THE ENTERTAINER

Stylish and easy home holiday parties.


Published:

In the last decade, home entertaining has grown in direct proportion to America's burgeoning interest in good wine and gourmet cooking. As a result, a multimillion-dollar home-entertaining industry, complete with celebrity spokespeople, has blossomed. But for the majority of consumers who lead hectic lives that orbit around family and careers, finicky experts' entertaining advice may at times be more persnickety than is required or reasonable. These pages are dedicated to more realistic approaches to hosting successful but simple gourmet gatherings.

Please ignore those people who have entertained and somehow missed out on their own party. Hosting a holiday get-together needn't be drudgery. You don't have to be a foodie or a wine geek (or even know how to transform cloth napkins into swans) in order to host a great bash. But anyone who wants to throw a party in their home should know one irrefutable truth: It's the well-prepared person who hosts the best parties.

Party Planning Primer
Take our planning tips for a test drive with a wine tasting and buffet dinner

Sit-down, multicourse, multiwine dinners are typically labor-intensive and time-consuming; buffet service is more informal, relaxed and spontaneous. It's up to you, of course, which track you want your party to take. For hosts and guests with tight schedules, a great option for home entertaining is a tasting of four to six wines followed by a buffet dinner. Who should you invite, and how much will this cost you? Read on.

The Guest List:
Hello. And who are you?
While the host unquestionably sets the initial tone of any party, the guests ultimately influence its character. The first step in party planning is to decide how many people will be comfortable in your home's entertaining space. We're talking about the dining room, living room, great room, den or combinations of rooms, but not the kitchen. It's best to keep the kitchen free for food preparation, cleanup and even occasional, blissful moments of sanctuary for the host.

Another way to gauge the ideal number of guests to invite is by asking yourself how much time you would like to spend with each in your role as host. For example, if your party is from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., or four hours (240 minutes), and you invite 20 people that leaves you with an average of 12 minutes of visiting time with every guest. Does 12 minutes seem like enough time for conversation with each of your guests?

Whom should you invite? An astute wiseacre once said, "If you're going to be the most interesting person at your party, cancel it." The liveliest parties are those that include a mix of gregarious and pensive people from different backgrounds with different interests, who aren't necessarily acquainted with each other. When wine sampling is on the agenda, invite both savvy oenophiles as well as some relative newbies. If your guests all consider themselves connoisseurs, your party may turn into a competition of egos. Varying acumens usually make for more interesting discussions and contrasts of opinion.

Cents and Sensibility:
Setting two budgets
After the preliminary guest list is determined, assess the number of invitees, the approximate amount (courses, varieties, dishes) of food and wines required to keep them happy for the duration, plus any extras such as additional decorations, dishware and glassware. Naturally, wine tastings require glassware over and above normal use. If four wines are being sampled in the tasting, you should have enough stems to allow each wine to be served in its own glass.

In the early planning stages, settle on a realistic budget and work backwards from that amount. It basically comes down to this for the host: How much are you willing to spend, including an extra 15 to 20 percent for unexpected needs?

The second thing to budget is your time. The factors that impact this budget include planning, preparing invitations and dealing with RSVPs (written or verbal), shopping for wine, food and other pertinent materials; cooking and preparation on the days before your party and the day of your bash, cleaning and decorating your home, and mopping up afterwards. If this preparation sounds daunting, consider budgeting additional money for cleaning services or servers.

Fluid Reasoning:
Estimating your party wine needs
To run out of wine midway through your affair can be mortifying. The following formulas factor in the presence of ample food choices for your buffet, or roughly the equivalent of a three-course meal. Let's start by saying that your guest list totals 16 adults and your party's time frame is four hours. It's then prudent to estimate that each guest will average one glass of wine per hour. The average of four glasses over four hours per guest is employed because some guests will drink less while others may have slightly more. The average wine glass serving is about 4 ounces.

So, 4 glasses Â¥ 4 ounces = 16 ounces per guest. Your total needs are then determined by the final two formulas: 16 (guests) Â¥ 16 ounces = 256 ounces; then 256 ounces ÷ 25 (ounces per 750-ml bottle) = 10.2 standard bottles. In this scenario, you may
as well play it safe and buy a 12-bottle case (on which you'll likely receive a discount).

For the wines in your prebuffet wine tasting, figure that you will pour 1 to 1 1/2 ounces per guest per wine. Since it's an informal sampling, you obviously needn't pour more than 1 1/2 ounces, especially since you will be serving wine a little later on with dinner. Make it easier on yourself by estimating that there will be roughly 16 sampling servings per bottle (25 ounces per 750-ml bottle ÷ 1.5 ounces = 16.66 individual servings). So, if you have 16 guests, your tasting will require one bottle of each wine to be sampled. Thus, you will need a minimum of 16 bottles total for the evening.

For budgetary purposes, it pays to know that many retail wine shops offer discounts of 5 to 20 percent on full-case purchases of 12 bottles. For your buffet, obtain a mixed case or cases of reds, whites and a Champagne or other sparkling wine. If you decide to hold a tasting, you'll have to consider those wines separately from the wines to be enjoyed with the meal.

Most Americans prefer red wine over white by a slight margin, so choose seven or eight reds, three or four dry whites and a Champagne or two per case. It also makes good sense to choose wines that you prefer in the event that all the wines aren't consumed at your party. Last, don't forget your party's designated drivers. Nonalcoholic beers are a good idea in addition to plenty of iced tea, soda, mineral water and juice.

They're here!
You've budgeted, shopped, cleaned and put on your best duds. Now it's time to open your doors.

It's best to hold the wine tasting prior to the presentation of the buffet. Three to four wines will suffice. Have some diced mild cheeses, unflavored bread rounds or neutral-tasting crackers available to enhance the wines. Create a tasting theme that's relaxed and informal. Focus on, say, four Sauvignon Blancs from California, Chile and New Zealand to see how they compare. Champagne and sparkling wines likewise make excellent tasting options. Serve two sparkling wines from California and two Champagnes from France of comparable price for contrast.

One of the advantages of the buffet format is that guests serve themselves when they want and in the quantities that they desire, thereby leaving the host to schmooze with his or her guests. Also, buffets erase the trial of having to figure out appropriate seating arrangements. What to do with the lone single person at a sit-down dinner has thrown more than a few hosts into convulsions. Here are a few valuable buffet service hints.

· Don't set out the food until 75 to 80 percent of your guests have arrived, are offered something to drink and have had ample time to settle in. There are always stragglers, but they'll catch up with everyone else.

· Bring out all of your entrées and side dishes at once so that every dish that is hot will be in harmony with every other warm dish. Replenish as needed. Have multiple food stations set up on at least two tables for the purpose of avoiding congestion. Another trick to thwart self-service congestion is to place the same foods at two locations, ideally at the ends of the stations for easy access. A third station should be reserved for all beverages, glasses, ice and flatware. By keeping food and beverages separate, you alleviate traffic jams, especially in smaller residences.

· Line up your wine bottles in some sort of order on your beverages table. They won't stay that way, but it's helpful to your guests if you arrange them with the labels facing out and aligned white to red, dry to sweet or young to mature. Don't forget to place rosés, whites and Champagnes in ice buckets and to have two wine glasses per person for your buffet service.

· To save space and to create the look of abundance on your food stations, build varying levels through the use of stemmed platters, multitiered serving trays or bowls or by employing sturdy painted or paper-covered boxes on which to place some of your food creations.

· Remember that buffet entertaining calls for food selections that are small in presentation, and that do not require the forceful application of utensils for polite, informal consumption. Think thinly sliced, breaded pieces of chicken breast rather than a whole breast and silver-dollar-sized medallions of beef tenderloin rather than catcher's-mitt-sized hunks of steak. The best buffets are the ones that present a bit of everything from the major food categories. Don't forget to include three to six sauces, condiments and salsas to add both color and variety to the food choices and combinations.

· If your wine knowledge doesn't take you much further than Chianti in straw-covered bottles, locate a wine merchant who will be patient enough to guide you through the delicate process of choosing appropriate wines for both your tasting and buffet. Wait until you finalize the food menu so that wines can be matched to complement the food. When entertaining, food comes first, then wine choices.

The End is Near:
Saying good night
Like all living things, a party's energy peters out after a while. Guests and host grow weary when digestion (and that last glass of wine) starts kicking in. People start checking their watches but aren't sure whether they should leave. What does the gracious host do to encourage movement toward the door without looking like a party pooper?

Step one: Remove all the food from the buffet at least an hour before you want everyone to start leaving. People love to eat and as long as there are bits of food to pick at, guests will linger.

Step two: At an appropriate lull in the conversation say, "So, who's ready for coffee or tea for the way home?"

Step three: If there are unwanted leftovers, you might hint, "There's some food left over. Who wants to take home a plate of chicken fingers or beef tenderloin?" Finally: When the door closes behind the final guest, you can sit back next to that new wine stain on your sofa and know that you just hosted the best party you've ever thrown. Now, how about that spring 2003 soirée?

The Champagne Reception
Effervescent entertaining at its most elegant
Champagne and sparkling wines are the comets of the wine cosmos. By virtue of their inherent grace and diamondlike brilliance in the glass, they alone are enough reason to throw a chic holiday party. After all, what activity stirs more universal expressions of delight than the popping of a Champagne cork?

The world's sparklers match up stunningly well with numerous cuisines. Sparkling wines exhibit a broad latitude of style and flavor that make them quintessential focal points for an elegant Champagne reception.

Champagne receptions are typically given during the early evening and are stand-up gatherings that last from two to four hours. By not committing anyone to a formal sit-down affair, the host encourages brief drop-ins as well as extended visits, depending on the whims and schedules of the invited guests. Most people are grateful for such a malleable format during the season in which there are typically a great many social obligations.

The theme of your Champagne reception is best kept seasonal and direct: Make it a generic year-end celebration, complete with light, finger-to-mouth edibles that complement effervescent wines. A sound primary motivation is to simply toast the successes and good fortune of the current year, while hoping for the best in the coming year.
Bubbling over with ideas

If Champagne is your gathering's big draw, you should offer a cross section of both Champagnes and sparkling wines (which, incidentally, don't all have to be made from typical Champagne grapes) in an assortment of dry, off-dry and sweet styles as well as white and rosé varieties.

"If the theme of your Champagne reception is more formal and you're trying to impress a new client or your boss, stick with the more famous names in Champagne—names that will be familiar to your guests," suggests Eric Benn, owner of The Bubble Lounge in San Francisco and New York. "But, if you're inviting old friends, serve some lesser-known quality brands that may surprise as well as delight them."

Drier varieties of Champagnes and selected sparkling wines are labeled "brut" or "extra brut." These wines have little to no residual sugar, which makes them very tart, sometimes astringent. When the words "extra dry" or "extra sec" appear on the label, it indicates that the Champagne or sparkling wine is fairly dry to off-dry, but nowhere near as dry as brut or extra brut wines. These dry to off-dry kinds of sparkling wines adapt to a variety of foods—everything from salty hors d'oeuvres and zesty Tex-Mex dips to marinated mushrooms, smoked fish and Indian samosas. Because dry sparklers have such versatility, the majority of your vinous offerings for a Champagne reception should be dry.

"Be daring with your food choices if your reception is informal," recommends Benn. "Put out freshly made popcorn, Asian dishes, pizza. Brut rosé Champagne is marvelously easy to match with all types of foods. So, by all means, have some dry rosés on hand."

The balance of your stock should showcase the sweeter side of sparkling wines. You'll have some guests with sweet tooths and others who rarely have the opportunities to experience the splendor of sweeter Champagnes. The sweeter varieties, specifically demi-sec (moderately sweet) and doux (very sweet), are best served alongside fruit tarts, fresh fruit, cheesecakes and puddings.

For guests who relish mixed drinks, Champagnes and sparkling wines form the foundation of a bevy of luscious cocktails. Italy's softly effervescent and fruity Proseccos are especially tasty in Bellinis. Spanish cavas from Catalonia shine particularly brightly in holiday punches. California's world-class sparkling bruts match up well with fresh-squeezed orange juice to create great mimosas. Of course, the gold standard of sparkling wines, Champagne, is first among equals when talking cocktails. The classic Champagne cocktail blends bubbly with Angostura bitters and a single sugar cube. Crème de cassis plus brut Champagne makes a kir royale.

Once you've figured out what types of bubbly to have on hand, it's important to make sure you've got enough. Most professionals agree that one bottle of Champagne fills six flutes; if your guests each drink three glasses of bubbly during the party, you'll only need to buy one bottle of Champagne for every two guests.

Sitting on the Bubble
It's one thing to offer a variety of Champagne and sparkling wines, but it's another to serve them properly with the care that they deserve. Here are a handful of tips to help make your reception the talk of the season:

Buying: Buy from wine merchants with regular and substantial inventory turnover. The reason? Champagnes and sparkling wines are at their best when they are fresh and young, and haven't been sitting around, possibly for years, in a shop's storeroom.

Storage: Champagnes and sparkling wines are delicate entities, easily affected by warm or bright conditions. Keep them in your basement or cellar, if you have one. If not, store them in your coolest, darkest closet or room. Chill them either the day before or by the morning of your party.

Serving temperature: The optimum serving temperature for Champagnes and sparkling wines ranges between 40F and 46F. Champagne and sparkling wines chill evenly and quickly when they are submerged in an ice bath for 15 to 30 minutes, assuming they have been stored at cellar (54F-60F) or room (68F-72F) temperature. Otherwise, if you have the space, chill them on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator.

While some brave souls espouse using freezers, most professionals believe that it's better to avoid them in party situations. Why? Because if you forget about the wine for an extended period, the bottles will explode—you'll have wasted a lot of wine and be forced to wash out your freezer. Better to use buckets or wash tubs.

Glassware: Use narrow, stemmed flute or tulip glasses to display the long, undulating trails of bubbles and to funnel the delicate aromas to your guests' noses. Never chill the flutes because cold glass inhibits the effervescence, making the bubbly appear dull. And refrain from placing swizzle sticks in your flutes because they will obstruct the bubbles.

How much to pour: Benn urges hosts not to fill more than one-half to two-thirds of the glass. "You always want your Champagne to be cold. When a host pours too much and the guests are holding their glasses and talking or eating, the Champagne will warm up quickly, masking its natural crispness."

Leftover bubbly: If you have leftovers in open bottles, seal them with Champagne stoppers and put them back in the fridge. A tight seal will extend the effervescence for up to three days. In fact, keep several stoppers handy if you entertain a lot.

The preceding article is excerpted from an article that appeared in the December 2002 issue of Wine Enthusiast. To read the feature in its entirety, pick up this month's issue at your local newsstand or wine retailer.

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