Q&A with Judy Ciesla: Chicagoan shares the Michigan wine love

Judy Ciesla shares food and wine pairing advice on behalf of Cogdal Vineyards. (Photo courtesy of Judy Ciesla)

Judy Ciesla is a Level 1 sommelier and certified wine steward working as a tasting room associate at Cogdal Vineyards, Home of Little Man Winery, in South Haven. She recently launched a “Judy’s Corner” column in the winery’s enewsletter where she’ll highlight different ways to pair wine with food. Here, she shares her philosophy and favorites.

Personal: I consider myself an independent tri-stater. I primarily live in the South Loop of Chicago (Go Cubs!) and work full time as a project manager for a hospital system in Northwest Indiana. However, I spend most weekends during the season at my cottage in Douglas, Mich., and work part time for Jack Murdoch at Cogdal Vineyards.

Wine background: When I took a trip to Italy for two weeks with my girlfriends, I fell in love with all things about their wine and food. I came to appreciate how their culture is centered around family gatherings with homemade meals paired with local wines. When I returned home, I immediately signed up to take a wine class and then started traveling the world, sampling local food dishes and pairing with their wines.

I spent several years studying wine in Chicago and achieved a few certifications. During this time, I took advantage of living in a city with such an amazing food scene and ventured out to various restaurants to understand how they paired their food with wine. Shortly after, I worked for a WineStyles in Evanston, Ill., pouring and describing wines with food pairings for our customers. I also started conducting my own in-home wine and food pairing events, where I created a formal presentation from scratch and did a lot of wine and food pairing practicing to help me advance my palate. However, there was always a part of me that wanted to be by the vines, and since I love Michigan wine country, I was inspired to make a move there and work at a winery.

Approach to food and wine pairings: When I explain wine and food pairings, I try to make them relative and simple to the casual wine lover, focusing on three main types:

  1. Matching wine and food flavors, such as a red, fruity wine with cherries, strawberries and blueberries (fruity flavors), or a sweet wine with a sweet dessert (sweet flavors).
  2. Matching wine and food intensity/body, such as a heavy, dry red wine that coats your mouth, with an Italian pasta dish such as lasagna (high intensity), or a light, dry white wine with a summer salad (low intensity).
  3. Complementing wine styles and food, such as a floral-smelling white wine with Thai food (both have unique flavors), or a rosé with Mexican food (a light mix of red and white wine flavors with a mix of different food flavors).

Misconceptions about wine and food pairings: I always tell customers and fellow wine lovers that science determines the best pairings. However, they are the only one that can decide what tastes good together. I often get asked questions such as, “Can I have a heavy red wine with my salad or fish dish?” I usually explain why a white wine would make a much better pairing, but if that combination tastes good to them, then go for it!

Describe an unexpectedly good pairing: When I was doing my own wine and food presentations, the pairing that stood out most to the tasters was a dry sparkling wine or champagne with salty food, such as olives or a pub mix of crackers. The salt from those foods softens the acidity in the wine so nicely. But my favorite unique pairing is dry rosé with chips and salsa. Since dry rosé has the acidity of a white wine and the fruit character of a red, it pairs well with this food combination. Even if you kick up the heat in the salsa, since the wine is served chilled and is lower in alcohol, it will still complement this snack very well, especially for the summer!

Any favorites? My favorite is a heavy Cabernet Sauvignon with a juicy filet mignon. The proteins in the filet really soften the heavy tannins in the wine. Although I do not usually drink sweet wines on their own, I would pair a sweet Michigan Riesling with creme brulee any day. When pairing sweet wine with sweet food, always make sure that the wine is sweeter than the food in order to bring out the best flavor.


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