Wine Expert, So-Called: Or, How I Survived my 25th Reunion
Maybe it’s for your daughter’s wedding, or your nephew’s bar mitzvah. Maybe it’s the annual family jamboree, or a Thanksgiving dinner for an army. If you know something about wine, even a little bit, you might one day hear this:
“Will you do the wine?”
You’ll have a hard time saying no. But it’s high stakes. You know about wine because you care about wine, and care deeply about people’s experience of it. These are people you love. You don’t want to screw up.
For me, it was my twenty-fifth college reunion (yes, I felt like a fossil). I’d never been to any of my prior reunions, and hadn’t kept up with my classmates. I’d always figured reunions were for other people, the successful ones or something, not me. Plus, I’m not an event planner or sommelier. I no longer work on the supply side of the wine industry. I do write about wine and teach and travel, but I’m no wine expert—not by a mile.
None of that stopped the reunion committee from asking me to tackle wine duty for our three-day shindig last June. As far as they were concerned, I was the class authority.
Here was the deal: Wine for three dinners of increasing formality, Thursday through Saturday nights. One-hour receptions (plastic cups) followed by two-hour dinners (stemware). All events held outside, two under a large tent and one en plein air. Head count: probably 300, 450, and 500, respectively. Wine budget: $6,500.
In short: 1,250 dinners, $5.20 per head. And plastic cups—egad!
I said yes.
Where to Begin?
First the good news: at big, important events like these, nobody’s there for the wine. They’re there to support each other, to socialize, to witness a spiritual or life-altering event, to gab. (They’re also not there for the food, although this often gets more attention. But can you recall what you ate at the last three weddings you attended? I didn’t think so.)
My reunion chair told me, during our initial conversation, that she didn’t remember the wine from our 20th reunion at all. I mean, I remember there was wine, she said, I saw it go by. But I couldn’t tell you what it was.
Right, and if I do my job well, you won’t remember this wine, either. If it’s bad, you’ll remember it. But if it’s decent or even great, you won’t. You’ll remember the people you connected with instead, which is the whole point of the exercise anyway.
Still, I wanted to do a good job. If we had to drink $15 wine, it might as well be good $15 wine. And I wanted to be sure the wine harmonized with the food. I didn’t want to plunk a Cab down onto the table next to the lobster, or a Verdejo next to the steak. A poor wine and food pairing can make both elements taste bad, and (see above) this was not the memory I wanted to fix in my classmates’ minds.
Off to the Races
Starting in February I began inquiring about menus, but I learned these wouldn’t be finalized until March. That was fine, because I still had plenty else to do.
Somehow I managed to get the reunion committee to conscript—er, recruit someone else for beer and liquor. This would keep my task manageable while some passionate other focused on stuff I knew much less about.
I called my favorite local wine merchant to give him a heads up. I happen to live in the same town as the college and wanted to work with someone I trusted.
Then I started thinking about the wines. I skimmed my files of tasting notes for good candidates, those between $10 and $20 that were tasty, consistent, and readily available. If I’d had a wine only once, I bought a few more bottles to be sure it was reliable.
The wines also had to be able to stand up to the out of doors. Mid-June in New England can be hot and muggy, cold and rainy, or utterly Elysian, but almost irrespective of the weather, wine can seem somewhat tasteless outside, as even a slight breeze blows away its aromatics. Wine also seems to have a spirit inside it that, when it sees an open sky, wants to fly straight up to heaven. At outdoor events, nuanced wines are contraindicated.
I also decided I would not kowtow to the tyranny of popularity. Meaning: I wouldn’t restrict the selections to Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, and Merlot just because they’re broadly recognizable. Actually, I did end up pouring all of those wines—well, not the Merlot—but I also poured Malvasia, Aglianico, Viognier, and Côtes du Rhône. Sure, there would be a few familiar choices, but I wanted people to experience something new, even if they weren’t paying close attention. I wanted to throw some lesser-known wines some love.
A month or so passed. Attendance figures started coming into focus. But we wouldn’t have final numbers until about two weeks prior to the event.
And the menus? Still working on that.
How Much to Buy?
In the six-week run-up to the reunion, I began to use our incoming attendance data to calculate preliminary volume requirements. I didn’t want us to run out of wine, but I also didn’t want us still drinking the stuff at our 50th reunion, either.
Through research, I learned that the total volume of wine consumed is affected by the time of day, day of week, and mix of beverage options. People drink less during the afternoon and on weeknights, and drink less wine when there’s a full bar. And naturally, the mix of light, medium, heavy, and non-drinkers affects the volume, too.
We decided we’d offer wine and beer only on Thursday night; wine, beer, and one signature cocktail on Friday; and wine, beer, and a full bar on Saturday. Plugging these choices into an online beverage calculator let me start estimating the needed volume.
How are those menus coming? I asked, about a month ahead of the reunion.
Well, we’re not quite there yet, but we do know that on Thursday it’ll be chicken and flatbreads—finger food, stuff you can pick up while mingling. Friday, steak and lobster. Saturday, salmon and chicken.
Any thoughts from the caterers on seasonings, sauces, or accompaniments?
Well, Thursday it’ll be sort of a Mediterranean theme. And all the dinners will have some vegetarian option. Does that help?
Putting it Together
Working with what information I had, I chose four wines for each dinner, generally two whites and two reds. One of each type was more fruit-driven, the other more mineral-driven or structured. The idea was to offer two reasonable by-the-glass options during the reception hour, wines that were friendly enough without food but that could also be carried to the table and enjoyed with lighter dinner fare. The other two wines were meant for the heartier entrées.
To align with Thursday’s Mediterranean theme, for example, I chose four Italian wines: Malvasia Bianca, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Nero d’Avola, and Aglianico. I admit these choices were a bit recherché for the average wine drinker. But the guests were all, by definition, college grads, and liberal arts grads to boot. I figured they could deal.
For the other two dinners I added a couple more familiar varieties. For Friday’s lobster and steak I chose Chardonnay, Verdejo, Zinfandel, and Côtes du Rhône. For Saturday’s chicken and salmon: Chilean Pinot Noir, California Viognier, California Sauvignon Blanc, and, for our celebratory class toast, Prosecco.
About two weeks before the event date, my retailer and I built the wine order. Since we’re in a so-called control state, he sources wine through the state liquor commission. Mysteriously—no, absurdly—the state’s ordering database does not list wine vintages. Also, the state warehouse doesn’t always have hefty stock of any given wine, so we had to make some last-minute substitutions. There wasn’t enough Malvasia, for example, so I added two cases of Pinot Grigio. So much for my little jihad.
Remarkably, the most expensive wine on the roster was the Aglianico at $19, but we only needed two cases of that, so the price wouldn’t sink us. In the end, our average retail bottle price was $14.76, and the retailer knocked off a substantial discount as thanks for the large order. We landed somewhere around $13 per bottle, and the total bill was exactly on budget.
The wine arrived about a week before the date, forty-five cases. The retailer was out of storage space, so we schlepped the wine to my basement. (I am truly a full-service operation.) As it happened, I’d somehow been cajoled into leading a separate wine tasting event at the reunion, too, so we added another five cases to the pile.
So, How’d it Go?
I never did get full menus. Caterers are busy at reunion time in a college town.
The reunion staff, strolling breezily off plan, set up full bars all three nights—and during lunches, too.
The student bartenders pre-opened all of each night’s wine every single night, despite implorations to the contrary. It only takes twenty seconds to open a bottle, I said, and most of these are screwcaps. They looked at me, each face a question.
The caterers inexplicably ran out of both lobster and steak on Friday night. I found this out only much later, when someone emailed to say I was the night’s unsung hero, because well, at least there was decent wine.
The plastic cups were every bit as regrettable as you can imagine.
But all of that was just fine. The turnout was splendid; everyone arrived with a smile. The weather was stunning, three solid days of seventy-five degree sunshine dappled by light breeze. The daytime events were fun, my classmates’ kids were adorable, and I had a few remarkable conversations with a few truly remarkable people.
By Saturday night, I could finally relax. Our class, in its finery, was seated at linen-draped tables on the lawn of the big library. There was no tent above us that night, just a canopy of deep blue gloaming with stars glistering alight. A green lamp was glowing in the library’s majestic spire, a beacon in our school color that the college has lit for decades at homecomings and reunions just like this.
The salmon was served. (There was no chicken after all.) I took a bite with a sip of the Pinot Noir, hoping. It was a perfect match, the acidity of the wine refreshing and clean against the unctuous fish. I sat eating and smiling, surrounded by old acquaintances, and some new friends.
Maybe it was the setting, maybe it was the wine’s spreading warmth inside me, but I looked up at that green light shining in the tower and thought, I guess I’m one of them now, or rather one of us. That light’s shining for me.
Sourcing Wine for The Big Event: Some Recommendations
I knew a little about buying wine before I started, but I knew a whole lot more by the end. If you’re also the resident “wine expert, so-called,” here are a few recommendations to guide you the next time your best friend, family member, or boss looks at you hopefully and asks, “Will you do the wine?”
Start early. Determine the wine budget, which will set your constraints. If you expect 200 people and your budget is $2,000, you can spend about $10 per person, which is enough for a couple of glasses of pretty reasonable wine. If your budget is much less, you’ll have to work harder to find something agreeable.
Choose wines that pair broadly. Chefs make last-minute changes based on what’s available or seasonal, so preparation style and even main course might shift at the last minute. Plus, given dietary preferences, not everyone will be eating the same meal: some will have chicken, some will have beef, and some will go for the veggie lasagna. The good news is there’s no need to limit yourself to one white and one red. A range of wines means guests have choices.
Don’t play it safe, but don’t go too wild, either. You don’t have to stick to the most popular grape varieties. In fact, you might save a bit of money by choosing lesser-known wines, and the best food pairing could be a somewhat obscure grape. But do offer a reliable second option so guests feel free to experiment, knowing they can switch to the Chardonnay if that Vernaccia just doesn’t work out.
Use a beverage calculator to estimate required volume. My favorite is from Table & Vine, but Evite offers a simple version that’s enough for many situations. (You can find many more online.) The calculators generally require the following information:
- Event duration, in hours.
- Number of guests, and specifically the number of light, medium, heavy, and non-drinkers.
- Style of event: cocktail party or all-day affair? Daytime or evening event?
- Beverage mix: full bar? Wine, beer, and sparkling wines only?
- Wine/beer ratio (when in doubt, choose 60/40).
- White wine/red wine ratio (when in doubt, choose 60/40 in summer and 40/60 in winter).
Sometimes you won’t have a clue about the preferences of your guests, so follow these rules of thumb:
- A 750 ml. bottle of wine is 25.4 ounces, yielding about five 5-oz. glasses per bottle.
- Count on one 5-oz. drink per person per hour.
- People will drink less heavily during the daytime and on weeknights.
- People will drink less wine when other beverages are available.
Partner with a single, trusted wine supplier. A large order matters a lot to a single retailer, especially a small one, so they’ll be more willing to accommodate your needs, including split cases or special orders. Give them your list of wines early so they’ll have time to research availability, then rely on their expertise for any needed substitutions. Ask whether they’re willing to extend you a volume discount of 10–15% and to buy back any leftover, unopened wine. Make it clear you won’t know final order volumes until your R.S.V.P. deadline, but do try to make their job as easy as possible.
Offer support during the event. If your bar staff is inexperienced, taste the wine with them before service so they know how to talk about it. Tell them what food it’s meant to pair with, and try to keep them from pre-opening every bottle. But also: don’t get in their way.
Relax. The whites are chilled, the reds are open, the wine is flowing, and the party is on. It’s out of your hands now, so take a deep breath. Not every wine will hit it out of the park, and that’s okay. Because remember: nobody—including you—is there for the wine.