Airplanes notwithstanding, there's a reason that wine generally doesn't come in single-serving containers. From the earliest times, wine has been a drink meant to be shared. While I can imagine eating without wine, I honestly can't conceive of entertaining without it. Wine can make the food at a dinner party taste better in a way no other beverage can.
That said, serving wine raises numerous practical questions. Here are my answers to the questions I'm most commonly asked.
1. How do you choose the right wine for the meal?
Pairing wine with food is about instinct and a good knowledge of how flavors work together. To pick up some basic tips, take a look at the wine strategies and suggestions I've provided for these menus.
Let's say, however, that you have a menu of your own planned and aren't confident in your wine expertise. In this case, take your menu with you to the best wine shop in town. Briefly describe the dishes to one of the salespeople, and ask him or her to recommend a wine and describe the flavors for you.
Remember: Pairing wine and food isn't a science, and there are no absolutely right or absolutely wrong answers.
2. How many wines should you offer your guests?
I sometimes serve a different wine with every course, but it's also wonderful to serve just two -- one matched to the appetizer and the other to the main dish.
I also sometimes pour two wines per course instead of just one. This encourages tasting, experimentation, comparison, and lively conversation as guests decide on their favorite.
3. How should the wines be served?
For years, I've assigned one guest the role of "wine buddy." This person's job is to open wines and pour as needed while I'm busy checking on the lamb and testing the vegetables. No matter whom I choose, my guests love being the wine buddy. Try it -- it works!
As for when to serve the wines, there are a few options. I like to serve an aperitif while guests are standing; empty glasses go to (or remain in) the kitchen. When we sit, the table is set with glasses for the wines to come. I pour the wines for the appetizer course and the main course at the same time. Though this is a little unconventional, I prefer it because guests can experiment with whichever wine they like; it also ensures a more relaxed atmosphere since I don't have to get up and down to remove or set glasses for every course.
4. How many bottles do you need?
A standard 750-milliliter bottle contains about five servings of wine. I figure each guest will have at least two servings of every wine for every course. So, if you had 10 guests, you'd need four bottles of wine for each course. Beyond this, I plan on one glass per person for the aperitif wine (or two bottles using the formula above). This is generous math, to be sure, but I'd rather have wine left over than run out.
5. Which wineglasses are best?
Stick with large, inexpensive stemmed wineglasses, and don't worry about having different ones for white and red wine; a single large glass works fine for both. It's nice to have enough glasses so that each guest can have a separate one for the aperitif wine, the appetizer course, and the main course.
If you're having a dinner party and are short on glasses, don't worry. Using the same glass for several wines is perfectly fine, and contrary to popular opinion, you don't need (and in fact shouldn't) rinse the glasses with water between wines. A drop of the former wine won't hurt the wine to come.
6. Do you need to worry about letting the wine "breathe"?
Worry? No. But if you're serving a powerful young Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, it will taste softer and more luscious if you pour it out into a carafe, pitcher, or decanter. This isn't decanting per se (you're not separating the wine from sediment), but you are aerating the wine by pouring it out of the bottle.
7. What about leftover wine?
Chill any opened bottles overnight to help preserve the wine. In the case of red wine, take the bottle out of the refrigerator an hour or so before enjoying a glass. And don't forget to drink a toast to remember your successful dinner party the night before!