If you’re like me, you love wine but you might not have the benefit of deep pockets or space for a well-stocked cellar. And you’ve probably run into this scenario: It’s a Wednesday night and you’ve just slapped a filet on the grill or tossed some shrimp to sauté and you dash to your diminutive wine fridge to discover that you don’t have anything to pair with the meal.
Your options include settling for a mismatch, a mad dash to the supermarket to buy some mass-produced wine or maybe tapping into that fancy bottle of Barolo you smuggled back from Italy wrapped in your dirty socks and were planning to save for your anniversary. You could always skip the wine for the evening, though that really isn’t any kind of option at all.
If this has happened to you more than once, it’s a pretty good indication that you’re in need of a personal wine program. Restaurants put a lot of thought into making sure they always have the right wine at the right time. And while they manage their wine programs on a whole different level from a cash-strapped wine aficionado, the goals are the same: providing a great experience while keeping an eye on the bottom line.
So here are a few ways you can approach your personal wine supply like a savvy restaurateur.
Tap an expert
Restaurants that are serious about wine hire a sommelier or a wine director to help them make their wine-buying decisions. Private consultants abound, but there’s also a lot free advice out there. Your local wine shop is a great place to start. Jerry Larson, owner of Wineopolis in Corvallis, Oregon, is my go-to expert for quick advice. He is happy to suggest budget buys that still balance quality.
“Go to Europe for the $10 bottles,” says Larson, who carries wines from around the world that express the places where they are grown, rather than those that are blended and crafted to a certain style or taste. While he proudly sports an entire wall of excellent Oregon wines, he’s eager to help you work with your budget goals. “The New World isn’t as good at $10 wines that are vineyard driven.”
Larson offers free tastings every Saturday to help customers tune their palates and test-drive some of the entry-level wines he stocks.
Match your menu
“A wine director should be in constant communication with the chef,” says David Speer, sommelier and owner of Ambonnay, a Champagne bar in Portland. He also consults on establishing wine programs for restaurants and private collectors.
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That communication might seem easy to do at home when the wine director and head chef will probably be the same person. But it’s not as easy to accomplish when storage space is at a premium and wine purchases are made with a different part of the brain from the one that plans the menu.
I’ve tended to collect and save a lot of bigger, age-worthy reds, but when I stopped to look at what we cook and eat week to week, I noticed a disconnect. Our personal menu features lots of Northwest seafood, spicy Asian-influenced dishes and fresh salads and vegetables. Mineral-driven whites with bright acidity fit the bill much better than the epic red wines. Thinking about the menu objectively totally changed my wine-buying habits.
Keeping a close eye on your grocery cart will also allow you to adapt your wine program throughout the year. If you like to cook with local produce and shop at farmers markets, your menu will probably change over time. “Base your wine on what you eat, and think seasonally,” says Larson, whose shop abuts the Saturday market, allowing him a ringside seat to a parade of local produce.
“Remembering that your tastes will most likely change over time, don’t invest too heavily into one grape, region or producer. Spread it out,” says Speer, who suggests buying two to six bottles at a time to keep your supply nimble. “A case can be a bit much.”
The evolution of your tastes and palate is part of the adventure of wine. So saving a few slots for something new is a good idea.
Flexibility could also save you money. The wine market is constantly in flux. A good wine director will always keep an eye on the trends and bargains in case there’s ever a discounted wine that can be substituted for another option on the list.
Stock some exceptions
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to find great wines, but it’s still a good idea to have a few special bottles on hand. I live in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and there are some amazing wines available, especially at higher prices. It would be a shame not to occasionally connect with the best the region has to offer.
Speer often sees restaurants making this very mistake.
Don’t forget the bubbles
Champagnes and sparkling wines aren’t only for weddings and celebrations. For Speer, whose passion for bubbles led him to open Ambonnay, it’s a no-brainer. “Your cellar should be 95 percent Champagne,” he says, only half-joking. “I think people don’t drink enough Champagne, and they forget that it’s really something you can enjoy more often, not just pop open with some friends and then move onto a ‘real’ wine.”
It’s a great time to begin exploring bubbles. There is an exciting movement away from big-production Champagnes to more single-vineyard, small-allotment vintages, and the range of options is growing. And there are sparkling wines from around the world that provide even more choices at great prices.
Speer recommends looking to Spain: “I’m most excited about Cava; there are some really cool, family-run places that are making great bubbles in the $15 to $20 range.”
Delicious, thoughtful wine and meal pairings are what make great restaurant experiences, but there’s no reason you can’t create the same synergy at home. You just need to think about the wines you buy a little more like a sommelier. So fire up the stove, pull a cork and create something special. And if you like what you taste, don’t forget to compliment the chef and tip a little extra for your somm.
Main photo: Sommelier David Speer recommends buying three to six bottles of a wine rather than a case; your tastes and menu will change over time and you want to remain flexible. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker