Wine Tips from Sommelier Chris Horn

Between the unfamiliar words, the seemingly endless varietals, and the reputation it has for being expensive, wine can be intimidating – but sommelier Chris Horn, director of liquids for Heavy Restaurant Group in Seattle, thinks it doesn’t have to be.

“People feel pressure to know things about wine,” Horn says. “That’s why the term ‘wine snob’ or ‘wine aficionado’ [exists]. It’s anathema to pleasure, to put wine on a pedestal in a way that makes it so the average person feels intimidated by it. The more you learn about wine, the more you realize that there’s no way to know wine, because every year there’s another half-million wines made and you can’t drink them all.”

Whether you’re new to drinking wine or are a wine enthusiast hoping to broaden your palate, check out Horn’s tips for cultivating a better wine experience.

How to Drink Wine (and Enjoy It)

Find a local wine bar. “They’re built to have a variety of things for people to enjoy. Most of them have a staff that is well-versed in what they’re offering and can help guide people through the experience of wine.”

Talk to the professionals. “Good wine professionals learn how to get people the wine that they want to drink. Take advice from the people running that restaurant or wine bar. You’ll find out one of two things: Either they heard you and they got you what you wanted, or they didn’t hear you and they did a lousy job of getting you what you wanted. The next time you’re going out, that informs whether you go to that place or not.”

Compare apples and oranges. “When people are tasting wine, [I hope] they are using the only metaphor we have, which is fruit flavor, to describe what they like or don’t want. It is difficult because the language in wine is mostly metaphor and there are very few technical things we can all agree on. I think if someone is really trying to see what they like, [they should use] the language of fruits to describe wines because there are a lot of other technical terms out there that are maybe not as clear.”

Chris Horn Wine Tips

Be open-minded.“We want to feel like we know what we’re talking about and the fastest way to get there is to be negative about stuff. It creates this narrow-mindedness about wine and the experience of wine and I find it pretty damaging. People will say they hate Malbec, but they’ve only had one, and there are thousands and thousands of Malbecs in the world.”

Bring your friends. “If you’re going to restaurants or wine bars, go with really positive people that you like, not people you’re trying to impress or coworkers that you might not be super familiar with. Context has a lot to do with how we perceive wine and flavor. I think that most of my favorite wine moments didn’t come from the fanciest restaurant or the most expensive bottle; it was the people I was with and the time we had. So I say if you want to enjoy wine, make sure you’re enjoying it with the right people.”

Stick to your budget. “Sometimes, when you either are impulsively drawn to a thing or you get talked into a thing and it’s outside of your economic comfort zone, you don’t enjoy it as much because you expected more.”

Drink with the seasons. “I don’t drink gin and tonics in December. I don’t drink hot toddies in July. There’s a time and place for a lot of different wines – I think in the summertime, drinking a big, oaky glass of Chardonnay on the back porch feels like I’m having a lovely tropical cocktail, but I might not have that wine with a lot of different foods.”

Let your white wine warm up. “Unless you’re sitting on a deck and it’s 90 degrees, don’t ask for an ice bucket with your white wine because as it warms up, it will change and develop some more. Drink your white wines warmer because you get more flavor at 62 degrees than you do at 32 degrees.”

Order your food first. “When I’m dining out, I choose my food before I choose my wine. If you are spending all this time looking at a wine list, and you get a Cabernet, but then you order ceviche, that wine’s going to taste terrible.”

Food & Wine Pairings

Horn knows a few things about pairing food and wine – he co-authored a book about it, Cook + Cork, with longtime Heavy Restaurant Group colleague Chef Harry Mills – but he understands why some people are hesitant to buy into it.

“[Consumers are] messaged food and wine pairings from the back of a bottle, or from a sommelier who talked you into a bottle of wine you didn’t really want, or it’s the PA system at the grocery store saying that this wine goes with every occasion – and it most certainly does not go with every occasion,” Horn says. “A lot of people distrust food and wine pairings because it does just seem like another marketing tool for wineries, but [pairing the right wine with your food is] like eating chocolate cake and having 2 percent milk. You couldn’t imagine having a glass of orange juice with chocolate cake: It’s terrible! It’s the same with having ceviche with Cabernet, but having ceviche with Muscadet or Sauvignon Blanc is great.”

Horn enjoys having salmon with Pinot Noir and barbecued ribs with a California Zinfandel, though one of his favorite pairings is drinking champagne or a dry white wine like Chablis or Muscadet out of oyster shells.

Cook and Cork Wine Pairings

The next time you want to pair wine with your meal, keep these guidelines in mind.

Pair acidic food with acidic wine. “If you have a dish that’s high in acid, say tomato-based, you want your wine to be equally acidic or more so. If it’s less, the wine is going to end up tasting bitter and sour.” For example, Chianti, an acidic Italian wine, is a classic pairing for pastas with red sauce.

Pair salty food with sweet wine. “If you have a dish that is really salty, sweet wines love salt. They get along famously. It doesn’t have to be a sweet, dessert-style wine. I’m talking about a Kabinett Riesling or a demi-sec Vouvray, or even an extra-dry Prosecco that has just a few grams per liter of residual sugar to help get along with that salt.”

Pair spicy food with sweet wine. “I worked in an Asian restaurant for 6 years of my life, and I drank a lot of Riesling. When you have spicy food and a sweet wine, there’s this dynamic [where] heat happens, and then the fireman comes along and puts out the heat. It’s just so fun to eat spicy foods with a German Kabinett.”

Pair light wines with light food. “One of the analogies we sometimes use is that you don’t wear a winter coat to the beach. If you have pan-seared Halibut with an avocado emulsion, there are some light flavors there. Throwing a big, fat red wine at that is going to be terrible; even big, fat white wines might not go with more delicate dishes.”

Pair food and wine from the same region. “There’s this ‘if it grows together, it goes together’ magic in the world of food and wine. If you’re eating a Sicilian dish, and you’re drinking a Sicilian wine, sometimes it’s all you have to do. If you’re eating chevre [goat cheese] from the Loire Valley, and you’re drinking Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley, it’s magical.”

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in English. Passionate about Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, and all things geeky, she spends her free time playing tabletop and video games, collecting beer caps from craft breweries around the country, and celebrating the Cubs' 2016 World Series win. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.

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