By Charles Fredy, Advanced Sommelier
During this season of entertaining, people often ask me for help on choosing the right wine to bring to a party. While there’s no one right answer, it’s easy to make a wrong decision. For example, I never choose a wine based on the look of the label; many small, excellent wines are made by producers who put their money into their product, not into the marketing. Nor is price necessarily the sole indicator of quality.
Unless you’re going to a wine party, or the invitation is “BYOB,” it’s safe to assume that your hosts will provide the wines for the evening, and the bottle you bring will be considered a gift for them to enjoy later. If you don’t know their taste, and you’re comfortable doing so, it’s perfectly fine to ask them what kinds of wines they enjoy. If you’re not comfortable doing so, consider giving something festive — especially during the holidays — for example a liqueur, a Champagne, or a bottle of premium wine.
Of course, while your hosts aren’t obliged to open your bottle that evening, they may. If you’re going to a dinner party and know the type of food being served, you can tailor your choice to the menu. One of the best ways to ensure a successful pairing is to choose a wine from the same region as the food being served; for an Italian dinner, bring an Italian wine. If steak’s on the menu, go with a hearty red; for fish, choose a white. If you don’t know what’s being served, a sparkling wine makes a great default choice. Not everyone likes red wine, not everyone likes white, but almost everyone enjoys Champagne.
We’ve narrowed the choices; now to decide how much you want to spend. If you’re out to impress, there are excellent premium wines under $90, for example Billecart-Salmon Brut Rose NV. If your comfort zone hovers around $30 to $50, consider a medium-priced wine like Frog’s Leap Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon. Even if your budget is modest, you can find some quite decent wines for under $20, like a sauvignon blanc from Morgan Winery, or a sparkling wine like prosecco.
If you’re still feeling daunted by the decision, it’s time to do some research. One of the easiest ways: search the Internet. Type in “top wines under $20” on Google, and a list will pop right up. Better yet, visit a local wine shop, a boutique store that’s owned and run by people with a passion for wine. I don’t mean to imply that chain stores don’t have good wines, but they’re not likely to have staff available to answer your questions, help you narrow your choices, or suggest a specific wine. What’s more, because they cater to a lot of people, their inventory tends to be more generic. And while it’s true that the same wine may cost a bit less at the supermarket, small wine shops can actually save you money. Because the people who run them are wine tasters, not simply wine merchants, they are always discovering smaller, artisan producers — labels that may cost only $20 or $25 that are actually better than what you’d buy for $30.
In a future column, we’ll talk about how to choose wines for a party when you’re not the guest, but the host. Till then, here’s wishing you happy holidays.