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Don’t let a bad wine ruin your big day

Couples naturally want their wedding to be perfect, from the fit of the dress to the awe factor of the cake. Highballs and punch ladled from big bowls have long been staples of wedding ceremonies, yet many of today's brides and grooms seek more sophistication in the beverages they serve at their reception, with wine playing an increasingly large role. Whether you're planning a party for 20 or 200,
/ Source: Epicurious

Couples naturally want their wedding to be perfect, from the fit of the dress to the awe factor of the cake. Highballs and punch ladled from big bowls have long been staples of wedding ceremonies, yet many of today's brides and grooms seek more sophistication in the beverages they serve at their reception, with wine playing an increasingly large role.

Whether you're planning a party for 20 or 200, the questions are still the same: Which wines to buy? How much of each? What does it cost? Can we personalize the experience somehow? Where can I go for more information? We've answered all your questions and boiled the responses into a few handy, money-saving and stress-reducing tips.

Please note: Buying wine in bulk  —by the case — can save you money. But not all venues or caterers allow the client (you) to choose or bring the wine, so check with everyone involved before purchasing.

Red, white, or rosé?

Although sparkling wine is a wedding fixture, you should consider serving one red and one white still wine if the reception includes a meal or hors d'oeuvres. Professional wedding planners advocate serving equal amounts of red and white wine (if only so you don't disappoint half the crowd). For those who want to pour just one wine with the meal, there is a happy compromise: dry rosé, a wine that's refreshing and also substantial enough to drink with sturdy foods.

White wine top picks

Don't overlook Sauvignon Blanc, a super-versatile white that goes splendidly with seafood, chicken, eggs, vegetables, and salads. The 2007 Geyser Peak California Sauvignon Blanc and 2007 Matua Valley Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand are tremendous values at around $12 per bottle, and they're often discounted. Another safe bet is the popular Pinot Gris (also called Pinot Grigio in Italian), such as the 2007 Nobilo Regional Collection East Coast Pinot Gris from New Zealand ($13) or the 2006 Four Graces Dundee Hills Pinot Gris from Oregon ($18); both are juicy and flavorful. Chardonnay continues to be the top-selling wine in the U.S., yet the toasty, buttery versions can overwhelm food and lack the refreshment quotient required for spring and summer, when most weddings take place. Look for unoaked or lightly oaked versions, such as the 2007 Valley of the Moon Russian River Valley Unoaked Chardonnay ($16) with its juicy pear and apple flavors, and the 2006 Beringer Stanly Ranch Carneros Chardonnay ($20), which is elegant and crisp.

Red wine top picks

Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular red wine in America, built best for hearty meats. It can be expensive, but two wines stand out for their exceptional value and deliciousness: the 2005 Charles Krug Peter Mondavi Family Yountville Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($26) and the 2005 Three Thieves The Show California Cabernet Sauvignon ($13). Each has the richness and structure of wines that cost many times as much. Silky Pinot Noir is more flexible with food than Cab is, though it can be pricey as well. Bargains include the 2006 Belle Vallée Willamette Valley Whole Cluster Pinot Noir ($16) from Oregon, the 2006 Sebastiani Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($18) from California, and from Burgundy, the 2005 Domaine de la Croix Jacquelet Mercurey ($23). All three are supple and softly tannic.

Remember Rosé

Sweet white zinfandel is fine for the patio, but weddings call for a more serious pink wine. Dry rosé is crisp and fruity, without the sweetness of white zinfandel and other blush wines, and pairs beautifully with salads, poultry, pork, tuna, salmon, and even sirloin. Rosé also hits the spot in both warm and cool weather, day and night. Top affordable bottles include the 2007 Beckmen Vineyards Purisima Mountain Vineyard Santa Ynez Grenache Rosé ($18), the 2007 Frog's Leap La Grenouille Rouganté Napa Valley ($14), and the 2006 Mas de Gourgonnier Rosé ($16) from Provence, France.

What to do with leftover wine

Most retailers will take back unopened bottles of the wine they sell to you as long as the labels and cork area haven't been damaged or stained. Some will take back only full cases of the same wine. If your retailer requires full cases, keep those nine bottles of merlot and enjoy them on ensuing anniversaries, or give them to friends and family as mementos. For best results, store the bottles horizontally in a dark space and at a consistent (cool) temperature. A bottle of opened bubbly may last another day or two in the fridge, but no longer.

Consider all sparklers

The Italians pour Prosecco from the Veneto region as a welcoming beverage; it's the equivalent of Champagne but made from different grapes and in a slightly different way. Its sparkle is refreshingly effervescent, ideal for most hors d'oeuvres, and far less expensive than true Champagne (which come from the Champagne region of France and are produced in such a way that a secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle). The moderately rich, yet lively Zonin Special Cuvee Brut Prosecco ($11) is a bargain, and the more complex Maschio Cavalieri dei Valdobbiadene Brut ($20) has a firmer structure, fuller texture, and longer finish. For a more Champagne-like bubbly to start things off, try the Greg Norman Estates Sparkling Pinot Noir/Chardonnay from south-eastern Australia, which has a yeasty, baked-bread character that adds interest to the juicy peach and citrus notes. It will richly quench the thirst of a large crowd for around $15 per bottle. All three of these wines can go the distance, from hors d'oeuvres through the meal and to the toast.

Wines for the big toast

Whether the hoisting of glasses takes place post-ceremony, mid-meal, or pre–cake cutting, true Champagne, from the Champagne region of France, is the traditional wine to serve (though other sparklers work just as nicely). You could spend $100 or more for a bottle of the real-deal, French stuff, although for around $30, you can get truly fine non-vintage (a blend of wines from several different years) Champagne that will impress. One of the best deals going is the bright, crisp Piper-Heidsieck Brut (suggested retail is $33 but it's usually discounted). The floral, lemony Nicolas Feuillatte Brut ($30) and full-bodied Janisson & Fils Tradition Brut ($34) are top picks, too.

Pairing cake and sparkling wine

If bubbly will be served with the wedding cake — perhaps during the toast — pour one that has a sweetness that can stand up to the cake, or whatever other dessert is served. Most sparklers are labeled "brut," meaning they're quite dry and contain less than 1.5 percent sugar. That dryness makes the wine taste metallic and bitter with sweet dessert, so look for a "demi-sec" bubbly, with 3.3 to 5 percent sugar, because it has the sweetness that will complement the cake. Excellent picks include the non-vintage Mumm Napa Valley Cuvee M ($19), 2004 Schramsberg California Cremant Demi-Sec ($37), and from Italy, the 2006 Ceretto Moscato di Asti Santo Stefano ($19), which comes in a sleek bottle and has just 5 percent alcohol — a smart choice for those wishing to limit their alcohol consumption or enjoy a lighter, less potent drink with the cake.

The price of a bottle

Solid-quality wines, such as the ones listed here, can be had for around $8 to $10 per bottle, at retail. Fine Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon runs between $26 and $150 a bottle, Sonoma County Chardonnay $20 to $50, a top Champagne like Krug $300, and Château Pétrus, arguably the most coveted wine from Bordeaux's Right Bank, $1,500 a bottle and up, depending on vintage, if you buy from a reputable wine seller.

How to spot bargains

Couples who want to bring their own wine to the party should consider shopping at discount stores such as Costco and Sam's Club for the best deals. These places have a surprisingly good selection, online browsing, and multiple locations. Keep your eye on local wine shops and supermarkets advertising specials. Finally, discounters and large markets buy in huge quantities and thus get deals that they pass on to customers; mom-and-pop shops place smaller orders and don't get the same deals. On the flip side, however, small wine shops often give more personal attention, have more knowledge of the wines they carry, and might even deliver the wine to the reception. Most stores, of any type, give discounts on full-case purchases, usually ranging between 10 and 20 percent. If ordering wine by the case, be sure to ask if the case contains the standard 12 bottles or the increasingly popular 6-bottle count.

Hidden charges

Beware, those who select from a hotel or restaurant wine list may face markups that can double or triple the cost of the wine. It’s standard practice for hotels and restaurants to mark up the price of their wines, two or three times the wholesale price. Thus, a bottle of Chardonnay that costs a hotel or restaurant $10 and sells for $14 at a grocery store would be priced at $30 or more on the hotel or restaurant list. Banquet managers at country clubs and other wedding venues may also mark up wines.

Also, most hotels and restaurants (and some banquet halls), charge a "corkage" fee of between $5 and $25 per bottle to those who bring their own wine. The fee covers staff service to open and pour the wines, and makes up for some of the income lost since you didn't buy the wine from them. There may be room for negotiation on corkage, but don't count on it.

Coming up with a total

How much wine to purchase will depend on various factors, including the number of guests, whether it's a wine-drinking crowd, the format of the reception, the time of year, time of day, and the menu. Here are some general rules of thumb provided by wedding planners, caterers, and married couples who have been through it already:

  • It's better to have too much wine than not enough. Guests grumble when the wine runs out and they still have prime rib on their plate, or if they have an empty glass for the toast. Unopened leftovers can usually be returned to the seller (or taken home, of course).

  • The standard 750-ml wine bottle holds 25 ounces; count on five servings of wine, at five ounces each, from one bottle. For sparkling wines served in flutes, allow for four ounces per serving (plus foam), which equals six servings per bottle.

  • Most caterers count on each guest consuming one-half bottle of wine — roughly two glasses — every two hours. If the party lasts four hours, count on one 25-ounce bottle per person. These calculations allow for the fact that some folks will drink more, some less and some not at all. One bottle each might seem like a lot of wine, yet many attendees want to sample everything, even though they don't drain their glasses (half your wine may sit at the end of the night in half-empty cups).

Procuring the bottles

Local and state laws — and individual wedding venue policies — determine whether couples can bring their own wine to the site or if they must choose from the venue's (or caterer’s) list. Sometimes, you can convince a venue to special-order, but don't count on it. If wine service is to be a highlight of the big day, ask about options and restrictions before booking the wedding site or hiring the caterer. A hotel, for example, may not allow couples to bring their own wine, yet its banquet wine list could be uninteresting or overly expensive. Many caterers have reseller licenses and can purchase the wine for the couple; those who don't have the license require that clients purchase the wines themselves, though a competent caterer will make suggestions and help match wines with the meal. Ask questions about wine options before site and catering contracts are signed. If you're ordering online, don't forget to factor in shipping costs. Wineries are popular wedding locations (there's at least one winery in every state of the union); the majority of them, naturally, insist that only their wines be served on site.

Personalize your bottles

Giving guests stemware engraved with the couple's name and date of the ceremony has been popular for decades, but the trend today is to personalize the wine bottles. Web sites such as Signature Wines & Beverages, Personal Wine, and Windsor Vineyards sell wines bearing labels that you can custom-design online. Alcohol shipping laws vary from state to state, so check the Web sites to see if delivery is allowed in your state. Federal regulations require that wine be shipped with labels affixed; consumers can't buy the labels only, nor can they buy unlabeled wines (though you could surely affix labels of your own over or next to the originals on your favorite wine if you're handy with a color printer and don't mind the DIY look). Prices range from $10 to $100 per bottle, depending on the quality of the wine and intricacy of the label. Windsor Vineyards makes its own wine at its winery in Sonoma County, California, and offers 30 different choices of red, white, blush, sparkling, and dessert wines. has an international selection of wines made by producers such as Rutherford Ranch in Napa Valley and Gagliardo in Piedmont, Italy. All of the dozen or so offerings are from California, and include Clos du Bois Chardonnay, Monticello Cabernet Sauvignon, and Ariel nonalcoholic wines.

Several Web sites sell wines bearing labels that you can custom-design online.

Time of day

According to wedding planners, guests tend to drink less and lighter wines in the daytime than in the evening. Buy chilled white wines, rosés, and lighter reds if you're expecting a sunny afternoon. In the evening, temperatures drop; if you're having a sit-down dinner and want guests to linger longer, caterers suggest budgeting for more red wine than you would for the day.

Consider the season

Brisk white wines, dry rosés, and light- to medium-bodied reds are ideal for warm-weather weddings because they offer more refreshment than heavier Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz, and Zinfandel.

Brisk whites include Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris/Grigio, unoaked Chardonnay, Riesling, and sparkling wines.

Medium-bodied reds include Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, Italian Valpolicella, Spanish Rioja, and Rhone Valley Côtes du Rhône.

For winter and fall weddings, wines with more weight and power (Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, and the like) pair best with chilly temperatures and rich comfort foods.

Seek advice

Most caterers, banquet managers, and hotel beverage directors will help you select wines based on personal taste, budget, and the menu (be sure to taste the recommended wines with the dishes when choosing the menu). Critics' scores and descriptions can be helpful as well; visit the free Web site for aggregated reviews from users, and top wine publications such as Wine Spectator magazine and Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar. More than 200,000 wines are on the Web site, along with links to retailers who sell them. Robin Garr's also has a wealth of reviews dispensed free of charge. Two books are excellent: Leslie Sbrocco's “The Simple & Savvy Wine Guide” and Andrea Robinson's 2008 “Wine Buying Guide for Everyone.” Each is packed with recommendations and pairing tips. If you’re still unsure, you should visit a reputable fine-wine shop and let a salesperson recommend wines that will work for the time of day, season, food, and budget. If you're not in a rush, you should have time to take a few of the recommended wines home, taste them, and, if they're delicious, go back for more.

Reliable brands

Hundreds of brands consistently deliver good quality at very fair prices. Here's a very short list:

  • California: Chateau St. Jean, Geyser Peak, Joel Gott, Kendall Jackson, Rosenblum, and Sebastiani

  • Washington: Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Hogue, and Reininger

  • Oregon: Argyle, A to Z Wineworks, Belle Vallée, and Firesteed

  • Australia: Greg Norman Estates, McWilliam's, Rosemount, and Yalumba

  • New Zealand: Brancott, Matua Valley, and Villa Maria

  • France: E. Guigal, La Vieille Ferme, Louis Jadot, and Perrin & Fils

  • Argentina: Alamos, Andeluna, and Bodega Norton

  • Chile: Concha y Toro and Vina Santa Rita

  • Italy: Castello Banfi and Falesco

  • Spain: Bodegas Montecillo and Bodegas Muga    

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