As a sommelier working in a high-powered steak house with thousands of wines at my fingertips, choosing the right wine for a dining experience was a relatively easy task. The process was simple, almost mundane at times. What are you eating? What wines do you typically like to drink? How much money would you like to spend? Only at the onset of a global pandemic, when I moved home with my brother and my parents, did I realize the true challenges of choosing wines for people, especially family. I definitely felt the pressure as I was, after all, the resident sommelier. I needed diversity. I needed crowd-pleasers. I needed wines that wouldn’t break the bank and that would keep my mother happy — if anything at all, always keep Mom happy, right?
My family is an assortment of drinkers. My brother is more of a beer and whiskey kind of guy, but at age 26 he has experience, curiosities and his own opinions of wine. My mother is quite discerning, often highlighting the subtleties of one New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc producer compared to another. My father, God bless him, will drink whatever I put in his glass and jovially proclaim it “pretty good!”
With this diversity of palates, I needed a small assortment of wines that would provide the right beverage for the right time, no matter what was happening. From afternoon cocktail gatherings to birthday celebrations and Mother’s Day brunch, I had plenty of opportunities to supply the right wine at the right time. A home wine cellar doesn’t necessarily need depth, but it certainly needs balance and a few different options. Recommending specific producers can be a challenge based on market availability and price, so I find conceptualizing wine based on region and style is far more effective. Here are five types of wine that I always keep on hand for any and all occasions.
Sparkling: Bubbles! Whether using these wines for celebrations, aperitifs or post-dinner quaffs by the fire, sparkling wine is one of the most versatile beverages on the market. $10 Prosecco from Italy, (with a minuscule dash of orange or guava juice, applied via pipette) provides a delightful brunch beverage. Champagne from France, although more expensive, has more profundity with undertones of bread dough and biscuits and gives backbone to any cocktail hour. Occasionally I like to keep it domestic with some California sparkling wine, which can carry tremendous value. Often, these wines are made by French Champagne houses and their winemaking expertise shows.
Chablis: Chardonnay from northern Burgundy in France is decidedly less oaky and buttery than its California counterparts. These wines focus on minerality and tart fruits and carry a unique salinity due to the soil in which the vines are grown. Taking after my mother, I have a fondness for lively, bright, acidic wines because they can play the role of “porch pounder” on a hot day or provide a delightful accent to any lighter dish. Although Premier Cru and Grand Cru bottlings can be very expensive because of their single-vineyard designation, a simple entry-level Chablis packs a punch without breaking the bank.
Chianti: This central Italian wine is one of the greatest values on the market today. For starters, the winemaking know-how is virtually unparalleled — some producers have been making the same wine for generations. Mandatory aging requirements guarantee a developed wine. Generally, the wines are well-structured with beautiful tannins that support a distinctive earthiness and a bone-dry finish. Thus, Chianti is born for food and always over-delivers, especially when paired with richer dishes like pasta or roasted meats. A late-afternoon cheese board with cured meats and olives cries out — quite loudly — for this Italian classic.
New World Red Blend: For those lovers of rich, full-bodied, fruit-driven wines, I prefer a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon can often be overly structured, especially for novice palates, so I like the addition of Merlot because it gives the wine plushness and softens the bite. The fruit-bomb from California, Australia, or Argentina is the most easy-drinking wine in the house, and my first choice when I’m too lazy to explain Italian or French wine law.
Beaujolais: The sleeper! This lighter red wine comes exclusively from the Gamay grape, grown in southern Burgundy in France. Although many are familiar with the sweeter Beaujolais Nouveau that is released around Thanksgiving every year, most of the wines here are dry and lighter in body. Pro tip: stick it in the refrigerator for a few minutes to chill it slightly before serving. The cooler temperature accents the bright fruit notes as well as the distinct earthiness. Beaujolais is one of the most utilitarian of wines when pairing with food because it works with just about everything. Although more expensive, look for a single cru designation — the quality is generally much higher because of regional specificity.
All of these wine styles should be available in any wine shop worth its salt, and should provide multiple options at different prices within each category. One major style that I love but omitted is Rose — a growing sector in the American market but one that sees its stock rise in the spring and summer months when the most recent vintage is released. Those wines are best enjoyed in their youth as they (typically) are not built to age. In the meantime, as we wait for warmer weather, cheers and happy drinking!