Wine for a Party

We host an annual holiday party the first Sunday of December for our friends, neighbors, and select coworkers. This is a big to-do. Somewhere between 150-200 invitations go out.

Every party has a theme. It could be an era (1950s) or a topic (Oscars), which means the invitations, decorations, food, wine and attire all go with the theme.

In the case of the last party we hosted before Covid – the theme was Medieval. We had found a suit of armor (reproduction) in a barn sale in May and decided that would be our holiday theme. Sir Barnaby proudly lives on the porch and is often dressed up for the holidays. (See him below attired for a bridal shower.)

We try to decide on the theme by Memorial Day so we have all summer and fall to get the theme together, which includes the wine. As you can see from the pictures above – these are all the wines we sampled, where we felt the labels matched the theme.

In the end, we choose St. Martin and went with the Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc. All lovely wines with a Monday/Tuesday price point and Wednesday/Thursday taste.

Scroll past the floral arrangements from the medieval party to get helpful hints on buying wine for a party.

Choosing a Party Wine

When it comes to finding a wine for a party, especially one where you want the wine label to match the theme it can be tricky. Whether you’re matching the label to the theme you have to keep in mind:

  • Price – with the potential of 200 people attending, it’s not exactly feasible to spend more than $30/bottle. So find a wine price point that works for you and your guests.
    • If you know all your guests will be able to tell the difference between a Monday (<$10 bottle) and a Friday (>$25 bottle) then choose something in the Thursday/Friday range.
    • If your guests are like ours, it is all across the board, so we try and pick something in the Wednesday range – especially if we’re going with the same vineyard for all the wines.
    • IF it is a smaller party, even if your guests can’t tell, opt for a Thursday/Friday wine, just so it’s something you will enjoy
  • Guest Preference – we have the advantage of mostly knowing what our guests prefer, so we don’t have to guess on the types of wine to buy, but try to have a good mix of reds and whites – especially if it’s not a sit down dinner and it’s a buffet and mingle.
    • Trial and error has taught us that having only one varietal of red or white can be dangerous – meaning we end up with leftover bottles of wine. Now, not really a bad thing because we don’t serve a wine we won’t drink, but do you really want to be stuck with 11 bottles out of a case of 12?
    • In Vogue / Trends – take a look at what’s trendy in wine. Remember for a while merlot was not trendy – so you may not want to have a whole case of merlot. Or in the case of the past few years, rosé has become popular, so you might consider that as one of your white choices.
  • Sparkling – when in doubt, have more bottles of sparkling – whether its champagne or cava. People like bubbly. So even if they don’t like the pinot grigio you choose, they’ll drink the sparkly. And if not, you have restocked your cellar.
    • I’ll also note here, that it’s always a good idea to have sparkling water and/or sparkling grape juice on hand along with the wines. We’ve had several parties where we went through a case of sparkling non-alcoholic beverages because nearly all our friends were expecting. And, sparkling white grape in a flute looks like you’re drinking if you don’t want anyone to know yet…
  • Temperature – You need to keep the whites/sparkling cold and the reds at a nice room temperature. Which means you will need a lot of ice. As the ice melts in whatever you’re using to keep the wine cold, you’ll need to pour out the water and add more ice.
    • Unfortunately, you can’t use an individual wine cooler for a large party – even a party of 30 people. Unless you are really going to keep a very close eye on the wine or you have a bartender it’s just not practical to have to keep pulling bottles out of the wine fridge.
    • Even if you have to stop up one side of your sink in the kitchen and fill it with ice (if you don’t want the cooler sitting in the kitchen), do everything you can to keep the bottles cold. I use my silverplate punchbowls filled with ice to keep the wine cold, plus it’s pretty and looks impressive (left picture below).
  • Ease of Drinking – what I mean by this is that while you may have a super cool traditional corkscrew – most people probably don’t know how to use it. So, put out multiple different types of corkscrews – if you’re not serving a screwcap – so that people can use what makes them comfortable.
    • I always open the first round of bottles so I can put the corks in a bowl that sits with the wine. This indicates to everyone else where the corks should go when they open a bottle of wine. [I also put out a bowl for the beer bottle caps along with openers, since not everyone likes wine.]
    • We also make select guests aware of where to find additional bottles of wine.
      • You can’t see in the picture below (right) that there are white tablecloths that go to the floor. Under the tables are more wine, bottled water, sodas, juice for the kids and cups. [Hint, if you don’t have full floor length tablecloths (banquet tablecloths) like me, if your tables will be up against walls (or inaccessible from one side) offset the tablecloth to reach the floor and put another over the top as an accent.]
      • You can also just have a designated space on the counter or sideboard where you have the wine to be served.
      • We once put all the bottles on the table but found it overwhelmed people and they wouldn’t actually open any new bottles. You know your guests best and you know what you prefer, so do what makes you comfortable. Just make it easy to get to because in heels and a petticoat it’s hard to crawl under a table to reach something.

Also, don’t hesitate to mix and match your vineyards and locations. Unless you are going for the matchy-matchy, all of your options don’t have to come from the same label. In fact, it can be fun to have a Pinot Noir from Napa Valley and one from Italy, or a Chardonnay from France and New Zealand.

People like to try different wines and at the end of the party it is always interesting to us to see what got drunk the most.

Final Thoughts

Picking a wine for a party can be stressful, but just remember to always buy what you will drink. If you’re going to have leftover wine, it should be something you like.

Don’t wait for the day of the party to pick a wine and then rely on the recommendation of someone at the liquor store – unless you just want that to be part of the topic of conversation at the party.

Always try the wine first – in fact, try it several times and try it with similar foods to what you’re going to serve. It could be an amazing Cabernet – but it just doesn’t go with apple smoked pork loin and roasted brussel sprouts.

And remember, parties should be fun. If the wine turns out awful, laugh about it and if you can, get something else. If you can’t – you can always crack open the liquor cabinet and mix Manhattans, Martinis and Old Fashioneds for everyone. Or just enjoy the bourbon neat.

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