miniature wine-and-food matching seminar? Pour, taste, compare, discuss. Your guests will likely remember it as an intellectually stimulating evening and you as a fascinating host, when really all you did was use them as guinea pigs!