Fran Gitsham is used to answering questions about wine at the Orange County Fair, but there's one query from thirsty fairgoers she hears most often.
Her answer is always the same.
"What's the best wine?" Gitsham, an Orange County Wine Society board member, asked with a coy smile. "It's the wine you like best."
Standing in front of a bin full of dozens of varietals — from rosé to zinfandels — OC Wine Society members' goal is to help fair visitors — connoisseurs and novices alike — find their nose for vino.
Some wines are more popular than others for fairgoers seeking refuge from the summer sun inside The Courtyard, which is managed by wine society board members during the fair. Many escape to the covered patio area to sip a crisp, chilled pino grigio, riesling or sparkling wine. Others seek out award-winning wines from the year's commercial wine competition.
But what about those who want to know what wine to pair with the unconventional culinary creations they find at the fair?
Sara Yeoman and other wine society members considered that question last summer as they were contemplating what to eat for lunch.
"We started to put together a list of fair foods we all like and what wine we'd want to drink with them," she said. "It just grew from there."
On Saturday, Yeoman and fellow wine society member Ed Reyes will host the first of two seminars on how to pair wine with food found at the fair. The second seminar will be held Aug. 5.
"A lot of the food you can get at the fair, like beef brisket and barbecue, are things you make at home anyway," Yeoman said. "We'd like to educate people about selecting wines and pairing them with dishes they make the rest of the year."
Peter Neptune, a master sommelier and president of Neptune School of Wine in Costa Mesa, has a few tips for selecting a varietal to complement even the most unorthodox fair food.
The first rule of thumb: Match the sweetness level in the food to the sweetness of the wine.
"If you have a deep-fried Twinkie or Oreo, you generally want to match it with a wine that has the same level of sugar or more," he said. "Fried foods generally go well with wines that have high acidity. It helps cut through the fat."
A pino grigio would pair well with a dish like fried calamari. For sweet fried desserts, Neptune recommends a German riesling, which boasts a sweeter flavor.
For a deep-fried dessert with chocolate, it's time to grab a port, a sweet fortified wine that is typically higher in alcohol content than most other varietals. A ruby port typically has a dense, jam-like berry flavor, while a tawny-colored port has more notes of caramel and nut, according to Neptune.
For the cautious wine drinker, Neptune suggests a dry rosé. The light, crisp flavor is perfect for a hot summer day and matches well with a variety of foods, he said.
"Dry rosés have really taken America by storm," Neptune said. "They're extremely versatile with food. You almost can't go wrong with one."
Giant turkey or pork legs wrapped in bacon, which Neptune affectionately calls "cave-man food," pair well with a full-bodied red wine such as an Australian shiraz, an Argentine malbec or a California blend, he said.
Those wines, he said, have a lot of spice and flavor that can stand up to the boldness of barbecued meat.
"The world of wine is like a world of languages," Neptune said. "Don't be afraid to learn, ask questions or try something new."
For those who prefer a refreshing brew to a fine vintage, stands at the Orange County Fair offer a selection of more than 100 beers. With so many options for suds, it can be overwhelming for customers to select just one.
Cassandra Cornell, who spends her days pouring craft brews at the Plaza Stage, is constantly studying her product.
Customers shelling out $9.50 for a small craft beer and $12 for a large expect her to know her IPAs from her stouts.
But she admits she's tried only a handful of the fair's robust offerings. So she assigns herself homework.
She takes notes about a beer's alcohol by volume and its IBU — international bitterness unit, which gauges a beer's bitterness — and relays that information to customers.
"We ask them what type of beer they typically drink, what they like about it and then we make a recommendation based on that," Cornell said.
But what brew would someone drink with a deep-fried Twinkie or a gigantic barbecued pork leg?
The Brewers Assn., a not-for-profit trade group for brewers and beer enthusiasts, recommends matching the strength of a beer with the robustness of the food and finding harmonies in their flavors. Food with strong flavors demand an assertive beer, while delicate dishes work best with less-aggressive styles.
"Combinations often work best when they share some common flavor or aroma elements," the association wrote in a guide posted on its website.
Fried foods, which are most commonly consumed at the fair, may pair well with pale ales or India pale ales, which have a strong hop profile. Hops give beer its bitter flavor, which can cut through the richness of food.
For those whose taste buds cower at the thought of an IPA, Neptune suggests going with a crisp lager, like a pilsner.
Red ales typically have a more aggressive, malty flavor that can stand up to a variety of food, from spicy cuisine to a typical burger.
Dark-beer aficionados, who prefer the full body and bold flavors of porters, brown ales and stouts, would find a good match with barbecued meat or sausages, Neptune said. Those beers also typically pair well with decadent chocolate desserts.
But at the end of a long day at the fair, the best beverage is one that can be enjoyed in the shade with good company, fairgoers say.
On a recent visit, friends Cathy Meschuk and Cathy Ruiz, both of Huntington Beach, sipped glasses of pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon while sharing a batch of mini doughnuts dusted with cinnamon sugar in The Courtyard.
"If it's crowded, you can share a table and get to know other people," Ruiz said. "This is our favorite spot at the fair."
IF YOU GO
What: Fair Food & Wine Pairing seminars
When: 3 p.m. Saturday and Aug. 5
Where: The Courtyard, Orange County Fair, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa
To sign up: Visit The Courtyard from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. or call (714) 708-1639.