Many hosts spend weeks working out the menu for their events and parties, only to treat wine selection as a bit of an afterthought. Unsure of which wines and how many bottles to buy, they default to a few cases of ubiquitous, uninteresting wines that merely check the “red” and “white” boxes in a pre-determined price range. That’s really a shame, because good wine has the power to propel a party from good to great. It’s not about spending a fortune on expensive wines, it’s about delighting guests with delicious and interesting discoveries.
Choose a Variety of Styles
There’s no single wine that will please everyone in a group—especially if it’s a large one. Rather than trying to find that vinous unicorn, serve wines in a variety of styles to appeal to different tastes. (After all, your guests may not share your love of Rkatsiteli.)
Some people prefer crisp, lighter-style wines, while others like big, bold options. For white wines, you might choose a bright Sauvignon Blanc, along with a richer-style wine such as Chardonnay or Roussanne. For reds you could opt for a bold, Bordeaux-style blend and a fruit-forward wine such as Malbec or Pinot Noir.
The time of year also plays a role. In the spring and summer, guests are more likely to gravitate toward lighter-style wines, both white and red. For winter gatherings, fuller-bodied wines—reds in particular—will be more in demand. Bolder wines are more likely to pair well with hearty winter food, while crisper whites and medium-bodied reds are a better match for spring and summer dishes.
It’s wise to have at least one sweeter wine on hand, such as an aromatic Moscato, to pair with desserts and please guests who aren’t big fans of dry wines.
Seek Value at any Price-Point
Buying wine for a crowd can be pricey, but that doesn’t mean you should default to the cheap stuff. Instead, look for wines that over-deliver for the price. There are some great values to be had in the Napa Valley, for example, especially if you step outside the realm of trophy wines and “it” varieties. Gorgeous bottles of Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Malbec can often be found for $50 or less. Many wineries and retailers offer discounts for wines by the case—usually between 10% and 15%—which is another great way to get more for less. Large-format bottles can also help minimize your wine bill, because they often cost less than the equivalent number of standard bottles.
Another way to stay within budget is to invest in a couple of special wines for the event, and fill out the rest of the selections with lower-priced options. It’s not difficult to find intriguing wines for $20 or less in the imports aisle, from regions such as Portugal, Chile and South Africa, or lesser-known appellations in Italy, Spain and France.
Master the Logistics
Once you’ve decided which wines to buy, the next question is: How much? The rule of thumb for caterers is one half to one bottle per person depending upon the event, duration, if other alcohol is being served and group. One to two drinks per guest, per hour (one case of wine equals about 50 glasses) is a good rule of thumb. That may sound like a lot of wine, but it’s better to have leftovers than to run out in the middle of an event.
Despite what high-end glassware manufacturers will tell you, it’s not really necessary to have a different glass for each wine variety. Instead, keep it simple with one all-purpose glass per guest or one glass designed for white wines and one glass for reds. Because stemware tends to break during parties, go with something stylish but sturdy, such as stemless wine glasses, for less formal affairs. If you don’t have enough glasses for the number of guests you’re expecting, rent them for a party supply company. (Bonus: You don’t have to wash the glasses before returning them!)
Finally, be mindful of serving temperatures; no one wants to drink wines that are too warm or too cold. On hot summer days, it’s perfectly acceptable to chill reds for a bit before serving. For large events, have a back-up cooler filled with chilled whites ready to replace the ones on the serving table.
With a little thought and planning, guests will remember the wonderful wines they enjoyed at your party long after the event is over.