Even with the incredible attention to detail that goes into weddings these days, one item has continued to always be an afterthought — the wine. Surprisingly, even for couples that consider the wedding meal to be their top priority, the wine served can really take a backseat to the food. There are a variety of reasons that explain this phenomenon, but none need impede a couple from pairing excellent, affordable wines with their carefully chosen wedding menu.
Consider the following a primer for selecting your wedding wines, whether you or your partner are a seasoned oenophile, or are just two people that don’t want to serve something that tastes like it came from the bargain bin at the wine store.
Where to Begin: Can You Bring Your Own?
Figure out who is providing the wine. Does your venue or caterer have a liquor license and therefore all wine must be purchased through them? Or are you free to buy the wine yourself? Ideally, if wine is very important to you, you are most likely working with a caterer or venue that allows you to provide your own alcohol.
Don’t despair if your perfect venue — say, a swank hotel ballroom — requires you to use their wine. Often you may bring in your own and pay a per bottle corkage fee. Given that venues mark up wine two to four times above the retail price (meaning that $15 bottle of beaujolais will run you $30-60), it can actually be cost-effective to pay a $10-20/bottle corkage fee on a moderately priced bottle of wine that you would enjoy serving. It’s always worth investigating, and shockingly few couples do. Among hotel beverage directors, the consensus is that couples often choose the least objectionable, least expensive reds and whites on the list and leave it at that. (Photo courtesy of Apertura Photography)
So let’s assume you have carte blanche to select the wines. Now what?
Learn to Love Your Local Wine Merchant
Two great things about using your local wine shop are, a) it is probably staffed by dedicated wine enthusiasts used to sleuthing out affordable, food-friendly bottles and b) it is likely that it holds free tastings regularly.
Once you have an idea of what you are serving (meat or fish, chicken or pork — no need to have the exact preparations finalized), you can head to your local store for a conversation about what wines might be a good match. Honesty is key here. Be honest about your level of knowledge, as it is better to use this as a learning opportunity than to spend the whole time intimidated. Be honest about your preferences, even if they are arbitrary. You can always offer a favorite wine at the bar if it wouldn’t be a great match for your meal. And be honest about your budget (more on this later).
Armed with some ideas, buy a few bottles to try at home, and plan to come back for tastings. Not only are tastings free, they also allow you to explore commitment-free grapes and regions that you might not have considered, like Italian verdicchio, Finger Lakes rieslings, or a South African cabernet franc.
Figure Out Your Budget
While some guests may swoon over your Vera Wang gown, no one will ask to see the label on the wine bottle. Use their indifference to your advantage. Faced with equally pleasing sparkling wines options for $12 or $18 per bottle? Go with the $12 and use the extra cash on something your guests will notice or, better yet, on your honeymoon. (Photo courtesy of Eternal Reflections)
Plan on half of a bottle per guest for dinner (equivalent to two generously poured glasses) and double that if wines will also be offered during cocktails. Assuming wines are served through the night, you are looking at one bottle per guest. So, for 120 guests, you should have 120 bottles, or 10 cases, of wine on hand. Depending on the season, time of day, and your menu, you can adjust the quantity of white versus red.
It’s standard to receive a 10-15% discount when purchasing a case and you may be able to work out a greater discount with the wine store, if you are ordering several cases. (All those months of chatting up the staff and bringing home bottles to try should count for something!) It never hurts to ask what the best price they can offer is. Yet, don’t be penny-wise, pound-foolish, though. Online retailers may offer slightly better pricing, however if your venue or caterer won’t accept delivery of your wine in advance, you will be stuck transporting it to your venue on the day of your wedding. Local merchants are usually more flexible with delivery timing, and it’s often free for large orders.
If you’re expecting 120 guests, and choose wines that retail for $15, you are looking at about $1,275-$1,350, including the case discount. Don’t forget to include tax and delivery charges on top of that. It’s also worth asking if you are able to return unopened, unchilled bottles for refund. This is a great way to be sure you have plenty without worrying that you will be storing and drinking your wedding wine for years to come.
What to Serve: Red, White, and a Bit of Fizz
I advise couples to pour wines with dinner that truly complement the food being served. Your caterer or wine merchant will be able to guide you towards grapes and blends that will really enhance the meal. In addition to these, I recommend offering crisp, low-alcohol wines (a white, a red, a sparkler) at the bars. Cocktail hour hors d’oeuvres and stations tend to feature savory, rich food that often requires a certain amount of refreshing acidity on the part of the wines you serve. (Photo courtesy of Amelia Strauss)
The types of grapes that could be perfect and original for a cocktail hour are too numerous to mention here (that’s where getting to know your neighborhood wine buyer will come in handy), but here are a few ideas to start you off. In general, you will find better deals on imported wines than domestic (although that is changing as more and more local wineries Stateside are producing excellent wines).
For the whites, you might consider:
Sauvignon Blanc, Soave, Gavi, Verdicchio, Albariño, Rueda, Riesling (the drier the better), Chenin Blanc, Vouvray, or Pinot Gris.
For the reds, explore:
Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Tempranillo, Rioja, Grenache, Barbera, Pinot Noir.
A Final Note — Have Fun
Just like all the other decisions you make for your wedding, selecting the wines should be something that’s fun, doesn’t blow your budget, and ultimately reflects your taste. Don’t let anyone — wine snob friends, pushy relatives, or even me! — convince you otherwise.
Check back in a couple of weeks for a series of articles I will be doing on avoiding the hidden costs in five key wedding areas — venue, bar, music, stationery, and favors. Until then, happy planning!