So, you're going to a dinner party and want to take some red wine, but there are so many choices and so many categories—maybe you should just take flowers instead?
I obviously jest.
Flowers add a bit of fleeting color to the evening, but wine can lubricate conversation, as well as hide a myriad of culinary sins. Now that we've resolved that silly flower idea, how do you decide which wine to take? Don't fear: I've sacrificed many dollars and liver cells to aid you in your wine-buying experience. The main thing is to ask yourself a few key questions before heading to the store:
Who are these people, anyway?
How much do I really like them?
How much bank do I have to blow?
After you've determined your answers, follow this easy list of dinner party scenarios and select your wine accordingly.
Your "Party Friends"
Let's be honest: Sometimes dinner is just an excuse to party. Bring any of these wines that all have well over 12-percent alcohol:
2003 Smoking Loon Cabernet Sauvignon ($8 everywhere): While no award-winner, this Cab is decent for the money. It has all the characteristics of a Cab without being overdone. Generous berry flavors dominate with a gentle reign, allowing some oak and spice to escape. Recommended pairings: Hamburger Helper or barbecue.
2003 Little Penguin Merlot ($6 everywhere): This Merlot is about as close to grape juice as it gets. Think jam with alcohol. Recommended pairing: Peanut butter.
Someone You Don't Like
Why waste money on these people? All you really want is to make fun of their new furniture and eat their food.
2004 George Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau ($5):It pains me to say that someone brought this "wine" to one of my dinner parties; and while this is a red wine, it really tastes like dry, flat Champagne. Nothing wrong with dry, flat Champagne, if that's what you like, but you won't win any friends with this one. I know from experience. Recommended pairing: A paper bag and an alley.
Your Pretentious Friends
These people are not to be confused with your pretentious wine snob friends, because pretense has nothing to do with wine knowledge. My advice for these folks is to go French. When questioned about your selection, you can say, "It's French, darling;
2001 E. Guigal Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($35, Costco): While this wine is difficult to pronounce (just mumble: fa-fa-fa-DE-POP), it is most definitely not difficult to drink. This spicy, meaty, leathery Rhone Valley red has hints of fig and pepper floating on top of a sea of fruit, earth and oak. While this wine will take years to fully mature to its full potential, it's still great now. Have your friends decant, if possible, or open and let breath for at least an hour. Recommended pairing: Bring on the meat and chili, baby! This wine will go well with almost any red meat-based dinner, especially with those that may have any spicy or slightly sweet sauce.
1999 Les Forts de Latour ($48, Quarters): Yup, I said it—Latour. That sounds good when you say it slowly, doesn't it? This little brother (or second label) to the great Château Latour is an intense, dense, rich, elegant Bordeaux that will give a glimpse into hundreds of years of French wine history. I tasted this one after having another great wine, and it still managed to do special things on my tongue. Would a comparison to a fine French lover be inappropriate? Anyway, don't expect any overt fruit flavors, just balanced power; all the flavors dance in your mouth in a glorious ballet of wine goodness. A bottle of 1999 Château Latour is going for well over $200; some of those grapes had to make their way into this bottle, right? Recommended pairing: Lamb.
Your Pretentious Wine Snob Friends or Future In-laws
The only way you would blow this much cash on wine is 1) if you're a collector, in which case you wouldn't waste this on a friend, or 2) you're trying to win some major brownie points or 3) you want to celebrate your new promotion to the CE
2002 Joseph Phelps Insignia, or any vintage for that matter ($150, Jubilation): As a former cult wine gone super commercial without losing any of its "street cred," this one will impress anyone who knows wine. Making the Wine Spectators No. 1 wine of 2005, Phelps has done it again. And hey, you can even bring the magazine to back up your selection. This category defining Napa Meritage red is like a drag queen performing ABBA ballads—big, bold and oh-so-dazzling. So much so that it almost made me cry. OK, maybe not cry, but it is worth the money. Or was it the money that made me almost cry? Recommended pairing: Are you crazy? Don't waste this one on food. Drink with really, really good friends and in high-quality wine glasses for a memorable time.
The True Wine Connoisseur
We all have friends like this. You know, the ones that have the wine cellar and always prattle on endlessly about wine. Wouldn't you just love to bring a wine that they wouldn't scoff at and might actually serve at dinner?
2002 Provenance Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon ($35 everywhere): At $35 it's difficult to say that this is a bargain, but I'm going to do it—this is a bargain. From the moment you pour this into your glass, its deep color lures you to it. The scrumptious bouquet teases you with hints of berry and oak. This wine oozes class and sophistication well beyond its price range. Deliciously ripe fruits, warm toast and a smattering of chocolate greet you with your first taste. And like any classy wine will do, its lingering aftertaste stays with you until you're ready for another drink. If you've been wanting to break out of the $10 to $20 price range, try this one. It will be gentle with you, and still give you exactly what you want. Be careful, though: After tasting this wine, you may not want to go back to the cheap stuff. Recommended pairing: This will go with anything from hamburgers to prime rib. Try to stay away from anything with a sweet sauce.
1998 Dominus Estate Bottled Red ($95, Quarters): One of the most consistent quality producers in Napa, Dominus tops the charts in ratings and price. This vintage, however, is even more special in that you are getting a top-notch, super-premium wine in an off year. What does that mean? Normally a wine of this quality takes a decade or so to mature, but this one—it's ready to go. The usual heavy tannins are now sweet, but no less long-lived. The heady oak has mellowed into a wonderful balance with the deep fruit and cocoa. Your palate is surprised by a wonderful hint of anise, but overwhelmed by a glorious elegant quality that you don't find in young wines. A real wine lover would appreciate the fact that you not only dropped a Benjamin on this one, but selected a wine that was aged and ready to drink for that night's dinner. Recommended pairing: A big high-five for hitting a homerun.