You've experienced it and I sure have as well: You go to someone's home for dinner and they're serving a wine that you know is mighty fine. Yet that evening, for whatever reason, it was blah. Flat. Lifeless. The wine failed to exhilarate.
My first instinct is to assume that it's me. OK, my palate is off. It happens. Or maybe I simply wasn't receptive—tough day and all that. Of course, maybe it was a less-than-perfect bottle from bad cellaring or a poor-quality cork. The geek in me might conclude that it was the "wrong" glass. (That too can happen, but actually only rarely does a glass shut down a good wine.)
All of the above is possible. Yet I have to say it: Likely it's the host's fault. This may seem harsh. But too often if a fine wine fails to show, it's usually because somehow the context didn't work. And that, in turn, is mostly the host's doing, which is to say coming up with the right mix of wines appropriate for the occasion, the setting, the food and, not least, the wild-card element of the guests themselves (more about them in a moment).
Allow me to offer what I, anyway, submit are the five rules—which aren't really that so much as, well, strongly urged advice—that help make wines vibrant and memorable at the table.
Temperature. This is hardly a secret among wine lovers, but still, for something that's so widely known, this business of serving wines at their most flavor-flattering temperatures seems to be one of those things that everyone knows but few actually do.
That said, an increasing number of sommeliers really do pay meticulous attention to the temperature of the wine they're serving. If you want evidence of the admirable professionalism of American sommeliers today, you only need to check the temperature of your wine for proof of it.
But in home dining it seems that, if my experience is anything to go by, white wines arrive cryogenically cold and many reds are served way too warm.
So what's the right temperature? Whenever I see a precise temperature proposed for this or that wine I recoil. Wine isn't science; it's pleasure.
So what do I suggest? You can't go too far wrong serving both red and white wines on what you or I might consider a tad cool. Not so cool as to make the glass fog up, but cool enough that you might say upon first sip "It's just a touch too cool."
I suggest this because, unless you're drinking your wine in a meat locker, the wine in everyone's glass will warm up quickly enough, as well as what remains in the bottle. I've never seen a warm wine cool down in a glass, but it's a sure thing that a cool wine will soon warm up.
Paying attention to temperature is the not-so-secret key to showing a wine at its best.
A Degree of Ritual. Casual is the operative word in modern entertaining. And I don't think that anybody wants to go back to the stuffiness of "formal" dining. I've done some of that over the years and, if you've never suffered it, it's really just as bad as you might imagine.
That noted, there's still a place for ritual even at the most casual dinners (or even lunches). This is particularly so when it comes to wine. We all know that good wine both needs and deserves a certain amount of attention. Ritual serves.
For example, let's say you're having dinner with a large group. Usually, the wine is poured (or passed around) and somebody says, "Cheers!" And that's that. Hardly much ritual to that, is there?
But the wine—and the welcoming moment—gets a little more care and attention when the host says, "Before we start I'd like to suggest that we do something the Italians like to do around a big table. You turn to the person on your right, clink glasses and say to them "Salud!" or "Good health!" or whatever you like. Then that person, in turn, turns to the person on his or her right and does the same thing until we've gone all 'round the table."
My wife and I have done this many times (and we did learn it in Italy, by the way) and it's a crowd-pleaser. And, if you like, you can also slip in a word or two about the wine at the same time.
The Gesture of Generosity. In a word: magnums. I've long loved magnums, which are two bottles in one, or 1.5 liters. And I have to say that nothing excites interest and attention to the wine than when you trot out a magnum. Obviously, part of it is the effect of sheer size. Bringing out two regular-size (750ml) bottles makes no impression at all. Ho-hum. But haul out a magnum and you've got their attention. (Bottles of Alsatian or German wines in magnum, with their elongated torpedo shapes, really get everyone's attention.)
The other thing about serving wine in magnum is less obvious: It signals generosity. This is particularly so when it's a small gathering of, say, four or six people. So what if you don't finish the wine? You can drink the rest of it the next day. (Store the wine, red or white, in the refrigerator, as it will keep better. Cold slows oxidation.)
Not least, when the wine arrives in magnum almost instinctively everyone wants to know all about it. After all, it must be important if you bought it in such a large format. Voilà! The perfect opportunity to talk a bit about the wine.
An Element of Surprise. Take a chance. Be unpredictable. I have to say it: Too often everything about wine at table is predictable. You start with sparkling wine. Then you move to white wine and then to red. I've done it a million times myself. Quite unconsciously, we lose attention. It's familiar, even boring.
So consider changing things a bit. Recently I decided to decant the sparkling wine we served before dinner. Now that got some attention. "What about the bubbles?" everyone asked. "Well, they're right there in your glasses, aren't they?" I replied. (When you decant a sparkling wine make sure to pour it gently down the side of the decanter, like pouring a beer into a glass, so as not to froth it up too much.)
Or if it's a warm summer day or evening, why not start with a cool, even slightly cold, glass of something sweet: Moscato, a sweet Loire white from Chenin Blanc, a sweeter-style German Riesling or even a lighter-style Tokaji. This gets everyone's attention, you may be sure.
How about a rosé—in mid-winter? That'll get attention.
And what about that white-before-red thing? Pure fashion. For example, Charles Elmé Francatelli, who was the head chef to Queen Victoria, wrote in his 1862 book, The Cook's Guide, "It is generally admitted by real gourmets that red wines should precede the introduction of white wines." And the Victorians liked to serve Champagne with the meat course. Go figure.
Bottom line: An element of surprise draws attention to good wine. (I'm not so sure about that Champagne with meat thing, though.)
The Right Wines for the Moment—and the Guests, Too. Of course, you and I as guests have to show up too when it comes to giving good wine its due. We need to pay suitable attention to the wine but not drone on about it either. (Is there anything more deadly at a dinner party—or anywhere else, for that matter—than a wine bore?)
But the host's obligation is to match the wines with the guests, as well as with the moment. I've said it before and it's worth repeating, however uncomfortable it might make some folks: There's no sense in serving great wines to guests who simply aren't interested in wine. The key word, of course, is "interest." Not "knowledge."
In full evangelical mode I've served great wines to uninterested guests and it was an utter failure. Even a great, seemingly compelling wine will not move someone if they, for their part, aren't interested in wine. You wind up feeling like a fool as well as having squandered something meaningful to you. Trust me on this: Don't do it.
The trick to pairing food and wine is to never forget the moment. And always remember who is drinking your wines, and then choose accordingly. They may well be the perfect audience for your finest, most-cherished bottles, full of interest and enthusiasm (knowledge is unimportant in comparison).
But if they're not, well, you know what to do, right?