How about starting the fall season with an intimate little wine dinner for eight of your most sophisticated friends? How hard can it be?
Let’s say four wine courses—starting with a sparkling when guests arrive. They can take the bubbly with them to the table to drink with the appetizer course, followed by white, (or red for the fish or pasta course, a meat and a cheese respectively). Next, all you need are wine glasses and a plan.
I’ve rubbed elbows at several wine dinners with Jennifer Stillabower, who entertains with her husband, Michael, and has helped stage charity wine dinners for Meals on Wheels. I asked her thoughts about planning wine dinners without going off half-corked.
“I would keep the courses to three or four including dessert and perhaps a cheese course,” Stillabower. Serve a maximum of two wines with each course. Two wines will allow guests to have fun comparing which makes the best food pairing. You can also serve a dessert wine, but the sweetness keeps guests from re-tasting the reds, which they invariably want to do.
Riedel glasses are still best at showing off wines, but inexpensive glasses with large bowls will do fine. Buy them by the dozens at a kitchen store and don’t worry about breakage.
“I would try to have all the glasses for each wine already on the table,” Stillabower says, “because often guests don’t finish the wine they were drinking from the previous course and may want to go back to it.” That means two glasses for whites and at least two for reds, preferably four, if you have enough space. But don’t crowd things too much, or you’ll have broken glasses and spilled reds all over the latest designer knock-offs.
“If I had no outside help, I would pour the first round (of each course) and talk about the wine,” Jennifer says, “then place the bottles on the table for guests to help themselves, but keeping any eye out for empty glasses.” Pour sparingly on that first round, as people may be sampling as many as seven to 10 wines, and the folks with breathalyzers may be lurking down the road. Letting guests pour themselves also allows the curious ones to read the labels.
Very old or very young wines may need to be decanted to remove sediment in the oldies and to allow both to breathe. In this case, put the bottle on the table and the decanter on a side table for serving if space is at a premium.
Stillabower also has some pointers on decorations—no fragrant flowers that sing aroma arias and no tall arrangements that invite games of peekaboo.
If you need a theme, consider pairing Old World or classic wines with comparable ones from the New World. For example, match Champagne and a California sparkler, followed with a Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah each from Europe and from other continents. Ask your wine shop pro to make suggestions.
And don’t worry if you’re not the world’s greatest cook. If the wine is good enough, no one will notice.