A potential customer enters your store, meanders around the wine racks, and, with empty hands, walks to the counter. “I invited some friends for dinner at my house tomorrow night and need a few bottles of wine,” she says. While some large retail shops have well-trained staff members to assist such customers, many smaller shops lack the resources to employ this lever of expertise. However, retailers of all sizes can borrow a few ideas from the restaurant trade.
Restaurateurs are confronted daily with patrons asking questions about wines to accompany their dinner. Some have designed wine lists by descriptors rather than varietal or regional designation. For example, in place of Bordeaux or cabernet sauvignon the wine list might have a category stating “Full-bodied, Intense fruit, Spicy.” This section is likely to have California cabernets from hillside vineyards, Rhone wines from Hermitage and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a super-Tuscan or two, Burgundies from Gevrey-Chambertin and Pommard, and a wine like Taurasi from southern Italy. The patron ordering a T-bone steak can be directed to that section of the list by a server with or without a lot of wine knowledge. Retailers could organize a section of their store around a similar idea.
For the woman standing at the counter, the immediate question to her should be, what are you serving? She tells you her evening will begin with crudités, or raw vegetables, with a blue cheese dip; smoked salmon canapés and a shrimp hors d’oeuvre. These foods marry perfectly with sparkling and dry white wines.
Nothing in the wine world starts a festive mood as quickly as a glass of sparkling wine. If money is not the issue, suggest champagne; if cost is a factor offer cava, the sparkling wine from Spain. Made in the champagne method, cava represents good value. A few dollars more will bring the excellent sparkling wines from Italy’s Franciacorta region, many of which are also made in the champagne method. And, of course, there are the outstanding California sparkling wines, some owned and directed by champagne houses.
Not everyone likes sparkling wine, and our hostess wants her guests to be relaxed and enjoying themselves. A bottle or two of dry, white wine for the reception is required. Sommeliers and wine savvy restaurateurs know that wines should build in complexity throughout the dinner, so the first wine should be flavorful but light-bodied.
Walk your customer to the section of the store that has white wines from northern Italy. Piedmont’s floral-scented Arneis and delicate Gavi; crisp Pinot Grigio from Trentino-Alto Adige; and Tuscany’s mildly fruit-flavored Vernaccia di San Gimignano are all good, reasonably-priced white wines to start out the evening.
With Seafood Appetizers
If her menu begins with a seafood appetizer using crabmeat, lobster, scallops or shrimp take her to the next level of complexity and body in white wines. France has regions filled with great white wines: suggest a white burgundy from Pouilly-Fuisse, Chablis or Meursault; or the full-flavored Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre from Loire Valley. Alsace has aromatic and delicious pinot gris and pinot blanc wines. If she prefers American wines, show her chardonnays from the cool-climate Carneros region that offer complexity without the overpowering oak-infusion that is all too common in many of our chardonnays; other cool-climate wine areas producing food-friendly wines are fume blancs and sauvignon blancs from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, pinot gris and pinot blancs from Oregon, and semillon and chardonnay from Washington State.
With Poultry or Grilled Vegetables
In the event the menu’s first course is a poultry dish, meat pate or a vegetarian plate of grilled vegetables, a light-bodied, fresh fruit-flavored red wine like Italy’s Barbera, Dolcetto, Valpolicella, Bardolino, Chianti, or Ciro wines would be good suggestions. A cru Beaujolais such as Brouilly or Fleurie; a Cote de Beaune, Minervois, or regional Bordeaux wine are good French partners for this first course. Many Oregon pinot noirs have the delicate texture yet good flavors to make them ideal first-course wines.
With Meat/Tomatoe-Sauced Pasta
Meat or tomato-sauced pastas are often used as either a first course or middle course. While the above red wines could be served with this dish, it also opens the door for a medium-bodied red wine to be presented. Sangiovese is the red grape of Tuscany and three of its wines would be ideal recommendations at this point: Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Rosso di Montalcino — the latter being the lesser wine of Brunello di Montalcino. Merlot is also a perfect medium-bodied wine when it comes from Bordeaux’s Pomerol appellation; Burgundies like Nuits-St. George, Savigny-Les-Beaune, Rully, Santenay and Givry belong in this group. Pinot noir from the Santa Barbara, Santa Maria and Monterey regions of California are good choices. And a few Chilean merlots and carmeniere wines, along with a malbec from Argentina would not only make good matches but might engender some lively conversation around the table — an added plus for the store’s reputation.
With Beef and Lamb
Main courses at home tend to be conservative choices like beef or lamb; salmon or bass, or a vegetarian casserole. While the meat choices make it challenging for guests drinking only white wine, all the others can be paired with red wines.
California zinfandels run the gamut from light-bodied reds reminiscent of Beaujolais to inky, port-like creations. The latter end of the range is a good recommendation for the beef and lamb, the center of the range for the salmon and the fresh, lively style for the casserole. Without doubt, cabernet sauvignon from Australia, California, Chile, and nearly every other vineyard area in the world would complement the beef and lamb. So, too would Italy’s Barolo, Barbaresco, Amarone; Spains Rioja riservas and grand riservas, and the reds of Ribera del Duero; Frances classified Bordeaux chateaus, premier and grand cru Burgundies, Rhone Valleys Hermitage, Croze-Hermitage; and Californias syrah wines are all good partners for these dishes. If white wine drinkers are at the table, suggest a full-bodied, oak-infused chardonnay from California, viognier from California or France, or for a true surprise a full-body, dry Vouvray from Loire Valley.
With Salmon… and Other Fish
Salmon is one fish I always enjoy with red wines, and so are tuna, blue fish and mackerel. All please the palate when paired with pinot noir. However, for white wine drinkers, think sauvignon blanc: its tartness will cut the oily nature of these fish. South Africa and New Zealand produce steely, flavorful wines from this grape, and Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume are paradigms of sauvignon blanc. Italy’s southern white wines Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino have much more body and character than the northern whites, making them better choices for main course selections like these.
And Vegetarian Casseroles
A vegetarian casserole might be composed of root vegetables in winter; and squashes, eggplant, and tomato in summer. Not only do these take to red and white wines, but they also offer the opportunity for diversity. These dishes have a broad range of flavors and textures to accommodate such white wine grapes as gew