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Caroline Styne wants to help you love wine

Watch & Listen
Caroline Styne with a glass of wine

Caroline Styne understands how you might feel about her job. The James Beard Award-winning sommelier – that’s restaurant speak for “the person in charge of the wines,” a job that’s far more complicated than it might sound – of the Lucques Group knows how scary the world of wine can look from the outside. “Wine is stupidly intimidating, and sometimes wine professionals keep that going – unnecessarily,” she says. “I’m always about bringing it down to a normal level.”

Down here at that “normal level,” Caroline’s work is much easier to understand. In the same way that peanut butter goes with jelly and hot dogs go with mustard, the flavor, texture, and even smell of certain wines make them a perfect fit for specific meals – or a terrible fit for other meals. In her capacity as the sommelier for Hollywood Bowl Food + Wine, Caroline doesn’t just take the delicious grilled meats and veggies created by chef Suzanne Goin into account. She’s also thinking about how a wine interacts with the weather, with the surroundings, and with the feeling of being together with friends.

While we all miss being at the Bowl, Caroline and Suzanne’s Hollywood Bowl Supper to Go program is bringing a bit of the experience to backyards all over Los Angeles. And that means it’s a great time to learn how to put together a wine program of your own. But where do you start? And how do you know if you’re doing it right? We asked the expert to find out.

When you’re preparing wine pairings for a particular meal, you’re sitting down with the menu, what is your number-one priority? 

If you’re pairing food and wine and you’re unsure what to do, a good rule of thumb is: What kind of food are you making, and what is the region it’s from? If you’re cooking something that’s Northern Italian in origin, go for Northern Italian wines. Especially in Europe, regional cooking is meant to be consumed with regional wine. Let’s say you’re in the Loire Valley and goat cheese is being produced because there are goats there. Well, the grapes that are grown in that region are from the same soil that produces the grass the goats are consuming. Those wines are going to work really well with that, because they inherently have those same elements in the flavors.

If you’re pairing food and wine and you’re unsure what to do, a good rule of thumb is: What kind of food are you making, and what is the region it’s from?

A few wine offerings from Hollywood Bowl Supper to Go's "Ultimate Wine Package."

What’s the strangest or most unexpected pairing you’ve ever done or encountered?

It was a while ago, at Spago, when Michael Bonaccorsi was the wine director there, so this was a long time ago. We were having a chestnut soup, and he paired it with Madeira. I remember thinking at the time, “Whoa, madeira in the middle of the meal, that’s so weird.” Madeira is normally consumed as a dessert wine. It’s very nutty and concentrated, and slightly sweet. And then I tasted it, and it was genius, because it worked together. It was a tasting menu, so we were going through a lot of wines, and it created an interesting moment in the meal — you didn’t have to go straight into a heavy red. It was an interesting transition...

Let’s do some pairings. What would you pair with a nice homemade loaf of quarantine sourdough bread?

The beauty of sourdough bread is that, if you smell it, it smells like the earth. I would want a white wine that has some tartness, some little sour-y, wine-y notes to it and that tastes like the earth. When I think of that, I think of chenin blanc. Chenin blanc is grown in the Loire Valley — and also around the world now, but it’s really known for the Loire Valley — and it’s a very mineral-rich wine. That salty, saltlick quality. I would go with a chenin blanc to work with the sour tartness of the bread and also reflect the earthy mineral note in that bread. That wine has the smell of the soil.

What about with a nice grilled steak with chimichurri?

I find that people like to drink really, really full-bodied reds like cabernet with steak. But if you think about grilled steak, that meat has kind of a brightness to it. Braised beef gets that dark, caramelized rich quality, but a grilled steak actually is kind of bright and savory. So I always think about Malbec as an alternative. These wines can range from really bright to darker and rich, but they have a tobacco quality that works really well with grilled meat. Also, chimichurri is an Argentine condiment, which makes Malbec just make sense.

Obviously everybody has been eating a lot of comfort food lately.

(laughs) We’re calling it the Covid Nineteen in our house.

So if you’re just at home, watching a dumb movie, eating a frozen pizza, and you want a glass of wine to go with it, what would you go with?

For pizza, I tend to literally stay regional, and I would drink a tuscan wine with that, any sort of Italian wine that’s made with sangiovese, even has a little cab mixed in for some body. Those wines work so  well with that oregano-y, tomato-y quality in pizza. A chianti would be perfect, too; old-school chianti and pizza is ideal for me.

We all know that mimosas work well in the morning, but is there a non-sparkling wine that you’d recommend for breakfast? 

You have two schools of thought: Are you the sweet breakfast, or are you the savory breakfast? Either way you could go with a riesling. Riesling is such a versatile variety, and I think a lot of people get very stuck on the idea of it being sweet. But riesling actually can be very mineral-oriented, very bright and lean, and very thirst-quenching. They’re very complex, and one of the most versatile wines that you can find to work with a lot of food. Plus it’s very low in alcohol, so you wouldn’t necessarily get overwhelmed with the alcohol in it. It would work with any kind of eggy omelet with vegetables in it or, you know, Raisin Bran.

If I were to get some fried chicken from Supper to Go and run by Trader Joe’s to get a bottle of wine to go with it, what should I be looking for? 

It’s kind of hard to mess up sauvignon blanc. They tend to be bright and fruity with notes of grapefruit and passionfruit, and tropical green apple and tropical pineapple-y notes, so I feel like they tend to be great high-acid-balanced wines and have enough flavor and body to work with the other flavorful things you’re going to be eating with that chicken — watermelon and feta salad, corn salad, corn on the cob. Sauvignon blanc is the perfect connector for all of those.

Hollywood Bowl Supper to Go logo
Spanish Fried Chicken offered on the menu of Supper to Go
Spanish Fried Chicken offered on the Supper to Go menu

What about with a vegetable dish? I’m thinking about the vegetarian tagine you serve at the Bowl. 

So many times, when things are vegetarian, it’s very easy to go white. But there are two options here. You could go with a really great medium-bodied red; a cabernet franc would work really well with all those vegetables and the moroccan seasoning. Also: rosé. That whole meal feels very summer rosé – but a more full-bodied rosé. Of course, rosé comes in a whole wide range of qualities, too. Some are very bright and light and fresh and great cocktail wines, and some are much more complex and dark. I’d go with a more complex, fruitier, darker rosé.

What advice do you have for someone who’s just beginning to learn about this stuff – how can a wine novice take the next step? 

In quarantine, there’s a fun little project you can do. A lot of wine tasting and getting to know your palette is all about your nose. Go through the produce aisle, buy a bunch of different fruits. Cut them open, put them in glasses, and smell them, and start to exercise your nasal powers. Think about what you’re smelling when you smell those things. When you’re smelling a grapefruit, what does it smell like, what does it make you think of? Half of understanding wine is understanding what you smell.

In quarantine, there’s a fun little project you can do... Go through the produce aisle, buy a bunch of different fruits. Cut them open, put them in glasses, and smell them, and start to exercise your nasal powers.

And go to your local wine shop and get to know the person who runs it. It’s like how if you’re into books and you have a relationship with the people in the bookshop, they know what kind of books you like and can make recommendations. Talking to your local wineseller and telling them about yourself and letting them suggest wines to you. You can start out inexpensively. Ask yourself, did you like it? Did it go well with what you were eating? Would you want more of that? What would you like that’s different? And then going back to that person and talking to them, because they’re the ones who know the wines that are in there better than anybody. It’s almost like you have your own personal wine consultant. And when you’re in a restaurant, don’t be afraid to ask the somm for help. That’s what they’re there for! I’ll go to a restaurant and be too afraid to talk to the somm, because it seems intimidating and they’ll think I’m an idiot who doesn’t know anything about wine. But you know what? 98% of people don’t know about wine — that’s why you go to a professional. So don’t be afraid to ask for that, because they’ll also probably bring you tastes of things and you can really hone in on what you like. It’s hard to verbalize sometimes what you like when you don’t know what you’re talking about  — or don’t think you know what you’re talking about — but you know more about yourself than you think.

Hollywood Bowl Supper to Go is available for contactless, curbside pickup every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Order online today: hollywoodbowl.com/togo