A wine for all occasions
Twelve bottles make a wine cellar: three top-tier wines, three white specialist wines, three ethnic red wines, and three American wines. With these on their sides in a cool closet away from the washing machine, you'll have a wine for every meal.
- Champagne You already know when to drink this: New Year's, birthdays, you feel great, you feel low. It's traditionally paired with dessert or caviar, but you might want to serve it with something buttery or in a cream sauce. Just saying.
- Bordeaux When you need a red wine to go with your prime rib, or celebratory steak, or even when you make Grandma's special brisket in her special pot. This is Wine with a capital W, the kind you buy to drink years later. That said, you can find good 'starter' Bordeaux for about $25.
- Dessert wine You don't think you need this, but you do. When you've given your guests a great meal, and just when everyone thinks they've gotten royally feasted...pull this out. My favorite pick is Canadian Ice Wine...looks and tastes like something drunk by Elven Royalty. Also...Canada? If you crave tradition instead of mind-blowing (hey, it could happen), Sauternes. Dessert wine is emphatically not cheap, and often comes in weird bitty bottles, but it keeps forever, and your guests will remember the night almost as long.
Three Specialist Whites
- Muscadet Your go-to fish wine. I'm not a big fish eater, but this will do the trick. Also, I'd hazard, a good pairing for all that Japanese food that you don't drink sake with.
- Gewurztraminer Spicy and peppery, this is your pork/charcuterie wine. Also great for Chinese food, and some Indian and Thai (though the 'wine' that goes best with curry is beer, IPA, to be exact.)
- Riesling It used to be said that Riesling (under the label of Blue Nun) went with any dish. Sharing some of the same flavors of Coca-cola (I'm saying this 'cause I like cola), I would, if I were inclined, drink this with almost anything back a few years when German wine was cheap, cheap, cheap (I liked it with chicken, best). Now that it's more expensive, and I a little more sophisticated, I'm more likely to drink it by itself, or with a few nibbles as a 'cocktail' wine....like Steely Dan, still good...or better!
Three country wines
- Rioja What you drink with Mexican food. Or Spanish food. Or...Puerto Rican food. Or maybe even Brazilian food. Also makes fine Sangria, if that's your pleasure.
- Beaujolais Forget all that flummery about Beaujolais Nouveau: if it's not yet November 15th or much past January of the following year it's as worthless as thin asparagus...it's sold as premium, but it's actually past its peak. Get some regular old Beaujolais Villages, it'll be fine with your Sunday chicken, your casserole, your tenderloin tips in brown sauce...your basic French wine.
- Good cheap Italian red Pasta, pizza, you get the general idea. If it's Italian, and not a Major Meal, this is a no-brainer. Barolo, Valpolicella, the Chianti that makes great candleholders. Try a different one every time...you might be surprised.
Three American wines
- Chardonnay Another 'cocktail' white, maybe overplayed these days...but great to have on hand. Chateau Magdelena Chard was the white wine in the movie "Bottle Shock" that won the controversial "Judgment of Paris" in 1976, when American wine won a taste-off against comparative French wine.
- Cabernet Sauvignon The American answer to Beaujolais, and the red (Stag's Leap) you saw in "Bottle Shock", eating up the French competition. The wine of a thousand uses, a good all-round red.
- Zinfindel A big brawny red, for all your hamburger/gamy/"what do I serve with this?" needs. I wouldn't serve a Thanksgiving turkey with anything else (though one T'giving was spent in a hospital where we all drank sparkling cider). This is also my favorite 'wine for people who don't drink wine' (who are inevitably amazed that zin comes in any color other than 'blush'), since it tastes like what the common folks drink in that mythical kingdom where the upper crust drinks ice wine. Also a great snack wine, it positively screams for some bread or cheese (some people call it "peanut butter wine") to tame it, yet it more than rewards with its straight-on appeal. You can, of course, keep some blush around for your blush-loving friends...if you must. Isn't America great?
How to, and how to branch out
As for actually buying all of this, your best option is to find a good local wine shop, look bewildered and hand them this list. Now, in some cases, that's more easily said than done: now that wine is cool, you'll see a lot of places that are wine boutiques, where the sales staff is young and cute and the prices are uniformly steep. Don't be fooled. Pretty young things are unlikely to have done that much drinking, much less have developed any kind of palate, and very likely to have been told to sell anyone coming in the most expensive bottle in the shop. On the other hand, there are plenty of places where I've asked for Gewurtztraminer, Muscadet, or even Beaujolais Villages (NOT Nouveau) and gotten a blank stare. Look for a mellow, kind of dusty shop where the owner has a little grey in his beard and has a good range of stock. Explain what you're doing: you might even get a discount.
The best advice I ever got from anyone who sold wine was to buy a variety you'd never tried before every time you buy wine, for about two years, paying no more than $15 every time.
This gets you off your duff, I tell you. It's sort of like listening to a good classical station: on the outside, you wonder how you're going to keep awake, and then, you find yourself in Wonderland. Try Merlot, try Pinot Noir,try Mateus, try them all! Then, of the varieties you like, you can always get specialized, or collect rarities. There are wines from Africa within spitting distance of lion country, wines from every state of the nation, wines blended from a hundred grape varieties, wines with masterwork art on the label, wine that...you're sure to absolutely love.