Ryan Baldwin, the sommelier at Margeaux Brasserie inside the Waldorf Astoria Chicago, knows just about everything when it comes to French wine.

But he is far from snobby about the subject—he believes that it doesn’t really matter what you drink, as long as you love it. We caught up with Baldwin to get some tips on choosing a French wine, learn more about why terroir is so important, and find out what vin he loves to pair with mac and cheese.

Ryan Baldwin portrait in blue suit

Ryan Baldwin

Talk to us about your interest in French wine and French art. Any similarities between the two?

Drawing similarities between a broad topic like “French art” and French wine is challenging. When I think of French artists, I’m immediately drawn to the classic impressionists (Monet, Cézanne, Degas, etc.) of the mid- to late-1800s, whose paintings displayed experiences and emotions over accurate depictions of the subject matter. Wine can do something similar. A glass of wine can display what the French call “terroir,” which means all the characteristics imparted to a wine by the place it’s produced. You can travel through a bottle of wine to a vineyard on a hillside and imagine what it’s like there, without having to actually be there. This is a reason the French do not label their bottles with grape varieties (with some exceptions) —the place is more important than the grape. Chardonnay from Chassagne-Montrachet tastes like Chassagne-Montrachet—it couldn’t be anything else. A glass of wine can transport you there.

Ryan Baldwin Smelling

Ryan Baldwin Smelling

Give us 3–5 tips on how to choose French wine when dining out.

I would encourage anyone who is less than confident with French wine to be curious and ask questions of the sommelier or wine professional on staff—they are there to help. Here are a few questions that I ask guests at Margeaux Brasserie:

  1. What’s your ideal price point? You don’t have to spend a lot of money to drink a great wine. Some people think that sommeliers are only interested in selling big-ticket items and don’t have the guests’ best interests at heart, which isn’t true. I’m just as content selling you a bottle of $60 wine as a bottle of $350 wine, as long as it makes you happy.
  2. What’s your style?Big red wine, lean white wine, smoky and peppery, or rustic and earthy? For me, this is a great way to guide a guest to the appropriate regions.
  3. What do you typically drink at home?If you only drink Napa Cab, Bordeaux may not pack enough punch for you. Sure, they grow Cabernet in Bordeaux, but even in ripe vintages, it won’t have the same structure as your Oakville fruit.
  4. Are you looking for an appropriate pairing, or simply something you would love to drink?I find that the general rules of pairing can be superseded by your preferences. If you hate Sauvignon Blanc, there is no dish in the world that will make you enjoy that wine. The pairing rules are then thrown out the window. Drink what you like!

Tell us something that might surprise us about Margeaux Brasserie’s current wine list.

Margeaux Brasserie’s wine list is 60 pages long, and is deep in almost every major wine-growing region of the world. Most guests are surprised to see that we have a strong list of Italian, Spanish, and American producers, as well as French. We also have some incredible vintage depth. We have wine from every decade going back to the 1930s, so guests can actually consume wine that was bottled during Prohibition!

Ryan Baldwin

Ryan Baldwin

What are some of your favorite (and perhaps most unusual) food pairings with French wines?

Depending on the wine, of course, but some unusual pairings that I love are macaroni and cheese with Chablis, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a glass of off-dry vouvray, or Beaujolais and breakfast sausage (patties, not links) – try it.

When you’re not drinking wine, what’s your go-to drink?

Beer! I prefer something lager-based, usually uncomplicated. If I need to ramp it up a bit, I’d prefer a pale ale over an IPA. If cocktails are to be had, my go-to spirit is gin. CH Distillery in Chicago makes a gin called “Finn’s Gin” that is top-notch.