I recently had the opportunity to attend a New Year’s Day party hosted by my brother and sister-in-law. The event is one of several special traditions they have, and they address every detail; holiday decorations, tasteful music, and a creative menu of heavy-ish hors d’oeuvres help a crowd of about 50 celebrate the first day of the new year. Kate and I have not been able to attend the last couple, so we were happy to be there. I was also happy to oblige their request to pick out the wines for the event (Spend someone else’s money on wine? Sounds great!).
My approach was to consider the type of event. This was not a formal, sit-down dinner with heavy entrees. I was told to expect a preference for red wine among the guests, many of whom would also partake in the standard liquor setup, beer, and martini bar. Oh, and keep it budget-friendly – we’re not trying to break the bank here (so the 2006 Hundred Acre Kayli Morgan Cabernet (~$300), described by owner Jayson Woodbridge as a “sexy, rumbling Ferrari,” is out? What do I do now?).
I decided to go user-friendly and avoid an amped-up alcohol content. This eliminated many of the budget-friendly California Cabernets and Australian Shirazes. I’ve found that some of those are best when sipping without food; throw in hors d’oeuvres, and the 14%-16% alcohol can mask the complexity of the food’s flavor. I started with the 2008 Mark West Pinot Noir, California ($9). Pinots tend to pair well with cow’s and sheep’s milk cheeses and are versatile enough to handle the variety of salsas and savory dipping sauces. Next, I opted for the 2006 Montecillo Crianza, Rioja ($10). This is a Spanish red from that country’s Rioja growing region. As with most Riojas, it is made from the Tempranillo grape, and the Crianza designation means that the wine was aged for a year in oak. This relatively short time can make Crianzas more approachable, especially for non-wine-drinkers who can get overwhelmed by the complexities of a Spanish Gran Reserva that spends two years in oak and ages for three more years in the bottle prior to release. The cherries and spicy oak layer well and settled in perfectly with my brother’s famous sweet and spicy meatballs. With its strong tannic backbone, I opened this wine early to get it in the decanter.
Finally, for the white, I went with the 2009 Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling from Washington’s Columbia Valley ($8). This well-balanced, reliable offering, from the same producer that makes Columbia Crest wines, has the varietal’s characteristic pear and lime in an off-dry (very slightly sweet) format. Its versatility meant I could “set it and forget it” in terms of the food. Riesling is always up to the challenge when you have an assortment of dishes, and the Chateau Ste. Michelle came through yet again.
For quantity, I went with five bottles of each of the three selections, which was just about right. We were left with one unopened bottle on each of the reds. This is exactly where I want to be. As a host, I get nervous when I’m opening my last bottle, wondering whether I’m going to need to access my personal collection to keep the party going. I could have gone with only three bottles of Riesling, but at that price, it was nice to have the extra on hand.
Finally, as a couple of smaller touches, we set Sharpie markers next to the wine glasses with a small sheet instructing guests to write their name or something unique on their glass. I find this works better than the charms that wrap around the stem, as I’ve heard too many guests in the past wondering aloud whether they had the little grapes or the little leaf (or the little barrel, or the little glass…). The markings will wash right off at the end of the night. I also posted a wine list so that guests could see tasting and pairing notes. While I made my own tasting notes for this event (I was familiar with all three wines), you could always copy the description from the winemaker (give credit by starting with Winemaker’s notes:). Either way, guests tend to appreciate the extra information.