Special Occasions

Wedding Wine Tips

Wedding Wine Tips

No single occasion integrates anxiety, anticipation, happiness and expense more exquisitely than a wedding. The average cost of what is theoretically a once-in-a-lifetime experience runs about $30,000 (or about $10,000 more than the average divorce). The ring, the dress and the flowers are all a big part of the price. And the wine? Not so much. In fact, if wedding wine could be summed up in a single word it would be “cheap.”

An informal poll I took recently seemed to bear this out. Not a single married couple of the dozen or so that I spoke with reported having spent much on their wedding wine—and almost none of them could remember the names of the wines they served. Even my friend Millie Martini Bratten, editor in chief of Brides magazine, told me she didn’t remember her wedding wine of 23 years ago. However, as Millie explained, she was married back “before people cared about wine.”

It’s certainly true that wine drinkers have grown more discerning, and yet I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed many great wines at the ceremonies I’ve attended in recent years. In fact, sometimes I’ve wished that the centerpieces weren’t flowers but spit buckets. With so many great wines and so much information available, it certainly seems as if the newly betrothed should be getting better advice and more interesting options. But are they?

My colleague, a bride-to-be, provided the perfect opportunity for me to find out. She and her fiancé are both wine drinkers; in fact, she possesses one of the most idiosyncratic and wonderful wine vocabularies I have ever encountered. She might declare a fondness for a wine “with a ticklish quality” while a wine she disliked might taste “like a couch from Craigslist.”

Five tips for choosing a wine to serve at your wedding:

1. Taste at least 10 wines, five reds and five whites. You’d look at least as many rings before buying your wedding band.

2. Buy a good sparkling wine but don’t waste money on Champagne; as one caterer said to me, “No one ever asks to see the label.”

3. If you bring your own wine and pay a corkage fee you will almost always pay much (much) less than if you had chosen the catering hall wine.

4.Choose a wine with the widest appeal that also that will go well with food. This means wines that are fairly fruity and light-bodied with good acidity (i.e., Albarinos from Spain; Italian Dolcettos and reds from southern France.)

5. Most of the wedding wines chosen by the caterers are domestic but you can (generally) spend less money if you choose an imported wine. For example, you can get a great Chilean Sauvignon Blanc for $10 and an appealing Nero d’Avola from Sicily for $10. It’s much harder to find that kind of deal in a domestic wine.

They didn’t know what wines they would serve at their wedding except that they had to be interesting. Or as my colleague put it, “They can’t taste like wedding wines.” And they had to be cheap, “definitely under $15 a bottle.” They wanted to serve white and red and maybe even a rose as well. The problem, however, is that many wedding venues impose huge markups, of the sort that would make even the most shameless restaurateur blush. A $10 wine can easily become a $50 bottle in a catering hall.

I decided to do some real-life wedding wine research. I would call a few wedding venues around the country and also, accompanied by my colleague, check out some top wedding destinations in New York. We chose the Pierre Hotel and the University Club, two classic wedding venues.

The Pierre Hotel’s catering director, Herb Rose, had the brisk and efficient manner of a man who could do everything well. Mr. Rose showed us rooms, photo albums and offered advice on flowers and bands. (Of the former, he said, “the cost can be infinite” and of the latter, he counseled, “The best is Harris Lane.”) As to wine, Mr. Rose had this piece of advice. “Be careful you don’t spend too much money. Remember it’s not some fancy tasting party. Don’t waste your money on great Bordeaux.” The wines that the Pierre Hotel used for weddings came from Connecticut, said Mr. Rose, who knew the winery’s owner back when she had a flower shop near the hotel.
Something Red, Something White

These six wines are affordable, appealing and widely available. Even if you’re not getting married, these are good wines to have on hand for entertaining this spring and summer.

Roederer Estate Brut nonvintage Sparkling wine $18

Although it’s made in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino, this California sparkling wine might well be mistaken for Champagne. Roederer Estate was, in fact, founded by one of the greatest Champagne houses in France, Louis Roederer, some 30 years ago, and the style of the wines is similarly rich, almost yeasty and tremendously elegant.

2009 Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner $15

This well-balanced, medium-bodied white wine is made by one of Austria’s top producers from the country’s signature grape. It’s marked by aromas of white pepper and citrus, with a lively acidity and long, minerally finish.

2009 Spy Valley Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc $15

The Marlborough region of New Zealand has become justly famous (thanks first to the legendary Cloudy Bay) for its tangy, lively Sauvignon Blancs, and this is a good example of the Marlborough style at a very attractive price; it’s a perfect wedding aperitif.

2008 Inama Soave Classico $15

Although the reputation of Soave still suffers from its “industrial” past as 1970s plonk, quality producers like the Veneto-based Inama have done much to repair the damage. Even this, the most “basic” example of the Inama style, is rich, with a firm balancing acidity that pairs beautifully with food.

2006 Monte Antico Rosso $10

Wine importer Neil Empson joined forces with one of Tuscany’s greatest winemakers, Franco Bernabei, to make this appealing Sangiovese-dominant wine with notes of cherry and spice. It’s a medium-bodied, soft and fairly fruity red.

2005 Château Greysac Medoc $15

A lot of bridal couples, according to wine consultant Tim Finch, like to serve Bordeaux at their weddings. This Cabernet Sauvignon dominant blend from the Medoc is an always reliable “basic” Bordeaux. The 2005 Greysac is a nicely made, well-structured wine with well integrated tannins.

At the University Club, a grand architectural landmark just down Fifth Avenue from The Pierre, the Club’s catering manager, Brian Bennett, was friendly and warm. His room tour was quick, his wine selections simple and value-focused: “a Sauvignon Blanc like Geyser Peak for the white and for the red, Merlot, maybe Esser or Hawkcrest,” he said. None of these wines cost more than $15 retail, and often they cost less. Mr. Bennett didn’t believe Champagne was necessary, “and it’s a big upcharge,” he said. (That’s the markup I mentioned before.) He didn’t ask what kind of wines the bride-to-be liked, though if she wanted a few great bottles just for herself he had this idea: “If you want special wines just for your table, it can be done very discreetly.” (This reminded me of how Richard Nixon was said to have had Château Margaux at his table while the rest of the room drank plonk.)

Couples can actually supply their own wines at the historic Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, said catering assistant Sunha Lee when I reached her by phone. The corkage fee is just $20 a bottle and yet, Ms. Lee added, very few couples take advantage of the policy. Instead, most chose the private-label house wine that comes with the basic wedding package, though some “upgrade” to a J Lohr Central Coast Cabernet ($50) and Honig Sauvignon Blanc ($45). Both wines cost about $15 a bottle in a store.

At the swank Rosewood Crescent Hotel in Dallas, where my sister is thinking of getting (re)married, it isn’t legal for couples to bring their own wine according to Adrian Norbury, the hotel’s Director of Marketing. But that didn’t seem to matter, since most couples chose the house wines anyway. Made by Clos LaChance winery north of Monterey, the house wine is available in Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay and costs $45 a bottle. The house sparkling wine, Domaine Ste. Michelle, is also a popular option ($10 retail/4$5 at the hotel). Couples will “rarely” go for “true French Champagne” said Mr. Norbury. (And no wonder, since it starts at $130 a bottle.) Mr. Norbury explained that the markups at most wedding venues go to the service costs of getting the wine into the glass. The scale of the markup typically goes down as the price of the wine goes up.

A consistent theme was clearly emerging: Don’t spend too much money. And maybe, don’t think too much either. Have what everyone else is having.

I couldn’t imagine the same counsel offered about the dress or the ring or even the flowers. Clearly what every couple needed was a wedding wine advocate who could suggest some good bottles—and ask the caterers about a corkage charge, too.

I offered my services to my colleague, Lauren, and her fiancé, Ben, then called up Tim Finch, wine buyer at the wine store K&D in Manhattan, who counsels some 75 soon-to-be-marrieds each year. Mr. Finch says “price is the single most important factor” for most couples when choosing their wedding wines.

Together Mr. Finch and I came up with about 15 bottles of red, white and rosé, all $15 or less (save for the sparkling wine which was a few dollars more). And I asked Lauren and Ben to come to my office for an informal tasting.

I’d chosen a few sparkling wines from California as well as a Spanish cava, Raventos, and the Rustico Prosecco from Nino Franco. Ben liked the crisp bright fruit of the Prosecco, which Lauren called “fizzy.” She was a bigger fan of the Roederer Estate Brut, one of my favorite California sparkling wines, which Lauren called “busty.” (I think it was a compliment.)

I’d included several Italian wines in the lineup of whites including one of my favorite Soaves, the 2008 from Inama, though Ben preferred the 2008 Argiolas Costamolino Vermentino, a bright, refreshing Sardinian white and a real deal at $14 a bottle. They both liked the “citric” quality of the 2009 Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner.

The red wines proved a bit more complicated—they had to accompany the food, but the couple didn’t even know what they’d be serving. Lauren was a fan of the 2006 Monte Antico, a red wine from Tuscany which she called “a big mama hug of a wine” and a wine I’ve always found to be a consistent value. But Ben thought an Italian wine wasn’t “serious” enough for a wedding. He preferred the 2005 Château Greysac, a solid, reasonably priced Bordeaux. Two other reds, a Côtes du Rhône and a basic Bourgogne, were rejected out of hand as “too simple.”

Ultimately it isn’t any harder to find a good wedding wine than it is a nice ring or a flattering dress; you just have to know where to look, and who to ask. As an addendum, I have to confess that I can’t remember the wines that were served at my own wedding—which took place at the now-defunct Montrachet restaurant. And neither can my (ex) husband, Alan, a food writer and restaurant critic. When I called the restaurant’s former wine director, Daniel Johnnes (now the wine director for Daniel Boulud’s Dinex restaurant group) to see if he could recall, Daniel thought there “might have been a Chassagne-Montrachet red. And maybe a village-level Burgundy. “They were good wines,” he said. “And they were cheap.”