If choosing wines for a dinner party inspires a vague sense of unease -- what if my guests don't enjoy the wine I'm serving? -- it might help to recast the task in less high-pressure terms. Recall how appreciative you feel when you're a guest, and how impressive a good spread looks from the other side of the table. Like the food you cook or the flowers you set out, your wine selections are simply an opportunity to share your self with your friends. If that sounds a little too Zen or loosey-goosey, let's start with what you already know: what you'll be eating.
Focus on the Food
First and foremost, you want to choose wines with flavor and a refreshment factor that complement the food you're preparing. So if you're serving a rich lamb dish on a wintry night (shepherd's pie, for example), a voluptuous Cabernet Sauvignon would be a better choice than a steely, delicate white. Lobster potpie, on the other hand, would call for a white wine such as Chardonnay, with a bit of butteriness, more than it would an inky, spicy red wine, such as Malbec. These choices are largely subjective, of course, but that's the pleasure of tasting wines with food and letting the combinations you like become your guides.
Red or White? Go with Both
There's no need to pair a different wine with each course of a dinner. In fact, if you choose one red and one white to pour throughout the evening, you can cover a wide range of foods and also accommodate the outliers -- those guests who insist upon only white or only red. (Our own mother has barely let a sip of red wine pass her lips in 15 years.) And while it goes without saying, these wines should be ones you enjoy sipping on their own, so that they can also be served as aperitifs before dinner.
Pick a Locale, Any Locale
And beyond flavor and refreshment? You choose your own adventure. Serving a classic boeuf bourguignon? Go Burgundy! The French region gives the dish its name and is almost synonymous with Pinot Noir, which would be a terrific match. But then, so would a Pinot Noir you were thrilled to discover on a recent business trip to Oregon, because wine, after all, is as much a connection to people as it is to place.
Get the Party-Size Bottle
One tenet we like to live by is never to pass up an opportunity to torque up the festivity quotient. Our late grandmother, a fabulous hostess, was a great consumer (connoisseur?) of one-and-a-half-liter supermarket Merlots that ranged from merely quaffable to quite delicious. On occasions when we're served such wines, you can bet we always remember her zest for life!
And while we're on the subject of oversize bottles -- "large format" in the trade lingo -- always ask your wine store what wines are available in magnums (equivalent to two bottles), Jeroboams (four or six bottles), and Imperials (eight bottles!). These bottles may represent great value and also bring maximum party spirit. We recently served a Methuselah (the sparkling-wine version of an Imperial) at a 70th-birthday party we hosted for a friend. Yes, the six-liter bottle required two guests to pour, and, yes, some wine spilled in the process, but the gesture was perfectly in tune with the achievement we were celebrating.
Rose in fall? Absolutely, if it's got the layered berry flavors of the Bieler Père et Fils 2010 Sabine ($13), which go beautifully with a range of fish and vegetables.
Best for a Blowout Dinner
Opulent chocolate and berry notes make Justin Vineyards & Winery's 2007 Isosceles from Paso Robles ($62) the perfect Cabernet Sauvignon blend for a lavish celebration.
Best for a Cold-Weather Roast
Nicolas Potel's versatile Rouge Cuvee Gerard Potel 2007 ($22) is the little black dress of affordable French Burgundies.
Best for a Seafood Sit-Down
Ernesto Picollo's 2010 Gavi del Comune Gavi Rovereto ($16), made with Cortese grapes, is an off-dry white wine with heft.
Best Big Supermarket Bottle
Turning Leaf's 2009 California Merlot ($14 for a 1.5-liter bottle), with black-cherry suggestions, is a nice match for ragu and can carry through to chocolate cake.