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Drinking Out Loud

5 Wine Rules That Really Matter

It's more than just a drink, you know
Matt Kramer says it's usually the host on the hook for making a wine experience memorable.
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer says it's usually the host on the hook for making a wine experience memorable.

Matt Kramer
Posted: August 16, 2016

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?

Mike Olszewski
Newcastle, WA —  August 16, 2016 10:07pm ET
All of your five rules are absolutely spot on. Regarding rule number four, "The Element of Surprise", we like to shake things up by offering a Sauternes (with Fois Gras of course ), a glass of sherry or even a Pastis to start things of. Depending on the menu, a white, rose, or red will follow with the main course(s). For dessert, particularly if ice cream is involved, it is a nice bottle of bubbly.

Regarding rule number one, we actually had a bottle of red wine served to us this past weekend at our local horse racing track that cooled nicely in the glass thanks to "sweater-level" air conditioning--obviously a rare exception to the rule.
Egypt —  August 17, 2016 6:59am ET
Meat with Champagne: I strongly recommend to try a pinot noir driven rose with meat, non vintage with a carpaccio, or vintage with more developed meat.
I had a Veuve Clicquot Cave Privee 1989 with venison, definitely took my attention and pairing worked perfectly.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  August 17, 2016 12:28pm ET
Olivier: Thanks so very much for your observation and suggestions about Champagne with various meats. I've been remiss in never having tried it, which is entirely wrong-headed of me.

It reminded me of something the great food and wine authority Richard Olney (1927--1999) said when I interviewed him in 1986. We were talking about food and wine pairings and Mr. Olney commented:

"The general mode of thinking always leans on the cliché and on the abstract. People do not return to their palates. People are afraid that they do not know how to taste. They prefer to lean on rules. With rules you don’t have to think; you don’t have to taste. You just have to follow the rules--and they'll destroy you every time."

Thinking further about serving Champagne with the meat course in Victorian times, your point, Olivier, about a "Pinot Noir-driven" sparkling wine is surely what everyone was drinking back in the mid-1800s.

An all-Chardonnay Champagne, what's now called a blanc de blancs (literally a "white of whites") is effectively a mid-20th-century invention, at least as a label designation. Surely the Champenois have always created wines--typically non-sparkling--made solely from Chardonnay but it was never marketed and labeled as blanc de blancs until relatively recently.

According to the Champagne authority Tom Stevenson, the earliest definitive mention of a sparkling blanc de blancs dates only to 1934. Nearly all 100% Chardonnay Champagnes until then were still or non-sparkling wines only.

So our Champagne-with-beef Victorians were surely drinking Pinot Noir-driven bubbly. And their Champagnes would also have been heavier-tasting and sweeter than what Champagne lovers prefer today, much like women's perfumes were once muskier and "heavier" than what's preferred today. Brut or dry Champagne first appeared (in London, as it happens) only in the mid-1800s and it took decades after that before brut Champagne became the preferred style.
Laura Pew
Tucson —  August 23, 2016 11:22am ET
I really enjoyed this article (and usually all articles by Matt Kramer) until near the end when I was startled and distracted to read "you and me ... have to show up." Or should I say, "Me was startled to read...!"
Perin Johnson
Thousand Oaks, CA —  August 23, 2016 11:43am ET
When a guest arrives with a bottle of wine (which may be
costly), do you feel an obligation to serve that bottle
during the evening?
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  August 23, 2016 1:27pm ET
Ms. Pew: You're quite right, of course. "You and me as guests have to show up too when it comes to giving good wine its due" is grammatically incorrect.

Just how that slipped out of my computer (for I was the one who committed the error) and then--more amazingly yet, since Wine Spectator's copy editors are nothing if not eagle-eyed--how it got past everyone else, I just don't know. Chalk it up to human (grammatical) error.

Anyway, the error has now been fixed and shall offend no more. Thanks for being eagle-eyed yourself!
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  August 23, 2016 1:47pm ET
Perin Johnson: You ask: "When a guest arrives with a bottle of wine (which may be costly), do you feel an obligation to serve that bottle during the evening?"

This is a very good question and it's one I've dealt with on both sides of the equation, i.e., as the person bringing the expensive, or at least cherished wine, and as the recipient of same.

As the giver, I always say that this is a gift and it is not intended to be served at dinner that evening. This takes the host off the hook. I believe that saying such a thing is absolutely an obligation of the giver.

If you, as the giver, intend the wine to be served then you had better have cleared it previously with the host. Otherwise, you have no "rights" to expect it to be served.

After all, some meals by some hosts are very carefully calibrated with respect to the wines served with the food. Somebody bringing, say, a big, oaky "steakhouse red" to a dinner that turns out to be on the delicate, ultra-refined side would be doing a triple disservice: to the host, the food and the wine as well.

On the host's side, I don't think that you, as the host, have any obligations other than to be suitably grateful for the handsome gift. A gift is a gift, after all, not an imposed obligation. If you want to serve it that same evening, then fine. If not, well, it's entirely up to you.

Really, the obligation for graciousness is almost entirely on the giver's side.

Anybody have any other thoughts/suggestions/dissenting opinions?

Dale Mosier
Colorado —  August 24, 2016 8:59pm ET
I have found that an element that interests me as the host has interest for people that are interested in wine, even if not knowledgeable. As an example take bottles that are one or two years apart and see if people can taste the difference. It is nice in a small group if you have two glasses for the comparison.
Tom Miller
Birmingham, AL —  September 7, 2016 4:07pm ET
Re: your last point about the right wines for the moment with the right guests...since you are interested in wines, I would have enjoyed sharing these wines with you at this year's IPNC as they were mostly 22-year Oregon Pinots. They were showing very, very well amongst the many great wines being poured and folks at the table seemed to enjoy them.
Friday Lunch on the Lawn: 1994 Evesham Wood Cuvee J; 1994 Panther Creek Freedom Hill; 1994 St. Innocent Seven Springs
Friday The Grand Dinner: 1994 Panther Creek Shea; 1994 Cristom Marjorie
Saturday Salmon Bake: 1994 DDO Salud Cuvee in magnum; 1999 Broadley Claudia's Choice in magnum; 2008 St. Innocent White Rose (a baby).
Maybe we'll see you next year?
Robert West
Houston, TX —  September 29, 2016 2:00pm ET

I really enjoyed this article, and I agree with you. While I have a no swill policy at my house, I won't serve my best wines to anyone upon whom they will be lost, and I don't serve my best with pizza or burgers. I try to match quality of wine to quality of food being served.

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