The Key to Bringing the Right Wine? Know Your Audience

By Jeffrey M. Kralik, Ph.D.

Now that Halloween is now in our rearview mirror, albeit only slightly, the holiday season is beginning and will carry us all the way through the end on the year. Office parties, neighborhood celebrations, family visits, they all get started in earnest this month, soon followed by Thanksgiving, Channukah, Christmas and ending with New Year’s Day.

In most instances, you will have no idea what food will be served at a given party, so it is best to opt for a wine that can go with a variety of food. Pinot Noir is the most versatile of all red wines as it can work in just about any situation. Zinfandel is another red, which usually has a lot more body than Pinot, but still has the requisite acidity to make it a good choice, and let’s not forget Chardonnay, the most popular white variety in the world. Sparkling wine is really the single best choice for a ton of reasons, and next month, we will dive into the bubbles in time for New Year’s.

You also want to bring a bottle that you yourself would not mind drinking since, let’s face it, often the booze selection at these get togethers can be rather bleak (I hope those who are excited to see Bud Light at a party are not too offended).

Perhaps it goes without saying, but all of these “parties” are inherently different and thus require a modicum of forethought when deciding what wine to bring. The first step is what my college basketball coach referred to as “KYP” or “Know Your Personnel.” Basically, before acting, make sure you know the other players involved.

There are, essentially, three tiers to which just about every person you encounter this holiday party season can be attributed, and for each you will find three wine suggestions. In descending order:

Tier Three ($30-50): This is a group that you hope to impress, or might be a bit more sophisticated when it comes to wine. Maybe it is your own office party, and you’re bucking for a promotion or perhaps you want to impress the neighbors up the street who also have a second house in Vail. This is where you break out the big guns, so to speak.

Chardonnay: Jordan Vineyard and Winery ($40). One of the top producers in Sonoma, never oaky or buttery, it will certainly impress.

Pinot Noir: Gary Farrell Russian River Valley Selection ($45). Gary Farrell makes a slew of Pinots, but it is hard to beat the flagship RRV Selection.

Zinfandel: Ridge Benito Dusi ($37). Ridge is perhaps the name in Zinfandel, and the Benito Dusi is always one of my favorites.

Tier Two ($20-30): With this group, you might have a good time, but you also might need to make sure your phone is fully charged as your spouse pretends to be all chummy with the same people about whom you have heard nothing but complaints for the last twelve months. You do not want to bring complete swill, but you also don’t want to feel bad leaving the bottle behind when you have to leave early because you’re not “feeling well.”

Chardonnay: Qupé Y Block ($22). A pleasant quaffer from the Central Coast with the added benefit of a screw top.

Pinot Noir: Raeburn Russian River Valley ($25). It is difficult to produce quality Pinot under $30, but Raeburn does, every year.

Zinfandel: The Federalist Dry Creek Valley ($28). You can bring a solid wine and show your patriotic (or Broadway) pride with this Zin featuring Alexander Hamilton.

Tier One: To put it bluntly, this is the group that you wouldn’t be caught dead socializing with otherwise. For some, that might be your (or your spouse’s) office party. For others, it might even be family. (Cousin Jimmy, you’re 53 years old, time to start going by Jim?) This group will grab the bottle out of your hand and fill their glass to the rim, only to discard it completely after a single sip.

Chardonnay: Rodney Strong California ($18). It is a shame wasting a wine this good, but despite my efforts to convince the folks at Rodney Strong otherwise, this wine remains crazily inexpensive.

Pinot Noir: Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve ($15). I am always amazed that this is a top performer in my yearly blind Pinot Noir tasting.

Zinfandel: Pedroncelli Mother Clone ($20). It might require a bit of searching, but this might be the single best value on this list. It might make Cousin Jimmy like wine, but don’t hold your breath.