A Drinkable Atlas: The Challenges and Rewards of Pairing Wine with Ethnic Foods

June 27, 2017

There was a time not too long ago when, in the U.S., wine service at restaurants was largely associated in minds and on menus with European cuisines—especially Italian and French—and American-style steakhouses. These frequently fine dining establishments often had wine stewards, or sommeliers, on staff to assist in pairing dishes to vintages. And those pairings were often associated with time-tested traditions, as such dishes likes bœuf à la Bourguignonne and ossobucco, that were created in regions where complimentary grapes such as Chablis and Nebbiolo are cultivated.

But what about so called “ethnic” foods, such as Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Mexican? These cuisines, and many more, have become increasingly popular with diners over the past two decades. However, as the Wine Guide by Williams-Sonoma points to a conundrum when it comes to wine service in such restaurants: “These cuisines did not evolve with wine and, for many years, no one really bothered to experiment and find out which wines worked. For the most part, ethnic food outside its country of origin was served with beer or soft drinks, not with wine.”

In fact, however, many ethnic cuisines do lend themselves to pairing with wines, whether domestically produced or imported. But there is a caveat: many dishes in such cuisines feature bold flavors and pronounced spiciness at times. They can be something of a challenge in matching bottles to plates. It’s a matter of experimentation, and that’s where the hands-on training of certified sommeliers come to bear. These highly trained food-and-beverage professionals dedicate themselves—especially their palates—to experimentation to find the perfect wine for any dish (and reject duos that just don’t work well together).

This drive and dedication to discover optimal food and wine matches has a definite financial underpinning: wine drives higher ticket sales and increased profit margins. Even more, wine is highly in demand by diners. According to Forbes, a recent Gallup poll indicates that 32% of Americans who consume alcohol prefer wine. Restaurateurs can’t ignore the tastes and desires of one third of the marketplace.

However, there is one drawback for ethnic eateries, many of which operate on slimmer budgets than traditional fine dining restaurants, when it comes to wine service: the staffing cost of a sommelier. For instance, Crain’s Chicago Business notes that “Master sommeliers average $150,000 a year, while advanced-levels make $78,000 and certifieds, $60,000.” These are significant costs, one that lends owners and managers to consider bringing in “outside talent” like THE WINE KEY at significant savings and scalability.

Sources: Williams-Sonoma | Forbes | Chicago Business