AS WITH ANYTHING in life, no one likes to hear they’re doing it all wrong. It’s worse when it feels as if there’s conflicting information out there, making it even more difficult to decide the “right” way of doing things. This hits us constantly in the food world — there are opinions on the “right” way to utilize soy and wasabi with sushi, basil and sprouts in a bowl of pho, and even whether one should twirl or (gasp) cut fettuccine.

Ask anyone, and you’ll hear all sorts of “rules” for wine. Some are familiar: Red goes with red meat; white goes with fish. But you’re just as likely to hear that white goes with anything, and putting an ice cube in a glass of red wine is no longer something to be laughed at.

If you ask Eli Dahlin and Ezra Wicks, co-owners of the Capitol Hill restaurant Light Sleeper, there’s only one thing we’re doing wrong when it comes to wine, and it’s treating varietals like brands.

Wicks says it’s a mentality where people default to saying things like, “I drink pinot noir,” as if every bottle of pinot noir is the same across the board.

“I mean, a chardonnay that’s made into an orange wine is not going to be the chardonnay that your grandma drinks,” Dahlin adds.  


The two work together to coach people away from that brand mentality. Their restaurant — where Dahlin is the chef, and Wicks handles the wine side of things — focuses on seasonal ingredients and predominantly natural wine, meaning wine grown with little intervention from pesticides, and few additives. Their menu and wine list are fluid — changing not only with what’s in season for food, but also for what’s in season for wine.

The only “rule” they have when it comes to wine is to drink it.

Seems easy, right? But how does one begin to break out of the brand mentality — especially when lists and bottle shops these days have chardonnays sharing space with txakoli, an effervescent white wine from Spain?

They’ve got an answer for that, too.

“People are always saying, ‘Trust your butcher; trust your fishmonger,’ as if anybody has a fishmonger anymore. What they’re trying to say is, ‘Trust the experts. Trust the people who are tasting the wine,’ ” Dahlin says.

This starts with trusting yourself. The next time you pop open a bottle of your favorite wine, take a moment to think about why you like that wine. And don’t worry about your wine vocabulary — there’s no need to describe things in depth. Rather, is it light or full-bodied? Does it taste fruity or dry? Anything you can identify to describe why you like it — even descriptions such as where the grapes are sourced — will help the next time you’re looking for something you like to drink.

And if you’re a person who drinks with your eyes, that’s cool, too! Dahlin says that finding a label you like is “an inroad into talking about what’s actually in that bottle.” You might find something you like, or find out more about what you don’t like.


Also, think about any preconceived notions you might have about wine, revisiting some of those old “rules.” Maybe you’ve heard natural wine is too funky or too wild, definitely not something you’d be into? Again, trust the experts.

“There are some absolutely pristine examples of classic wine that just happen to be natural,” Wicks says.

Lastly, forget the rule that certain wines pair with certain foods.

“Stop worrying about what food goes with what wine. Start drinking new wine and try things out; soon you’ll be an expert,” Dahlin says.

Start making your own rules. Try contrasting flavors — like steak with Champagne or a rich cassoulet with a minerally white — or drink something just because you like it.  

Wicks says as the weather turns colder, he’s excited for ice-cold muscadet with ice-cold shellfish — even better if he’s in a cozy coat and there’s a drizzly rain outside. “That’s kind of my thing. It’s kind of counterintuitive,” he says with a laugh.


Dahlin is looking forward to pairing wild wines with wild flavors, like a miso-glazed roast chicken with a natural wine from producer Escoda-Sanahuja.

“We make the miso every fall from all the seeds and innards of the pumpkins we use at the restaurant and let it age for a year. It has this incredible ‘aliveness’ that pairs beautifully with wild-tasting wines like Escoda,” Dahlin says.

Whatever the wine or whatever the food, remember: Just drink it.