How to Work a Wine List

Wine buyer Lisa Giovanella and some tips on how you can approach a wine list without fear, to make sure your meal is well paired

What do you do when you go to a restaurant or wine bar with a lot of choices you’ve never heard of, some more expensive than what you are comfortable with?

“When I try someplace new, I always ask for recommendations. I don’t go straight for the Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc; I gravitate to the ones I’ve never seen before,” says Lisa Giovanella, who spends her days making wine recommendations as an assistant buyer for the Everything Wine stores, in British Columbia.

She urges people to avail themselves of the expertise of the restaurant’s wine expert, whether it’s a sommelier or a knowledgeable waiter.

“When you’re in a restaurant, trust the person making recommendations,” says Lisa. “If there are only Italian whites you’ve never heard of before, you should be fairly confident that they’ve been chosen for a reason – perhaps they pair well with the food or they are easy to drink by themselves.”

And when you talk to a sommelier, they won’t automatically steer you to the most expensive selections. “They are trained to distinguish people’s price-point comfort levels and tastes, and they’ll make their recommendations based on your needs,” she explains. “Their whole purpose is to find what makes you happy.”

“A good wine list will have lots of hidden gems and options to fit everyone’s budget,” she adds. “So it makes sense to ask for help.”

Most people know that white wine is usually paired with fish and white meat, and red with red meat, but beyond this important consideration is a wine’s weight or heaviness in the mouth—whether it feels light, medium or full. Says Lisa in an Everything Wines blog post. “You want to match the weight or intensity of the dish to the wine.”

A dish with delicate flavours is best paired with a light wine (such as a Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc)—neither the beverage or the meal overwhelms the other.

If you have something spicy—think Cajun or Thai—then a Riesling with its sweetness pairs well.

“If you have a really robust red wine, you want a really robust structured meal to go with it.” Robust reds include many kinds of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Malbec and Shiraz, which hold their own when paired with steak, roast beef, venison and ribs.

And which wine does Lisa feel is the most versatile? “Sparkling wine,” she says without hesitation. “It goes with breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Sidebar: Where to Do Wine in Toronto

Toronto has a lot of great wine bars and clubs worth exploring by both aspiring and veteran oenophiles.

It’s worth sampling the iYellow Wine Club run by Angela Aiello (say her last name aloud to get the connection). Led by “Super Wine Girl” Aiello, the all-woman organization team has for 10 years offered free and VIP memberships for wine school classes, exclusive tastings, dinner parties and winemaker visits.

The snug and comfortable Archive (909 Dundas Street West) invites you to come as you are and makes it onto many “best of “ lists. Modelled after Venetian wine bars, where workers stop by for a glass of wine and a snack before dinner, Archive strives to capture the same vibe, with a chalkboard listing of favourite staff pairings and small dishes such as Venison Carpaccio and Spring Pea Tartine.

Part wine bar, part restaurant Grey Gardens (199 Augusta Avenue) has a discreet, bohemian address in Kensington Market, the site of a former scooter store. It offers a well-curated selection of red, white, rose, orange and sparkling wines, often sorted into descriptive categories such as “delicate, lifted, ethereal” or “herbal, spicy, complex.” Good ciders and sakes are also available.

Sotto Sotto Ristorante (120 Avenue Road) is a long-time Toronto favourite restaurant, whose Italian focus is also found in its wine list, with super Tuscans and few frizzy Franciacortas. If you are prepared to spend $100 a bottle or more, you will have lots of selection. You can also do some celebrity spotting as you dine on a seafood risotto that is to- die- for.

And if you like yoga and wine, enjoy them both at the Spirit Yoga Studio, Wine Lounge and Apparel Store (376 Old Kingston Road, Scarborough). Says the studio site: “Our unique combination of Yoga & Wine . . . is our wink and nod to the yin and yang of life; to the well and the wicked; to the beauty and authenticity of imperfection that is, in fact, perfect. Our vision is to be recognized as a joyful gathering place that nurtures self-acceptance and balance.”


Lisa Giovanella, Vancouver, BC, Buyer, Everything Wine