If you are a wine collector, the pressure is high when throwing a party; your friends often expect you to pull out the best wines for your guests, especially if your friends are wine collectors themselves. However, as sommelier Jeff Kellogg points out, “Let’s be honest, people are there to socialize and have fun, not to learn about a grape they’ve never heard of.” Wine collectors often make the mistake of over-thinking party wines. When you spend most of your free time researching and talking about the finest wine in the world, it’s tough to step back and choose a handful of budget-friendly crowd pleasers. But when throwing a party, keep your finest DRC vintages to yourself. These complex bottles are unlikely to be appreciated by a group of people who are paying more attention to the other guests than to the wine. Save your finest bottles for your cellar, and invest in a few mid-range options instead.
Stick to Your Budget
- Years ago, I was invited to a dinner party at a high-end restaurant. The host was a fine wine fanatic, bringing along his oldest bottle of Margaux from his personal collection. Excited to show it off, he poured each of us a thimble-sized portion from the bottle, giving all 20 or so of us a taste. After the party was over, many of the guests said that the wine tasted strange; they were not used to drinking old Bordeaux wines. Although the wine experts in the group were as excited about the wine as the host, most of the other guests weren’t impressed with the bottle at all. In this sense, the host’s bottle went to waste.
- This host learned a hard lesson that every collector should heed: never serve a rare wine at a party, especially if your guests know little about wine. The key to a successful party is less about showing off rare wines, and more about letting your guests enjoy themselves. To do this, you need to calculate the exact number of bottles you need to buy to ensure that no guest goes thirsty. Generally, you should buy half a standard bottle of wine per drinking guest for every two hours planned for your party. This adds up to about two small glasses an hour per person, on average. For example, if you know that your party is going to last about four hours, and you’ve invited four guests, you need to buy at least four bottles of wine for the occasion.
- Once you know how much wine you need to buy, consider the wine’s price point per bottle. Most hosts stick with bottles that cost $60 or less, depending on the number of guests they expect to serve. If you have more than 10 people coming to your party, you’ll need a large number of bottles, so you may want to stick within the $30 to $50 range per bottle. For smaller parties with fewer guests, you can bump your budget up, but only if you think your guests will truly enjoy the wine. To get an exact target price per bottle, start with an overall budget (typically anywhere from $300-$500 for gatherings of less than 10 people). Next, calculate the number of bottles your guests will drink, based on the equation above. Finally, divide your total budget by the number of bottles you need to get your target price per bottle. Be prepared for this number to be much smaller than expected.
Party Wines by Varietal: White Wines
- Once you have an idea of what you’d like to spend per bottle, choose varietals that will go over well with a wide range of tastes. Remember to cater most of your wines to the guest with the least wine experience, not the guest who is a wine snob. Too often, collectors dig up unusual cult wines that appeal to a niche group of serious wine lovers, only to discover that their guests prefer something simple like Merlot or Chardonnay. A consumer wine trends study found that 87 percent of Millennials and 79 percent of Baby Boomers drink wine, rather than cocktails, at cocktail parties. A similar study found that Merlot and Chardonnay were the most popular varietals among casual drinkers, with 55 percent preferring Merlot and 52 percent enjoying Chardonnay.
- However, you don’t have to stick with these two limited varietals to have success. Sparkling wine is nearly always a safe bet for a party, since you can find high-quality vintages within a reasonable price point. Most casual wine drinkers are already familiar with sparkling wine, and more people are drinking this style than ever before, consuming 19,700 cases in the US alone in 2014. Champagne is an excellent choice, though the big champagne houses like Moet & Chandon may not always fit the budget for a large party. In that case, go for lesser-known Champagne producers, preferably those who offer magnums. Sommelier David Michael Murphy explains, “The holidays are all about making events memorable, and there’s no better way to grab everyone’s attention than popping a big bottle of Champagne.” Make sure you look outside of Champagne as well, since Italy and Napa Valley are crafting high-quality sparkling wines that would be welcome at any party.
- For an even more budget-friendly option that is gaining in popularity, look into New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, especially wines produced in the Marlborough region. New Zealand is still relatively new to the wine game, which means that its producers are fighting for recognition on the fine wine market. Normally, wines of this quality would cost a great deal more if they were produced in established regions like Bordeaux, but New Zealand as a whole is still too new to charge much more than $50 to $150 for upper-end bottles. These wines are underrated and often underpriced, making them the perfect pick for parties. Look for wines that have crisp, fruit-forward flavors and a palate that is tart rather than sweet. This will allow them to pair well with a wide range of foods while keeping the palate from becoming fatigued.
Party Wines by Varietal: Red Wines
- White wines and sparkling wines are a safe bet at most parties, but you should always have at least one red wine option for guests who prefer a bolder wine. New World reds generally cater to mainstream tastes more than earthy wines from France, as we have seen with the rising popularity of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon among casual drinkers. While Napa Cabs are a good investment for parties, an even better pick is California Syrah. Fruit-forward, ripe wines from California are still immensely popular, and Syrah has these qualities in spades. Bold wines will also have the most impact at a party, making Merlot and Syrah more popular picks than subtler reds.
- If you dislike heavy, powerfully fruity wines, go with Beaujolais-Villages instead. These wines are easy to love and appeal to a range of palates. And if you plan on serving any food at your party, Beaujolais wines will pair well with nearly everything. Sommelier Eduardo Porto-Carreiro says, “Cru Beaujolais (especially from the villages of Morgon and Fleurie) is one of the most versatile wine regions for medium-bodied red wines out there and can serve as a charming wine to drink with snacks or can pair with a whole array of dishes from Mexican to Thai and in-between.”
Consider Your Audience
- After deciding on a few of your favorite varietals, you need to take an objective look at your guest list before you commit to any bottles. Be as honest as possible with this step. If your best friend loves wines that taste like Manischewitz, they’re not likely to enjoy a complex, earthy wine, meaning you don’t want a selection composed entirely of classic French wines. This rule applies to your wine expert guests too; if you’re throwing a party for collectors, you won’t want to serve basic crowd pleasers. You’ll have more freedom to choose one or two unusual varietals. Serious wine drinkers are sure to enjoy Beaujolais wines, grower Champagne, and anything a little quirky and unexpected, like an Alsatian Sylvaner. Wines from Marlborough are also a good choice both for wine experts and for casual drinkers, since they are gaining in popularity among collectors and casual drinkers alike.
- Hosts inevitably forget about special diets when they throw a wine party. Is one of your friend’s vegan? You can’t serve them any wines that have been filtered with animal products, so make sure you check the producer’s website for information about filtering practices. Do you have kosher guests? You should consider buying a few bottles of Herzog wine from Napa Valley. Sulfites in wine are a contentious point of debate among the health-conscious, so if one of your guests only eats organic foods, consider buying one or two bio dynamically-farmed bottles. A thoughtfully chosen selection will make every guest feel at home.
- For collectors, remember that origin and terroir matter less than overall appeal. Taste is king when it comes to selecting the best party wines. If you can’t personally vouch that a wine is delicious, it is best to skip it in favor of a wine you truly enjoy. Party wine is all about showing others what you’re passionate about, and sharing the experience of an absolutely mouthwatering glass.
By: Leah Hammer