I would like to give a shout out to Arthur Black for his presentations at The Oceanaire Seafood Room Indianapolis over the years. The knowledge he has shared has been extremely helpful and has inspired me to further expand my own knowledge.
II. EXPANDING ON THE 2 RULES
The 2 rules from the Introduction are handy for waiters to have in their back pocket to keep things quick and easy. Sometimes, however, a guest wants a little more input. It is your job as a member of the waiters,waitresses or bartenders to know your product so you can give that extra input. I will post some suggested reading, but Wine For Dummies from Wiley Publishing, Inc. is a great place to start learning about wine.
Rule 1 is the easy part. Just ask your guests what style of wine they usually drink or like. If they say they are just starting to drink wine then ask them what kind of cocktails they usually drink. If they are traditional martini drinkers then odds are they will like a dry wine. If they drink strawberry daiquiris you might want to steer them away from very dry wines.
Rule 2 requires you to have at least a basic knowledge of your establishment's wine list and wine in general. Basically what you want to avoid is having the food and wine compete with each other. People don't want a battle ground in their mouths. They want deliciousness and harmony. That will build their trust in you and (in theory, at least) bring bigger tips. (YEA!) To achieve this goal start with pairing simply prepared foods with simple, unimposing wines. Pair a nice simple Pinot Grigio with fried clams, for example, or a basic Shiraz from Southeastern Australia with a baked pork chop.
Now take those clams and create clams casino (baked on the half shell with peppers, onions, bacon, butter, salt and pepper, and bread crumbs) and you will want to up the ante on the wine choice, something more than the basic fruit character and moderate acidity of the Pinot Grigio above. That doesn't necessarily mean more expensive, just more complex, but often more complex wines cost more due to the techniques involved in their production. Try, for example, a grand cru Gewurztraminer from Alsace. Likewise, elevating that pork chop with a fresh herb rub and a cranberry chutney requires you to elevate the complexity of the wine. Try, for example, a well made reserva level Rioja or Northstar Merlot from Washington state.
Here are some general pairing points to consider. Highly tannic wines go well with high protein and/or high fat foods. Just think of that perfectly grilled filet mignon washed down with a Joseph Phelps Insignia. On the flip side of tannins you want to avoid pairing them with salty foods. You will also want to avoid pairing high sugar foods with high tannin levels. Both of these pairings will create that unwanted battle and chaos in the mouth. Too much salt can make tannic wines come across as metallic or unpleasant to the palate. Sugars react with tannins causing the wine to loose its structure and diminish the fruit characters of the wine.
If you have a moderately to highly acidic dish you will want to pair it with a moderately to highly acidic wine (e.g.-Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc). If you pair acidic food with a low acid wine the wine will come off as flabby and lifeless. In general, acidic wines pair well with food. They pair especially well with high fat dishes. The acid in the wine cuts through and tempers the richness of the fat. Acidic wines also go well with salty foods. Both salt and acid make you salivate, but instead of amplifying each other they mesh and compliment each other. When pairing acidic wines with sweet foods just remember to avoid having the food sweeter than the wine. This is a good rule no matter the type of wine.
Sweet wines can go with a variety of foods. Sweet wines always go well with sweet foods. Sweet wines also compliment rich, savory foods. Try a sweet Auslese Riesling from Germany with pate on brioche, for example. If you are serving a salty food, a semi-sweet to sweet wine can make a good compliment to the food. There is a reason many people like a little salt on their watermelon. Also, have you ever tried a caramel candy with a touch of sea salt? Delicious!
Below is a general guide to pairing wine with food, listing the type of wine first followed by the general food type. Just remember to also consider the preparation of the food along with any accompanying sauces, etc.