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How to Buy Wine for a Soirée—on a Shoestring

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After researching and writing VT‘s September feature on pairing wine with food (“Easy Entertaining: Perfect Pairs,” pg. 46), I wanted to throw my own tasting party. I gave myself a goal of getting as many of the suggested wines as my budget ($100) would allow, with extra credit for learning more about the wines. I decided to check out the selection at some local grocery stores and also visit an independent wine shop in the Richmond, Virginia metro area.

First on my list? Grüner Veltliner to compliment VT‘s Collard Green Phyllo Triangles.

Paul Radabaugh, specialty team member at Whole Foods Market, noted that all “Gru-Vees” (Grü-V is the hip nickname for the varietal) have a similar flavor profile. He also helped me find the Cabernet Franc to go with VT‘s Endive Petals with Rosemary Chevre. Label decoder: the label on the bottle he selected read “Chinon” (a region in France); closer inspection revealed that it was made with 100 percent Cabernet Franc grapes from Chinon.

If you can’t find a Cab Franc, however, a cooler climate Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon is a great stand-in. On this note, Radabaugh suggested that right now some of the best single-varietal Merlot is being made in Washington state. Duly noted!

My next stop was Barrel Thief, a combination wine shop and cafe. There, you can buy a bottle from the shop to drink in the cafe, or sample something from its rotating list of “by the glass” wines. If you like what you taste, you can pick up a bottle to take home. It was here that I found several of the lesser-known varietals. General Manager Booth Hardy helped me cross two more off my shopping list: a Spanish Mencia (another alternative to the Cab Franc for the pairing; Hardy likened it to “a spicy Pinot Noir”) and an Italian Verdicchio, a superb substitute if you can’t find the Grüner Veltliner.

I was also on the lookout for a Cava Brut or Champagne to go with VT‘s Parmesan Tasting Platter. Hardy showed me a Cava that could almost pass for Champagne (he described it as “creamy”). When I asked about a Cava I’d seen advertised as “rated 90 points,” he said not to get too hung up on the wine rating point system, chuckling that “some of my favorite wines are 89 points” (a score of 90 or more generally is deemed “excellent”). Some winemakers are eschewing the point system altogether, he said.

My last stop was Trader Joe’s, where I picked up a tasty Valpolicella (that they just happened to be sampling) to go with VT‘s Risotto-Stuffed Mushrooms. While I was there, I spotted an organic Cava, so I picked that one up too.

On the issue of organic, all of my wine tutors noted that often it is easier to find wines made from organic grapes than it is to find wines labeled “organic.” Winemakers who start with organic grapes will add sulfites at the bottling stage to keep the wine stable for shipping. Once that’s done, however, the wine can’t technically be labeled “organic.” What you want, Hardy said, is to find a winemaker who uses the smallest possible amount of sulfites.

One final shopping tip: buy in bulk. Many places will give you a volume discount. My local grocer was offering 20 percent off the purchase of six or more bottles; if you don’t need that many for your party, stock up on a few of your favorites for another time, or experiment with something new to you!

—Peggy Myers Walz, guest blogger

Do you want to host your own food and wine pairing party? Get the recipes mentioned in this blog and more tips for hosting a smashing soirée in “Easy Entertaining: Perfect Pairs” in the September 2011 issue of Vegetarian Times.