Wine for the Masses: A few tips to ease choosing (and buying)
You’ve picked the date, you’ve invited your guests and you’ve selected your food. Now the tiny beads of sweat start slowly trickling down your forehead as you vacillate back and forth on that final element of your celebration, the one that can make even the savviest of entertainers doubt their party-throwing capabilities: the wine selection.
I talk with a lot of people about wine. It is safe to say I do that every day. As a known wine educator and writer, people love to chat with me regarding my recommendations and latest reviews. During these interactions, what I hear time and time again is that most everyone is quite intimidated by wine. Just standing in the wine aisle at the grocery store is overwhelming for most. Whether I’m conversing with a manicurist, lawyer, grandpa or grad student, the same words are spoken, “Which wine should I buy” and “I don’t want to spend a lot of money.”
Somewhere around the ninth century BCE, Homer said it well when he opined that “The wine urges me on, the bewitching wine, which sets even a wise man to singing and to laughing gently, and rouses him up to dance.” Seriously, when a beverage has the power to do all of that, it should be a part of any significant event you may be planning.
But for many, it is a daunting task to make a “just right” selection when there are thousands of wines from which to choose. When choosing, some important factors to keep in mind are:
• Time of day of the event
• Time of year of the event
When money is no object, there is rarely any difficulty in selecting a delicious high-end wine. Since most events include sparkling, white and red wines, you can certainly make people happy with a $35 bottle of Veuve Cliquot Champagne, a $50 bottle of Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon or a fancy Napa Chardonnay you picked up on your last tasting trip. Personally, I like to save those bottles for intimate gatherings of a few friends. But when it’s time to serve a large group, the key is to find a wine that pleases the most palates, for the least amount of money.
The best buys are often found at major retail grocery or wine stores, particularly those that offer volume discounts. Always keep your eyes open for sales so you’ll get a sense of realistic bargains. Sparkling wine, for example, typically goes on sale between Halloween and New Year’s Eve; that is a great time to buy in bulk. The sparkling producer I like to rely on for big parties is Mumm Napa Valley. Their lower price point Brut Prestige (dry) and Cuvée M (slightly sweet) retail for around $22, but on sale, you can often find them for $17, and then if they are combined with a quantity discount, you can often get down close to $15. That is an excellent price for these tasty wines made in the traditional French champenoise method.
Since wine selections for a crowd need to please many palates, this is not the time to get experimental with obscure varietals like Picpoul Blanc or Priorat. The goal should be wines that simply taste good by the glass; skip the stress of worrying about perfect wine/food pairings. Stick with easy drinking, popular varietals like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. Two other good options are red blends from well-regarded appellations, as they are typically more affordable than single varietal wines from the same region, and dry rosé, which has a way of magically keeping both red and white wine drinkers happy.
A couple of widely available and reasonably priced (under $20) winners are Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc; Francis Coppola, Black Diamond Claret; Acrobat, Oregon Pinot Noir; and Talbott, Kali Hart Vineyard Chardonnay. These wines all have a high quality-to-price ratio, and are often found on sale.
If you are a locavore, here are some regional wines I think are worth your consideration. Terra d’Oro, Chenin Blanc/Viognier blend and Sobon Estate, ReZerve Rosé are just two of the many delicious wines produced in Amador County. Each has done well in local wine competitions, as has a red I’ve recently come to enjoy, the smooth and complex Sierra Starr Cabernet Franc, which hails from farther north up Highway 49 in Grass Valley. A couple of other reds perfect for large gatherings are Bogle Reserve Syrah and Bogle Essential Red. This Clarksburg winery continues to know the recipe for palate-pleasing, always-affordable wines.
Once you have a fairly good idea of which wines you will buy, identify the quantity of wine you need. There are numerous formulae out there to determine how much total wine you will need. I like the straightforward “Drink Calculator” on the BevMo website. It allows you to pop in the variables of number of guests, length of event and other beverages served. If you want a simple rule of thumb, a standard 750ml bottle of wine will yield approximately five glasses. When it comes to champagne or sparkling, if you are filling the glass ¾ full, you’ll get about six glasses per bottle.
Be sure to consider time of day and time of year in order to break down into specific sparkling, white and red numbers. It is fairly common that at daytime and warm-weather events, more sparkling and white wines are consumed. The inverse is true as well. Evening, fall and winter celebrations typically witness a greater consumption of red wine.
A good rule of thumb, according to sommelier Madeline Puckette of WineFolly.com, is that for warm-weather, outdoor functions you serve about 25% each of sparkling, white, rosé and red. When the weather is cool, or the event is in the evening, red wine grabs 50% of the pie, while sparkling and white wine garner about 25% each.
Whether you calculate exactly the right amount of the right wine for your celebration, what is most important is that you enjoy the wines you do select. If you are lucky enough to have leftovers, you want that prospect to bring a smile to your lips.
Sacramento freelance writer and educator Susan Brown helps people navigate the world of wine through entertaining and accessible articles and classes. She received her MS in environmental studies from CSU Fullerton and is a Certified Specialist of Wine. Susan teaches wine courses through the Sacramento Natural Food Co-op and blogs at SusanBrownUncorked.com and on Twitter @ susanbrownsac.