Selecting Wedding Wines

(Originally published September 2001)

With the upcoming wedding of Hanes's sister Alexis to her blushing bride Anna, the topic of selecting wines for a wedding or other similarly special occasion seems appropriate. So, that is what Hanes will discuss.

There are many factors involved in choosing wines for a wedding, among them attendee composition, wine cost, quantity, quality, availability, time of event, etc. Luckily for Hanes's sister, her caterer has handled the whole thing so that she was spared his nefarious meddling. Now, he just has to keep a bottle of 1982 Château Latour under the table for surreptitious pours into his empty glass -- "What? Just scratching my leg..." But if you want to take a more hands-on approach, here's a few things to consider.

First things first, take a look at the broader picture. How long will the event last? How many guests will attend? Of that number, how many drink? How many of those drink wine? How heavily do your guests drink? (Hanes does not have to ask this last question because all his friends are boozehounds or, ipso facto, they would not be his friends.) Once you have answered these basic questions, you should have a rough number of how many drinks you need to provide per guest.

The number of drinks per guest needed is useful but only to a point. The main problem is that no matter what "they" say, you just cannot judge how many glasses of wine a given bottle will produce. Most guess at six glasses per bottle or half a bottle per guest for an average reception period. But really the number could be four glasses (if Hanes is pouring) or eight if the bartender hasn't gotten laid in awhile and is pissed off or something. Also, the pour normally varies from bartender to bartender and also depends on factors such as customer pushiness and general bartender/customer dynamics (bartender appreciates polite customer, alternatively, customer leaves puddle of drool on bar while ordering, etc.). But, hey, let's just say six glasses for argument's sake. You want to argue?

The basic axiom is that it's better to have too much wine than too little and run out. If the wine is being selected by the caterer, then chances are that they use the same wines over and over again at functions and if they bring, say, two cases (24 bottles) of "Wine A" and only use 18 bottles, they should only charge you for the wine consumed and take the extra back with them to use on another time. But in any case, leftover wine can always be carted back home for future consumption or given out as gifts to any workers who did a particularly stellar job during the event. When initially considering the question of how much to buy, cost, quantity and quality come into play. If you want a fantastic wine and have little firsthand experience in wine purchasing or tasting, chances are that you'll be stuck in "the more you pay, the better the wine" scenario. Otherwise, you'd have to do lots of trial and error beforehand to find some great cheapie winner to serve and not everyone has the time nor energy. If cost and quantity are fairly large issues, you should probably aim to spend around $9-$14 per bottle. Note that if you buy the wine yourself from a retailer, you should get at least a 10% case discount which helps defray the overall tab.

Here comes the "availability rub." You may have a favorite or sentimental wine, and think appreciatively of both its quality and price. But is the damn thing available? Many great inexpensive wines sell out quickly or may be generally hard to locate. So, it pays to plan ahead. For example, if you found a great bottle of Australian Chardonnay or Côtes de Provence rouge and your wedding is six months away, BUY IT NOW! Chances are it will be gone or have moved to the next (untasted) vintage in the interim. See if the wine store will hold it for you at the proper temperature or look into finding a place to store the wine until the event. Most professional storage facilities charge around $2 per case/month so the added cost is not that great, especially when factoring against not getting the wine you want.

If you are plagued by fears of finding a wine that will please the greatest percentage of guests, you may want to shy away from an esoteric favorite, no matter how much you love Hungarian Kéfrankos. Chances are that you will be serving two basic choices for the meal, with maybe a veggie plate, kosher meal, etc. as an alternative. The main task is to find a wine that will pair well with any of the above meal choices and prove innocuous enough to please the assembled throng. To wit: Chardonnay and Merlot.

These two grapes catch a lot of flak because they are indeed the lowest common denominator in the wine world, easily recognizable for their rich and accessible fruit profiles and easy, round mouth feel. But, damn them to hell, they really do satisfy the greatest number of thirsty mouths. As a result, they really should be the first grape types you seek out when planning a big fiesta. Luckily, both grapes are grown across the world and in enough variety of styles that even the snootiest palate should be able to find something to challenge their intellect and tongue while also pleasing your lunkhead cousin and his girlfriend who forgot to take the bubblegum out of her mouth before sipping her wine.

If you want to go all crazy like, for white wines try to find a Sauvignon Blanc or dry Riesling. For red wines, Cabernet Sauvignon is an easy alternative, with more adventurous souls perhaps seeking out a Syrah from the Rhône, California or Australia (i.e., Shiraz) or perhaps a Tempranillo-based wine from Spain. If fish is being served, you might try to find a light Pinot Noir, preferably from Burgundy.

Once you determine which wines you want the next step is to try and guess the percentage of red to white wine you want. Factor into this a vague handicap of what people will order for their dinner, the season (is it hot or cold out?), time of day (Hanes has noticed that more people drink white wines during the daylight hours), etc. Also try to account for if the event falls on the third Saturday of the month during a three-quarters moon. This always means you need more red wine.

An interesting question to tackle is the bubbly. What sparkling wine should be served for the toast? No surprise, the real deal from Champagne, France is not cheap. For anything decent you'd have to spend at least $30 per bottle. And one really has to pay attention to how many guests actually finish the sparkling wine provided for toasts and how much remains unfinished and wasted in these rituals. Sadly, most inexpensive domestic American sparklers are subpar (Roederer Estate being one pointed counter-example). Instead, for under-$20 bubbly Hanes recommends trying one of the following. Spanish Cava -- most of them are light, dry, slightly nutty with good apple fruit flavors. You'd be surprised at the elegance some of these wines possess in this price range. Italian Prosecco -- from the Veneto region, these wines are made in a range of styles from very sweet to bone dry. Even when dry, they can be big, broad-shouldered wines that offer solid fruit and minerality and plenty of fun fizz. These types of wines have been consumed for generations in their native lands and there's little reason to blow major dinero on Champagne when acceptable substitutes exist.

Another curious question is whether or not to serve a "special" bottle at the head table, a wine memorable enough to match the occasion. Generally speaking, Hanes is in favor of this although it does perhaps smack of elitism, creating a tier between those blessed by the seating chart gods and those not so blessed. Luckily, Hanes is an elitist so no problem there. The negative is that just as the couple being married rarely gets to eat their full meal because they are walking from table to table greeting guests all through dinner, so too do they rarely get to drink from these special bottles. Hanes supposes that the lesson here is that wise guests should circle the head table whenever there is a distraction in hopes of scamming some primo vino...

The last issue around serving wines at weddings and special events is the quality of the wine glasses. A quality glass with the appropriate bowl size and shape can immeasurably improve both expensive and inexpensive wines. This is an issue on which true wine lovers should be firm with any caterer or event coordinator. In the right glass that $12 bottle of Pinot Noir can sing like one three times the price. Even if it costs more in rental fees or broken glass replacement costs, this is one variable that can do more than almost any other in creating the maximally positive sensory experience. Haggle with the caterer or be prepared to watch your wine geek guests smuggle in their own Riedel stemware and then have to prove to management at the end of the evening that they aren't stealing the glasses...