How To Buy Wine For A Dinner Party

By Carolyn Stine September 13, 2018 

You may remember Caroline Shifflett, alter ego @chardonnaymoi, from our previous story about how to curate the ultimate cheese board for your next dinner party. What you may not know is that Caroline is also a winemaker herself, and pretty much has had wine flowing through her veins since she emerged from the womb. As a consummate hostess, there is never any shortage of thoughtfully-selected wine at Caroline’s soirees (including wine from her own label, Hunter Glenn). We sat down with Caroline to learn more about how you can apply her life’s lessons as a California winemaker to how we can think about choosing the right wine for our next dinner party.

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Tell us a little bit about your background in the wine world.  

I grew up in the Napa Valley, so you could say that wine is in my blood!  I’m the 4th generation of a grape growing family, and in 2013 my brother and I decided to start making our own wine.  We both had the same passion for building community and social interaction over wine and food. So, we figured why not make our own wine to do so with? We are proud to share our Napa history in each bottle.  

What are your top tricks for curating a wine selection for a dinner party?

In general “what grows together, goes together” - think truffles with Burgundy and Barolo or Sancerre with soft goat cheeses.  I love exploring regional pairings which can make for a fun dinner party theme. But ultimately, wine pairings come down to personal preference.  Chicken is always a safe bet and goes with pretty much everything! I love to start off a dinner party with sparkling wine and appetizers, followed by a mix of white and red for the main event.    

What is the right amount of wine per person to plan for a dinner party?

One bottle of wine = about 4 glasses, and I typically plan one bottle of wine per guest for a dinner.  

How much do you depend on your menu to dictate your wine selection? Do you have any go-to’s regardless of menu or time of year?

I think it’s important to at least think through your menu and a loose idea of wine pairings; remember to pair the weight of the dish with the weight of the wine, you wouldn’t want either to be out of balance and overpower the other.  High tannin wines need fat to cut through, which is what makes a powerful Cabernet Sauvignon such a wonderful pairing with steak.

For the wine rookies out there, what are your “rules of thumb” for tasting and enjoying wine?

Don’t overthink it!  But at the same time, take some time to pause and reflect on what you’re drinking. Take a sip and hold it in your mouth for a few seconds, how does it coat your mouth? Is it unctuous and juicy or thin and fleeting? Once you swallow, are the sides of your mouth watering from high acidity? Does it make you crave another sip? How long does the wine linger in your mouth after you swallow?

A perfect wine will have a balance of fruit, acid and tannin and will linger in your mouth for 60 seconds or more!  But again, it’s all about what the wine tastes like according to YOUR personal preference. Pay attention to labels, I love using an app like Vivino to categorize the wines I’ve tried, as you start to pay more attention, you will build a foundational knowledge and will be able to recall more and more about wines and why you liked them, which is really helpful when trying to explain what you like to a somm or the shop clerk at your local wine store.

What are you drinking these days? What would we find on your wine rack?

Chardonnay all day every day, particularly white Burgundy! I love a good Provencal rosé and for heartier meals and colder days, my red wine of choice is Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon.

What’s the best way to learn about and taste new wine?

Take advantage of your local wine merchant! They are there to help. As you start to build your foundation of wine knowledge, categorize the wines you do like with a few helpful descriptors (or sometimes just as helpful, categorize wines you didn’t like and be able to articulate why with a few descriptors).

When you visit your wine shop, tell them what you’ve been drinking and why you liked or didn’t like a wine, then ask if they have any suggestions for something new you should try. Don’t be afraid to share price-point constraints, no one needs to feel pressured into spending more than they’re willing, and it will help the associate narrow down their suggestions. I’d also recommend seeking out wine tastings in your area. The Juice is a free weekly newsletter that lists wine tastings and events, some are even free!  The more you expose yourself to, the more you will expand your knowledge and palate.

Tell Us What You Think

  • Carolyn says:

    Thank you!

  • Larry Reiter says:

    I would also suggest that one might consider having several wines of different quality as often time the range of appreciation is quite varied among friends and there is no point in pour a premier cru burgundy to someone who is accustomed to drinking over extracted and manipulated Pinot Noir. I always keep an off dry riesling or Vouvray handy for those accustomed to something sweet.

  • Peyton Ladt Sterns says:

    That's a great tip, Larry! Thank you!

  • Carolyn Stine

    A party without cake is just a meeting.

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