The Holiday Wine Conundrum: “What Should I Bring to Dinner?”

The choices are vaster than ever. So think about what you really want from that special wine

The Holiday Wine Conundrum: “What Should I Bring to Dinner?”
He knows if wines are bad or good … But how do you choose from all the possible options on the shelves? (Jonathan Kirn / Getty Images)
Dec 20, 2022

This week, my wife and I are traveling to New York City for family festivities at my sister’s place—our first such gathering in three years.

I sense one thing that hasn’t changed is that particular New York version of holiday stress, where city dwellers dread battling their fellow humans over shopping errands.

The other day, my mom called in a state of not-quite-yet panic. “At Christmas dinner, we are going to be 15, and I am supposed to bring some wine,” she sighed. “I don’t know what to get. What do you think? We are having roast lamb.”

My mom is no wine-and-food dilettante. She was once—long before she got a beautiful new oven she doesn’t know how to operate—a gourmet cook. A world traveler, she was serving Bordeaux crus classés, Champagnes and white Burgundies back in the 1970s, later moving into Rhône wines and Brunellos. And yet now—post-COVID and well into her eighties—the social aspects of wine have become fraught for her.

Well, I responded, almost any mid-bodied to fairly full-bodied red goes with a lamb roast.

“Oh, please,” she said, a bit of exasperation creeping in. “Like what? What is a good wine?”

“What about a nice Bordeaux?” I offered out of a sense of classicism and knowledge of what she enjoys. I was thinking Right Bank, like Pomerol, with maybe 13.5 percent alcohol and a few years of age as the target. What’s not to like?

“Bordeaux. How do you spell that?” she asked.

“Mom, Bor-deaux! You know … ,” I reminded her. I’m sure her wine fridge is full of them.

“OK, what else? What about something Italian?” she asked. “A good one that everybody will like.”

Ah, yes, the holidays—time to please everyone. I joked about just getting a case of one of Angelo Gaja’s Barbaresco crus.

“Who? How do you spell that?” Mom said.

Then I suggested some of the wines she’d served for years: Brunellos and Chianti Classicos.

“What about a Châteauneuf-du-Pape?” she asked.

“Yeah, sure!” I enthused. That’s pretty much my standard response to general “what about …” wine questions.

And there’s good reason for that.

You see, unlike decades ago, there is no elite geographical category of “good” wines. We live in a golden age of wine, in which good wines are everywhere in abundance. Producers and styles vary, but you have to work to find bad wine.

The question today is not what is “better,” but rather what type and style are you looking for? A delicate cru Beaujolais or a full-throated Amarone or Priorat? An aromatic white wine or orange wine? Classic or unmistakably “natural,” or something in between? Do you want the rounded familiarity of a Bordeaux blend? Or the food-friendly bite of many Italian reds? Or the length-meets-power of Barolo, Burgundy or Etna Rosso? Do you want balance, or do you want boom? A racy white made from Riesling or Grüner Veltliner or a buttery brioche style of Chardonnay? Something kosher? Or do you just want to impress by laying down a pile of cash?

As evidence of the head-spinning diversity of quality wines these days, just look at Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2022, a list of the year’s most exciting bottles.

But I do think that diversity adds to wine anxiety these days. There is so much to choose from that the selection can be daunting, unless you have wisely been tasting and stocking up all year. Compounding the confusion is the wine tribalism of the 21st century—particularly in large urban areas, like New York—where being on-trend is as big a deal as the fear of making a wine faux pas.

Like street gangs, wine tribes have their turfs, their zip codes of influence. My mom lives in the buttoned-up Upper East Side. My sister lives in a younger, cooler neighborhood downtown, where it’s important not to be seen as too “uptown.” (She told me that she was, of course, getting a case of Jura red. Since Champagne is so uptown and Prosecco was last year’s fizz, she was thinking of getting a Crémant as a sparkler, but has a new favorite pét-nat too.) We are going to be staying, and dining out some evenings, in Brooklyn, another hip-o-sphere with its own wine codes and twitchy preferences.

Actually, when it comes to my New York wine pals—uptown, downtown and the other sides of the rivers—they are an eclectic group that drinks from a broad palette. They have their preferences and go down some quirky rabbit holes. But like Italians, they tend to welcome Champagne and shy away from stinky wines.

One of the great joys of wine is being able to cross through different worlds. I am not defined by the last wine I drank—and neither are you.

Likewise, there is never one answer, just a series of ever-larger possibilities, to the question: “What wine should I bring?”

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