Memorial Day marks the beginning of what Team Wine Openers refers to as the summer holiday party season (not to be confused with winter holiday party season), when you’re faced with buying wine to match a picnic or other outdoor get-together where you may not know either the menu or all the guests.
Buying wine for a crowd (even a small crowd of, say, two) doesn’t have to be confusing. It doesn’t even have to the very expensive. First, remember it’s not your job to make sure everyone is happy (unless, of course, there ARE only two of you and then you might at least act as if it were your responsibility). No matter what you open, someone is bound to be disappointed and probably will remind in you in their loudest voice.
Second, unless it’s a special occasion or you’re sharing this wine with that special friend (meaning someone who will appreciate the wine and you), don’t spend a lot of money. I’m not saying price is the sole determinant of quality; there are way too many under-$10 wines out there refuting the “high dollar, great wine” theory. It’s often true you get what you pay for, but if you’re careful, you’ll get more than you pay for.
Third, buy quantity. If your tasked to have enough wine for six people, don’t stop at two bottles. Figure about two glasses apiece (with four servings per bottle). Large-format bottles (magnums and up, see tip No. 4) usually cost less per glass and will ensure you don’t run out early.
Fourth, be resourceful, thrifty and environmental – serve a boxed wine. The acceptance of boxed wine has grown in recent years, with big-name writers such as Eric Asimov and Ray Isle giving at least modest approval of non-glass containers.
Boxed wines commonly hold three liters (equal to four bottles), are easy to pour and stay fresh longer than an opened bottle. They also are less-expensive per glass and an added plus: they don’t break, in case your party involves a river raft or two.
Fifth, buy something you know a little about. You may get asked about the difference between the sauvignon blanc you brought and an over-oaked California chardonnay, and it makes everyone feel smarter when you give a reasonable and honest answer.
Six, focus on low-alcohol wines. Summer meals can range from grilled meats to light salads, and while a zinfandel goes great with the former, high-alcohol wines have a tendency to fill you up and make you sleepy, which puts a damper on most parties.
Seven, don’t worry about glassware. Plastic glasses are just fine, thank you, for informal backyard picnics where the dog and the Frisbee may be bounding around the crowd. If you want a nicer glass, the so-called Libby glass (because that manufacturer makes a decent inexpensive wine glass) can be your out. Our advice is to leave home your $139 Riedel sommelier black glass.
Finally, bring a wine you like and enjoy yourself.
Wines I’ve enjoyed lately:
Cupcake 2011 Cupcake Vineyards Riesling ($13.99, srp) – Cupcake sources fruit from many of the world’s best growing regions for its line of wines, and this Riesling comes from Germany’s famed Mosel region, where vineyards grow on near-vertical hillsides lining the river. Lots of citrus, melon, and zingy acidity.
Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre 2008 Merlot ($17-$23) – A long growing season in Chile’s Apalta, a sub-region of the Colchagua Valley, allow Lapostolle’s merlot to reach prime ripeness and ideal maturity, qualities reflected in this elegant, intense wine. Offers a mouthful of complex flavors, from spice to dark blueberries and red fruit, with a hint of complementary oak. With 15 percent Carmenere.
Folie a Deux Russian River 2010 Chardonnay ($18, srp) – The touch of French and American oak enlivens this California-style chardonnay, with crisp green apple, pineapple and tropical fruit across the palate and a lingering finish.