Berger on wine: Choosing wines for a party

In the 39 years I have written a weekly wine column, one of the most frequently asked questions I get, and the most difficult to answer, is:

“We’re going to have some people over for New Year’s Eve/a Star Wars costume party/fancy dinner/a wake/a mortgage burning/a divorce. How much wine will we need?”

The query has a precise answer: “It depends.” With so many variables to consider, there are no rules.

Here are some of the things I usually ask the querier:

What time does the function start? How long will it last? Does it entail a sleep-over? A Breathalyzer test? Do the guests include anyone who could even jokingly be called a lush? How good are the wines? Here are some real issues to consider:

If light refreshments are planned for a two-hour function, you’ll need about a half-bottle for every person, understanding that very few will consume as much as a half-bottle.

Many will try two or three different wines until they find one they like.

Whites and rosés tend to be favored, especially for daytime al fresco events. Chardonnay is almost mandatory. And it needn’t be Le Montrachet.

In fact, most newcomers would spit such a wine into the potted palm. (Oh, and provide a dump bucket or count on lawn stains.)

About a third of the wines should be slightly sweet. (Sorry, wine lovers!) Some people (nonwine people) say that dessert wines are too dry for them.

Reds should be light and fruity. A chilled Beaujolais can be a treat in the heat. Most times, cabernets should be paired with heavier foods. Sauvignon blanc is better with canapés.

Dinner parties come in all shapes, sizes, and strategies. Those structured around great wines can differ so radically that the amount of wine to be served is less important than what the wines are and the order in which they’re served.

I once attended a dinner at which 40 persons were told we would all share a magnum (50 ounces) of 1899 Château Mouton-Rothschild. We all knew we would get less than two ounces of the wine.

Alas, the bottle was undrinkable.

Magnums are tricky. First, with very old magnums, no one is sure until the cork is pulled if the wine will be any good. (Suggestion: Be prepared with backup bottles.) If the wine turns out to be superb, how much to pour for each person is a major consideration.

At a tasting of 10 old Burgundies decades ago in Los Angeles, one woman received full pours of some astoundingly superb red wines.

She took one tiny sip of each of the first six, leaving a lipstick smudge on each glass, letting some of the rarest red wine on the planet go into the dump bucket.

Her husband (a certified snob) commented, “Oh, she doesn’t drink red wine.”

Magnums of great older wines also are inappropriate for the casual-drinking set.

Unless everyone understands that a 30-year-old wine from a magnum will be quite different from that $5.99 red blend they had last week, such a wine will be wasted.

Finally, at private parties, don’t ignore the impact of the waitstaff.

For a hilarious illustration of this pitfall, do not miss the now-50-year-old Blake Edwards comedy film “The Party,” an absolute classic, starring Peter Sellers and Claudine Longet. The waiter “Levinson,” played by character actor Steve Franken, is a riotous delight.

Discovery of the Week: 2015 French Bar Petite Sirah, California ($20) – The label for this well-made, medium-weight red wine tells you little, and the website is no help either.

It just refers to four generations of grape growing and doesn’t say where it’s located and who the family is. The family name is Coleman.

That name is the next generation of the late patriarch, legendary grape-grower Julio Gallo, partner in the world’s largest winery. Julio, viticultural genius behind E&J Gallo, developed an 800-acre vineyard ranch in Stanislaus County.

Most wines from the central San Joaquin Valley have an overtly Port-y aroma and can be clumsy. This first release (just now being shipped to market) is excellent.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at

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