In my job as a sommelier, I’m often asked about how to pair wine with food. With uncountable frequency I’m summoned to a table to hear a version of the question, “My wife is eating so-and-so and I am eating so-and-so. What should we drink?” It seems like a perennial mystery for many.

Before the advent of international wine shipping, I’m sure it was far less of a problem: You simply drank the wine that was readily at hand with the food that was readily at hand and everything was fine. But now, with hundreds of different types of wine at your fingertips, the choice has become more difficult. Not to mention all the books written about why you should pair this wine with that food. Don’t misstep! You’ll ruin your whole evening if you drink a wine that isn’t the surgically precise pairing for your food!

While this is hardly the case, there are useful patterns that, if employed, can help you enjoy your meal and wine more. So rather than telling you which specific wines go well with which specific foods, I’m going to lay out some helpful patterns. But first, a bit about how I understand food and wine pairings.

In my mind, wine and food pairings are like good conversations. A good conversation is enriching to both parties, because both get to add something meaningful to the conversation, and they both get to learn from each other. Good conversations make the participants better than they would’ve been on their own. In contrast, have you ever been in what you assumed would be a dialogue only to find out that the other person assumed it was their monologue? You can rarely sneak a word in and, when you do, you’re usually cut off before you can finish your thought. Most of us don’t enjoy listening to windbags prattle on.

When you get food and wine together on a table, imagine they are in conversation. Say you’ve got a dozen oysters in front of you. Everything about them, from texture to flavor, is delicate. If they were a conversational type, they’d be quiet. Now imagine yourself as the matchmaker that has to pair a conversational partner to these coy little oysters. What are you going to pick? If you’re a thoughtful matchmaker, you’ll choose something that is as delicate and soft-spoken as the oysters so as not to overshadow them. Muscadet and Champagne jump to mind. Australian Shiraz and Barolo do not.

Got it? Now let me lay out a few general suggestions for pairing food and wine.

Food and wine that grew up together are good matches. Know that old expression? What grows together goes together. Regional food and wine are among the best matches. If you’ve decided to make cassoulet but you are stumped as to which wine to pair with it, just look at what the people who invented the dish drink with it and then do so yourself. It makes sense to me that a region wouldn’t produce wines that taste lousy with the food they cook.

Light food likes lighter wine. Heavy food likes heavier wine. When in doubt about what to pair, simply think about the overall lightness or heaviness of your food. For light food, see oyster (above). Conversely, if you’re pulling together the makings of a hearty venison stew, you might not want to pluck that Vinho Verde you’ve been chilling down because you’ll barely be able to taste it next to the stew. Lighter wines are those wines with lower alcohol and brighter flavors, and heavier wines are those wines with higher alcohol and darker flavors.

 The protein on the plate is just one part of a dish. There are other important things to consider, as well. The best pairing for weisswurst with sauerkraut would be very different than the best pairing for BBQ ribs. True, they’re both pork dishes, but that’s where the similarity ends. You’ve got to think about the spices used for each. Is there a sauce, and is it light or heavy, sweet, creamy, spicy or tangy? Has the meat or fish been roasted or grilled? For the weisswurst, I would drink a wine with both sweetness and acidity, a German Riesling, for instance. The weisswurst is savory, salty and fatty, and the sauerkraut is tangy. A sweet, tart Riesling would make a great conversational partner to the salty, fatty elements of the sausage, as well as the tanginess of the sauerkraut. Ribs, on the other hand, are robust, spicy, charred and fatty. I’d look for an equally robust wine with a bit of fruity sweetness to ameliorate the spice and char components, and I’d want it to be medium- to full-bodied so that it could hold its own in the conversation. A well-made Zinfandel (the Ridge, East Bench Zinfandel) would do the trick for me.

 Certain sensations feel better in the mouth than others. We are balance-seeking creatures. I often use wine pairings as an opportunity to bring in elements that the dish itself is not supplying. Are you preparing a hearty piece of fatty, roasted meat? Grab a red wine with ample tannins because tannins and fat complete each others’ sentences. Fat is structureless and tannins cinch things up like a corset; they are great conversational partners. Conversely, tannins and no fat is miserable. A highly tannic wine drunk on its own is not a pleasant experience, either. This is why you won’t see people chugging young Barolo as an aperitif, or as a complement to something as delicate as oysters.

 Sweet and spicy are good friends. If you’re eating an Asian-inspired dish replete with Bird’s eye chilies you might want, unless you’re a masochist, a wine with some sweetness. Sweetness smooths out the rough edges of intense heat.

Once you start to experiment with wine pairings, you may find that it becomes a fun puzzle, not a difficult math problem.

While I do not at all believe each dish has just one correct wine pairing, I do believe that certain wines do not work with certain dishes, think Dover sole with Australian Shiraz. Outside of such extreme outliers, though, a large spectrum of flavor and sensation combinations awaits exploration. Don’t let trying to get it perfect and precise hamstring you. If you’re paying attention, you’ll know when you’ve got it wrong and when you’ve got it right.

Bryan Flewelling is the wine director for Big Tree Hospitality, which owns Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster Co. and The Honey Paw in Portland.