Meet Caroline Styne, co-owner and wine director at the Los Angeles restaurants Lucques, A.O.C., Tavern and The Larder at Maple Drive. Caroline works with Chef Suzanne Goin and her team to create superb wine lists that pair beautifully with seasonal menus. Here, we ask her how she found her way into a wine career, some of her favorite wine and food pairings, and what to look for in a bottle.
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you become involved in wine?
When I was managing a restaurant here in Los Angeles, the General Manager/Wine Buyer was really generous with his time and allowed me to sit in on wine tastings with him. I had an immediate affinity for it, as I had a keen nose and was able to draw out so clearly the aromas and flavors in each of the wines we tasted. He eventually let me select a few of the wines for the list and my passion grew. So when Suzanne Goin and I opened our first restaurant Lucques, I took on the task of the list and just went for it.
How would you describe the wine lists at Lucques, AOC and the Larder restaurants? How do they differ? Is there a particular point of view that you are going for with each list?
Each list starts off with the intent of highlighting small-production, artisanal wineries. Lucques’ list is probably the most traditional, focusing on really great examples of wines from the most respected winemakers appellations in the world. For AOC, I try to feature a more of an eclectic selection of wines, focusing on unusual regions, grape varieties and up-and-coming winemakers. As AOC is known as a wine bar, we feature a larger number of wines by the glass than the other restaurants. And for the Larder, I focus the list mainly on domestic producers who make affordable, hand-crafted wines. I am presently transitioning all of the lists to feature wineries that farm sustainably, organically or biodynamically.
What is your approach to putting together wine lists for your restaurants?
Putting together a new list is really hard. I try to give myself parameters to work within, so that I have guidelines to follow and to keep my wine shopaholic tendencies in check. Based on each list’s focus, I usually break the list down into regions, and then appellations and map it out in a way that has variety and balance. I make sure that I represent all of the grape varieties possible and choose wines that appeal, not only to my palate, but also to our clientele. Each list has its own personality, so I try to keep that in mind as I make my selections.
Tell us about some of your favorite wine pairings with food.
Some of my favorite pairing opportunities come from pairing wine with cheese. Something magical happens on the palate when the right wine and cheese are put together. The wine becomes brighter, the cheese becomes deeper in flavor and the combination elevates both parts to new heights.
I truly find that when food and wine meet in the right combination on the palate, flavors come to life in all new ways. The harsh becomes mellowed, the delicate becomes intense, the sweet becomes savory. The whole thing becomes more interesting. The hard part comes in figuring out exactly what that right combination actually is.
The beauty is that the wine world today is so diverse that there are no hard and fast rules. I’ve actually found that my most successful strategies with wine pairing have come from my desire to “marry” the food and wine, to opt for wines that reflect the flavors and textures of the food and thereby create balance and synergy on the palate. There are definitely times for contrast, as with the need to pair high acid wines with rich, fatty foods, but more often than not, the best option, in my opinion, is to pair like with like.
Is there a particular style or varietal that you find yourself wanting to drink again and again?
Though it may not seem fashionable, I have to say that I really love white wine and most often find myself drinking white more than red. I’m drawn to high-acid, mineral driven white wines. I particularly love white from Burgundy like Meursault, Chablis and Puligny-Montrachet, that are classic, elegant and refined. I also love fun, unusual wines like Pigato from Liguria and Patrimonio from Corsica. They are delicious, food- friendly and really transport you to their coastal locations the minute you touch your lips to the glass.
Wine can be intimidating to many people—how do you suggest novices go about learning more about wine?
I think a lot can be achieved by getting to know the people who work in your local wine shops and restaurants. These are the people who get paid to taste wine, and have a great deal of knowledge that they are anxious to share with others. Ask these people for recommendations. And try to learn the correct words to describe your likes and dislikes. For example, many people say that they want an “oaky” white, not because they actually want that, but because it “sounds” right. Possibly, they just want a wine that is rich, full-bodied or weighty, rather than oaked. Also, don’t be afraid to explore different regions and try different things. People don’t have to spend a lot of money in order to have good wine. They just have to be willing to take a chance.
What should people look for when buying a bottle of wine?
I think it’s important to have an idea of what kind of you want and how much money you want to spend. Looking at shelves full of wine in a wine shop can be intimidating, and can often result in overspending. So I say, go armed with information, your list of preferences in terms of flavors and styles, and be willing to talk to the people who work at the store to help you make your selections. There will always be something in your price range that will fit the bill.
Do you have any favorite wine blogs? Who are your favorite wine writers?
Funny enough, I actually don’t read many wine blogs, but I do write one! It’s called Styne on Wine, and is light-hearted, fun and informative.
What are your favorite wines for entertaining?
You can never wrong with champagne or rosé. I think both say, “Party!” and can take you from appetizers to dessert.
Any tips for serving and storing?
One of the most important tips I can think of is serving red wines slightly chilled. The ideal temperature for serving red wine is at cellar temperature of 55 degrees, so oftentimes I let my red wine bottles sit in the refrigerator for an hour or two before serving. This makes a big difference and really allows the wine to sing.