Wine Pairing 101: How to launch and manage a stellar wine pairing program

By Liz Barrett Foster

There are many reasons to create a wine pairing menu. You may want to offer a new experience, introduce guests to local or international wines or simply sell more wine.

Regardless of the reason behind starting a wine pairing program, every aspect — from menus and kitchen coordination to staff education and loss prevention — must be managed if the program is expected to be successful.

Justin Yu credit Four Seasons Hotel Chicago
General Manager Justin Yu, Four Seasons Hotel Chicago

Here, three experts walk us through what’s involved in launching and managing a wine pairing program from the beginning.

Pre-launch prep

Before considering a wine pairing, start by identifying your audience. “Will this interest them, or would they prefer to choose their own wine adventure?” asks Justin Yu, director of food and beverage at Four Seasons Hotel Chicago. “Ask yourself what price point is most approachable, compared to the menu price, and how adventurous or traditional the selections should be.” Answering these types of questions can help you determine the structure of your wine pairing or whether you should offer one at all.

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ACF Chef/Sommelier Brian Hay, CEC, CCE

Second, how willing are you to do the work? “The clientele understands in the first 15 minutes if you’ve put effort into a wine pairing or not,” says Chef Brian Hay, CEC, CCE, a certified sommelier, founder of the wine consultancy Art of the Pair and department chair of culinary, pastry and hospitality at Dallas College in Dallas. “If you’re just going to throw something together, it’s not going to work well.”

Finally, consider your staff’s knowledge and comfort level with introducing and serving wine. Can the staff answer guest questions about specific wines and the reasons behind the pairings? It can be a hindrance if there’s only one sommelier on staff and that person is not available every night. “You have to create a flight or pairing that you can very quickly incorporate and train your team on,” says Kat Thomas, lead sommelier at Ada’s Wine Bar in Las Vegas. “Give them all of the tools they need to go out on the floor and feel confident to do it.”

Selecting the wine

Menus, guest preferences, wine availability and price point all play into wine selection and food pairings. Some restaurants match the food to the wine, while others choose to match the wine to the food.

“Pairings are all about matching and marrying flavors, so we start with a menu then identify wines that will complement it,” Yu says. “However, in some specialty cases, we do work backwards and create a menu based upon a selection of wines if we have a wine dinner featuring a certain winery or portfolio.”

“I get the wines first, and I tailor the menu around the wines — always — because I can’t change the wine,” Chef Hay says. “Whatever is in the bottle is in the bottle.”

Kat Thomas credit Ada’s Wine Bar
Sommelier Kat Thomas, Ada’s Wine Bar

At Ada’s, Thomas says the goal is to provide an experience for the guest. “It’s an experience of traveling around the globe through different wines that you may not have chosen because you were scared to do so or you don’t know how to pronounce the wine.” At the end of the day, Thomas says, you should choose wines that excite you and will excite the guest, not wines you need to move.

Keep your specific guests in mind when choosing wines for a wine pairing menu. Are your guests already wine savvy or would they enjoy being walked through a wine selection with the help of a sommelier? The customers must like the pairings. “Everything is based around the clientele,” Chef Hay says. “If you don’t make the clientele happy, then anything you do is not going to work.”

Kitchen collaboration

Chefs who work closely with sommeliers and beverage directors create and execute the best possible wine-and-food pairings, according to Yu. From creating and managing menus to organizing the timing of food and wine delivery to the dining room, the relationship between chef and sommelier is crucial to the success of a wine pairing program.

While Yu says wine can be very subjective and everyone’s palate is different, it’s fun for chefs and sommeliers to collaborate on a tasting menu. “It’s important to sit around the table and taste the dish you’re attempting to pair or vice versa,” he says. “Everyone discusses what they feel are the predominant flavors and what will highlight both the food and the wine.”

Pairings require a synchronized dance between the front-of-house sommelier and back-of-house chef. Guests should never receive their wine pour unless the next course is on its way out of the kitchen. “I’m the chef’s eyes on the floor,” Chef Hay says. “The chef can’t see, so I’m in constant communication, checking on ETA, pulling plates and glasses and pouring the next wine.”

Pricing for profit

Wine pairings won’t make you rich, but they should still make sense for your bottom line. Keep all your costs in mind when creating a menu: food costs, labor, marketing and the balance of high-end pours with value-oriented, lesser-known wines. If it costs you more than you’ll make, it may not be right for your restaurant.

“A wine pairing should be fair to the consumer from a value standpoint, but also make smart business sense when it comes to the financials,” Yu says. “All food and beverage items should be properly costed to what the business has determined for their cost of goods.”

At Ada’s, guests can expect to pay around $150 for a five-course wine dinner event. Every day at the restaurant, custom wine flights of three 3-ounce pours are available for $25 to $70. “Ada’s by the glass (price varies) and Somm Select ($35 for a flight of three wines) is very supportive of a profit,” Thomas says.

Try experimenting with different price points in the beginning to find the sweet spot. You can offer two versions of a menu — one with more affordable wines and the other with more unique or exclusive vintages. You’ll then be able to gauge which pricing structure your audience gravitates toward for future offerings.

Chef Hay says he never loses money with wine pairing menus and sees a lot of value in the marketing benefits of them. “I’m still looking at profitability; I don’t want to lose money,” he says. “So, if I’m serving five wines with five courses, I’ve already worked the budget out to make sure I’m not losing money. But it’s also marketing, because if you do a great dinner and you do a great pairing, the word of mouth is amazing. So, you’ll probably sell out the next one.”

Handling the unexpected

While rare, running out of wine or ending up with leftover wine from pairings does sometimes happen.

In the case of running out, Yu says he finds the next best alternative to the originally intended pairing and informs the guest of the situation. “It should be comparable in price, quality, style and flavor profile so that the vision of the pairing is still executed,” he says.

Too much leftover wine from a pairing is another issue altogether. There are wine preservation systems on the market that can help extend the life of wines and curb wine loss, but for the most part, leftover wine is rare if the wine pairing program is managed well.

“If we don’t go through an entire bottle, and it sits past three days, which is really unheard of, it sometimes goes into our sangria, or to staff education,” Thomas says. “Either way, the cost effectiveness is maintained.”

In the end, it’s always about the customer. Everyone likes a customized experience that feels bespoke and unique. Show customers that you’ve done your homework and can deliver on their expectations.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of National Culinary Review. Click here to download the full issue.