John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for December 10th 2011: Reasons to Drink, Calculate your BAC; Hosting the Party; Top Ten Smart Buys.
The last VINTAGES release of the year focuses, sensibly, on holiday gatherings. But like buying a gift of wine for someone (see my last report on the subject), different types of gatherings require different beverage selections. Read on for some advice on what type of wine to buy for three different parties, and importantly how much, with specific recommendations from the December 10th release. The other theme is fizz, but stay tuned for my year-end champagne and sparkling picks coming your way in time to ring in the new year. Click here to jump to the Top Ten Smart Buys.
Hosting the Party: Why We Drink, and How much we Should
It’s not a stretch to assume that mood-altering substances have played a role in social gatherings since such substances were first discovered. But most of these, with the major exception of alcohol, are now considered illegal. Despite many past and ongoing prohibition movements, alcohol has probably maintained its above-board status due to it’s close ties with major world religions (except Islam, of course). Wine consumption is advocated in dozens of passages in the bible, both the old and new testaments, as in: “A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry” Ecclesiastes 10:19. There’s plenty of empirical evidence to support this claim.
But why does alcohol play such an important and common role in our social gatherings? Undoubtedly it has much to do with the fact that we are programmed to seek pleasure, not pain. “One of alcohol’s agreeable effects is body relaxation, possibly caused by neurons transmitting electrical signals in an alpha waves-pattern; such waves are observed when the body is relaxed”. 
It could also well have something to do with our inherent shyness and lack of self-confidence. It has been well demonstrated that a blood alcohol content (BAC) of between 0.03 to 0.12% can cause an overall improvement in mood and possible euphoria, and increase self-confidence and sociability. Most would consider these positive developments, especially in a social setting.
There’s plenty of recent scientific evidence showing that moderate wine consumption has some health benefits, validating such ancient statements as “Wine is at the head of all medicines; where wine is lacking, drugs are necessary” found in The Talmud. But since drugs, prescription or otherwise are outside our societal norms and are not part of your average office holiday party, let wine be our medicine. Indeed, according to Italian religious philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) “If a man deliberately abstains from wine to such an extent that he does serious harm to his nature, he will not be free from blame.” 
Of course, the scale can tip to far. “Wine was created from the beginning to make men joyful, and not to make men drunk. Wine drunk with moderation is the joy of soul and the heart” Ecclesiastes 31:35-36. Wine, in moderation, not excess, has a role to play in joy and health.
The party is likely to break up when BAC levels reach 0.09 to 0.25%, at which point lethargy sets in, followed by shortened attention span, impaired memory and comprehension. Above these levels, when BAC reaches 0.18 to 0.30%, the senses become impaired and profound confusion sets in.  Time to go home. In a taxi.
Blood alcohol content varies greatly by individual and depends on such factors as gender, weight, rate of consumption and type of drink. For example, two 5oz glasses of champagne within one hour puts me in the euphoric zone, while a third, puts me over 0.05%, at which point it’s illegal to drive in Ontario. To calculate your approximate blood alcohol content, use the CAA’s handy calculator.
Holiday Gatherings: What & how much to buy; how to make the most of your Budget
So, to keep guests euphoric and un-impaired for your party, count on half a bottle/person generally for sit down dinners (over a couple of hours), and a little less for stand up affairs (less food = faster absorption of alcohol). It’s better, however to have too much than too little; you can return any unopened bottles to the LCBO for a refund. During the coldest months, the split is typically ¼ white to ¾ red. To maximize the impression and minimize your budget, spend a few cents less on wine and a few more on the glassware, if renting. Nothing ruins the experience of a decent wine like those thick-rimmed, old-style balloon glasses, while even an average wine tastes better in a classy glass. For casual affairs, count on 1.5 glasses per person, and encourage reusing/rinsing. More formal, multi-wine events require one glass/person/wine.
What to Serve
As for the specifics of what to serve, the appropriate, style and price will change with crowd. Here are some guidelines on three types of parties:
Lots of Strangers or Distant Acquaintances in a Room
For large affairs, corporate events, office mixers, big weddings and any other type of event where you can’t remember half the guests’ names, play it safe and stick with the mainstream: nothing idiosyncratic or overly dramatic. The more character the wine has, the less likely it is to appeal to everyone; well-known regions and grapes are best. Err on the side of more full-bodied, warm climate reds (cabernet, shiraz, merlot, malbec, GSMs), and widely appealing low or un-oaked chardonnay, dry or off-riesling, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc. For Bubbles, Cava or Prosecco will do. No need to spend more than $15 or so per bottle.
• CARLES ANDREU BRUT NATURE CAVA DO, Conca De Barbara, Spain $15.95
• 2008 CHÂTEAU DES CHARMES OLD VINES RIESLING VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake $16.95
• 2010 PETER ZEMMER PINOT GRIGIO DOC Alto Adige $15.95
• 2009 CHÂTEAU ROCHECOLOMBE CÔTES DU RHÔNE AC $14.95
The Intimate Gathering of Friends
Toss all safe picks out the window and dazzle your friends with your latest WineAlign finds. Arm yourself with a few reviews (if anyone questions you, you can deflect the blame). You’ll be looking for insider’s picks well off the beaten path where quality/value=smart buy, i.e.:
• 2008 MARKUS MOLITOR RIESLING SPÄTLESE QmP, Ürziger Würzgarten $24.95
• 2009 PIERRE AMADIEU DOMAINE GRAND ROMANE CUVÉE PRESTIGE GIGONDASAC, Vieilles Vignes $27.95
• 2009 ARGIOLAS COSTERA DOC Cannonau di Sardegna $17.95
• 2005 KATOGI & STROFILIA XINOMAVRO AO Naoussa $17.95
• 2010 DOMAINE DE VAUGONDY DRY VOUVRAY AC $14.95
• 2007 INURRIETA CUATROCIENTOS DO Navarra $15.95
The Wine & Cheese Party
Supposed to be the easiest type of affair, wine and cheese is in reality a minefield. So many fine wines are dashed by the deadly combination of fat, salt, and pungent flavours of cheese. To make matching worse, a typical cheese board contains a range of cheeses (as it should) from mild to stinky, so no single wine will work, and the logistics of getting the right wine in the right glass with the right cheese is complicated. But here’s how to do it: set up stations, each with a different cheese and wine combo. Guests mingle, chat and make their way around the room; at each station they can stop for a piece of cheese and a fresh glass of the right wine, so be sure to have enough glasses on hand: Number of guests x number of wine/cheese combinations, + 20% extra to be safe. Here’s a classic set up:
Table 1: Fresh goat’s cheese + crisp, dry white:
2010 ASTROLABE VOYAGE SAUVIGNON BLANC Marlborough, South Island $21.95
Table 2: Brie or Camembert + rich, buttery, (lightly) oaked white:
2008 G. MARQUIS THE SILVER LINE CHARDONNAY Single Vineyard Niagara Stone Road, VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake $16.95
Table 3: Hard cheese, i.e. parmiggiano reggiano, Monforte Toscano + full-bodied red wine:
2010 CASA LAPOSTOLLE CUVÉE ALEXANDRE CABERNET SAUVIGNON Colchagua Valley $24.95
Table 4: Blue cheese i.e. Roquefort, Blue d’Auvergne, Gorgonzola + sweet wine i.e. port, sauternes, Icewine:
RAMOS-PINTO QUINTA DA ERVAMOIRA 10 YEARS OLD DOC Douro $35.95
And that’s all there is to it. Wishing you safe, happy, mirth-filled holidays.
From the December 10th Vintages release:
John Szabo, Master Sommelier