The following is an excerpt from Steven Lane's debut book, The Drunken Sommelier. The book can be purchased here.
Shopping for a Party: Things to consider
& How to impress without blowing your financial load
For the first time in writing this book, I am going to try something: staying on topic. That topic, more or less, is shopping in the liquor store. You see, the reason I haven’t been so focused about staying on topic is because, well, I think a lot of the spice of life is in the tangential journeys and...shit. Already fucked it up.
Anywho, I’d like to discuss the oft-troubling subject of party wine. How do we feed the mouth-foaming breatheairians who are descending on the house for Easter or Thanksgiving or Larry’s gentile-tinged bar mitzvah afterparty? My dear lord.
I might just be sick in the head, or maybe I’ve just prematurely become that uncle or grandfather who likes to bore his nieces and nephews and grandchildren with his old slides. But, what I am driving at is that I tend to enjoy choosing delicious wines that my guests won’t be familiar with. I’m hosting, and this is my chance to shine a new light on underappreciated, quality wines with a captive and thirsty audience.
First of all, any of the wines that my plebeian relatives would recognize, I probably wouldn’t want to serve them, never mind spend money on or consume myself. So, you’re safe there. However, let’s examine this social conundrum. How do you please everyone at the same time? I mean, they are coming to your house and drinking your wine to their heart’s content, so they really should just shut up and enjoy the ride. But, assuming you’ve got a pretentious would-be-wine-o on your hands, you must be creative without folding to the wine establishment and calling a 1-800-DIRECT LENDING type of line looking for financial support to buy the latest release of Chateau Latour.
It’s a touchy subject. If you’re a real wine dork, avoid these things: Riesling. I know it’s a bummer, and ultimately you’ll have more leftover for yourself, but given your limited time and ability to convert every member of the family one-by-one, you might want to consider something less contentious. Avoid any Burgundian Pinot Noirs. Anything you can afford to purchase in volume is surely going to elicit a “Pretty thin, no?” response from your dad or your uncle, and really, they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Now is not the time to be whacking off about the sensual austerity of French table wine. Yes, you might be a fan of the stick-like femmes Parisiennes, but if it’s gonna be French, your dudes are probably going to prefer a more Bardot-shaped imbibe. But even that presents a problem.
Avoid Chardonnay from California. Or France. Or anywhere, really. It hurts my heart to say this, but, again, the explanation to those less intellectually gifted than you will be exhausting and you’re bound to burn the yams or something stupid due to your frustration and distraction. Let me do something useful now.
Let's balance the “what they want” category of wines with a “what you’ll give them” category. I’m feeling a slight format change for this section.
What they want: New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
Jesus. H. Christ. Really? There are apparently a lot of sheep in New Zealand, also. Let’s stay positive.
What you’ll give them: Muscadet Sevre et Maine.
This is what they really want. From the Loire Valley. Zippy. Light. Refreshing. Bone-dry. Low in alcohol. They probably would prefer if it wasn’t, but it will make Uncle Jim easier to deal with, in the end. $20 or less. Low-alcohol wines will pair with anything. And if you buy too much of it, Muscadet ages great. Even the cheap stuff.
What they want: Pinot Grigio.
Seriously? Is this the Cactus Club™?
What you’ll give them: Soave or Verdicchio or Trebbiano or Garganega…
Italy has more than 3000 different grape varietals planted, even though Auntie Sharon thinks that all they make is Santa Margherita. 3000 varietals. One wine. Really, Auntie Sharon? As far as the whites go, Italy might not produce the world’s most distinct whites, but there are plenty of great workhorses. Pinot Grigio came from France. Pick a grape that at least came from Italy. A lot of the whites have a nice, bouncy texture and are really pleasant. Italy is generally warmer than France or Germany, so the wines will be a hair softer and possess less obvious acidity. People will like that as a sipping wine and they won’t offend the meal. The wines, I mean. You should be able to get a good option for around $15-$20. Have you ever seen Italians not eating and yelling at each other? This will be perfect.
What they want: Cabernet Sauvignon from California
So. Fucking. Boring. And mostly shit if it’s affordable.
What you’ll give them: Cooler-climate Shiraz from Australia.
Yes, Australia has produced some garbage, big-box, manipulated wines. We get it. But Australia is really much more than a single wine region. It’s a wine continent, with an unbelievably diverse set of winegrowing conditions. The wines from Australia shouldn’t be blanketed. That would be like saying European wines are all similar. Oh really? Because there’s less distance between the Douro Valley and Alsace than there is from one side of Australia to the other. So. You’re going to find a slightly cooler climate region of Australia, maybe the Hunter Valley, Heathcote, the Limestone Coast, or Margaret River, and purchase a case of nice Shiraz. Softer tannins, naturally inky colour, and a consumer base in North America that still thinks that Australian Wine=Yellow Tail. That means good prices for you. $20-$30. Maybe sub-$20 if you look hard, but beware: Treasury Wine Estates has a lot of different virtual brands. Always look for a distinctive producer name and region on the label. Don’t get sucked into the cute birds.
What they want: The Prisoner
Let’s not go there again.
What you’ll give them: Red wine from the Douro Valley.
Think about this for a second. Vintage Port. Have you ever seen how dark it is? Well, those grapes that grow in the Douro Valley make port. But they also make ballsy, dense, table wine. Deep colour, big flavour. The best part is that the depth of these wines comes naturally. Wines like Caymus & The Prisoner and countless others that I am obviously a huge fan of use a lot of additives to darken the colour of their wine. I get the fact that people like to chew on their wines a little. It’s kind of romantic. The wine looks deep, you feel deep. It’s a deep reaching experience. Deep. Keep saying it. Portugal is fortunately still in that consumer zone that doesn’t receive a ton of fanfare in the US and around the world, but their production costs are quite low and the conditions for naturally ripe wines are abundant. You can probably score a beauty Douro red for $15. You might find a banger for less. If you spend $20, I’d feel prettay, prettayy, prettayyy good about my chances of enjoying it, sight unseen, wine untasted.
You do all this, and the fam will be asking you all about these strange wines that you’ve deliberately gone outside the suburban soccer-dad’s box to gleen a tiny, tiny sliver of the knowledge that you’ve demonstrated, not through being a showoffy bastard, but through pleasing the palates of the beloved inlaws, aunts, uncles, accountants, bosses, and acquaintances without them being able to pronounce a single wine that you’ve chosen.
They’ll be drunk, and they’ll be happy.