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August 31 - September 7, 2000


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Wed your whistle

Choosing wines for a conjugal feast

by David Marglin

Maybe it's the time of year, or maybe it's a sign of my advancing age, but it seems that everyone I know has just gotten married or is planning to in the next few months. And some of these folks looked to me for advice on what to serve at their weddings. This year's big wedding season is starting to wind down, but if you've set a date, I'll tell you what I've told my friends: whether it's a wedding, an anniversary bash, or any other big party, just try to keep it simple.

Rule # 1: make it sparkle. You know you need to serve some sparkling wine, but you do not need to bust a move and buy the real stuff from the Champagne region of France, which will set you back at least $20 a bottle even with your volume discount. (And bear in mind, sometimes caterers or facilities will charge retail prices or higher, with little or no case discount for wines they furnish. You always do better buying your own if possible, even if there is a pour charge.) A tremendous number of great sparkling wines are made in the US, including Roederer Estate, Argyle, Mumm's of Napa, Domaine Chandon, and Schramsberg. Any of these would work fine for toasting. Most people will not see the bottle, and few will care whether it's "real" Champagne, so long as it sparkles and tastes good.

Rule #2: easy does it. When the toasts are over, you'll need something to serve with the meal. Unless you are a gourmet or really wealthy (in which case you're not likely to rely solely on my advice anyway), choose wines that are easy to drink. Ordinarily, I recommend interesting, unusual, complex wines, so you can learn and expand your palate. But at big parties, you want well-balanced wines that won't rub folks the wrong way. Just as you want to play recognizable tunes that will get people up and dancing, so you want to serve wines that will get them down and drinking. For white wines, chardonnays will usually do the job; for reds, try cabernets, merlots, or maybe a shiraz or a red zinfandel. But nothing too aggressive or bold -- your guests should be drinking, not thinking.

Rule #3: pair thee well. Think about what wines will go well with the food you're planning to serve. It's helpful to have the advice and confidence a wine merchant or other expert can provide, but it's your party, so taste a bunch of choices and pick the combinations that are pleasing to you. If you've followed Rule #2, the wines you will be considering should be easy to pair with your main courses anyway.

Rule #4: don't run out. How much wine should you purchase? At most weddings or big parties, the people of wine-drinking age will average two glasses apiece. Figure on six glasses to a bottle of still wine. The problem is, you don't know whether your guests will prefer red or white, so I recommend having enough to serve each person two glasses of either (meaning you will have some left over, but that never hurt anyone, right?). If you have 100 drinkers, you'll need about 34 bottles (or about three cases) of red wine, and the same amount of white. You will get closer to eight glasses to a bottle of sparkling wine, so do the math accordingly, figuring that most people will switch to still wines after the toasts. Repeat after me: too much is better than too little.

If you're going to be attending one of these parties instead of throwing one, I've got a rule for you too: never tell the hosts you do not like the wine. If a bottle is corked or off, ask your server to get another one, pronto -- and to tell the manager you had a bad bottle (where there is one, there are likely to be more). But other than that, just try both the white and the red, and determine which one you like better (and which one works better with the food). Look, this is a party, not a wine-appreciation dinner.

The following are some good safe wines, available in Massachusetts, that would work well at my wedding (now all I need is to find someone who wants to marry me).

1998 Hogue Chenin Blanc Columbia Valley Washington ($7.99). Light and refreshing, like a cold apple tart. Yes, it is chenin blanc and not chardonnay, but it is such a versatile wine, so poised, with an appealing sweetness. Worth a try -- with grilled fish or chicken.

1997 Monterra Merlot Monterey ($9.99). Serious wine -- mainly a fruit bomb, with cherries and berries. Works best with the red meats.

1998 Peachy Canyon Incredible Red Bin 109 Paso Robles ($10.99). Fruity and approachable, light yet full-bodied, this wine is completely plummy. Would go well with steak, chicken in a dark sauce, or salmon with some zest.

1998 Waterbrook Chardonnay Columbia Valley Washington ($10.99). Woo-hoo! This is stellar chard for the dollars. Minimal oak, fine with salmon or a nice grilled swordfish -- even chicken Kiev. Lovely tropical-fruit notes.

1998 Saint-Veran Les Deux Moulins Maison Louis Latour ($10.99). Another chardonnay, crisp and apple-y. A touch green, but with clean, fresh, and unassuming flavor. Enough mineral qualities to stand up to big fish, or even red meat that is lightly sauced.

1998 J. Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles ($10.99). Deep, lush, dark ruby wine, with black currant and plenty of oak. Previously hard to find outside the winery or restaurants, this wine is a real score in stores. Try it with steak, prime rib, the big meats.

1999 Hess Select Chardonnay California ($11.99). Clean and mellow -- unfolds nicely into apple and pear territory, without too much oak.

1998 Hedges Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Washington ($12.99). Fifty-four percent Merlot -- smoky and comfortable, with lots of black fruit. It's mellow and full, with a very long finish.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

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