You may already be on your way to your company’s swank annual fête, but Jessica Fusco probably has known for a few months what you and your colleagues will be eating and drinking. Fusco, the banquet and beverage manager at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, won’t divulge any client names, but she did tell Fortune that a well-known fashion and design firm will be pouring Drouhin Chablis and a Domaine de L’Harmas Châteauneuf-du-Pape with their crab and prawn appetizer and beef entrée.
On the other side of the continent, event coordinators for a Bay Area company that is one of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For are tightlipped about whether any special guests will make appearances at their holiday party—holiday parties, we should say, because there’s “not a [local] venue or vendors that can accommodate a party so large,” says A. R. Executive Events founder Alison Regenold, who has been creating events for this client for five years. What we can tell you is what will be served at the bar. To go with a vibe that Regenold describes as a “progressive evening with a strong and warm welcome, eye candy, and roaming entertainment,” those who attend will be sipping on specialty cocktails plus DeLoach Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, Louis Martini Cabernet, Gloria Ferrer sparkling wine, and selections from a handful of other California producers. That’s a pretty nice lineup considering how many cases they will need to order this holiday season to accommodate its thousands of party guests.
Though most corporate Christmas parties won’t be on the same scale as these, there’s still a lot that smaller companies and individuals planning their own holiday gatherings can learn from professional event planners as they decide which wines to pour for their guests this holiday season. Here are some ways you can throw a holiday party that the guests will not need to pregame.
Make everyone happy. Yes, you can. Because not everyone is into Malbec or rosé, the surest way to keep glasses full and guests smiling “when you’re pleasing a big group of people,” says Cory Checket, is “going with basic staples like Cabernet and Chardonnay.” Checket, who is managing partner of Jersey City’s Battello, a venue whose corporate clients have included Johnson & Johnson, BNP Paribas, and Prudential, says that Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are other popular choices there. Fusco favors Rhône reds because they pair so well with roasted meats that feature prominently on winter menus.
So when is it a good idea to go off the grid on your wine selection? If your menu focuses on a regional cuisine, says Checket, it’s best if all the wines you offer are from the same region. When you’re entertaining an especially eclectic crowd or your menu is elaborate (think multiple food stations and “make your own” bars), you’ll also need to get a little more creative with the wine choices. As you’ll see from the wine recommendations that follow, choosing lesser-known grapes from lesser-known regions could actually save you some money.
Value the venue and the caterer. Your choice of venue or event planner and, by extension, their caterer, can have a huge impact on your party budget—for the better. When helping clients select wines, “first and foremost, is really value” or bang for the buck, says Regenold; like others in her line of work she tastes constantly to hone in on bottlings with great quality-to-price ratios. When companies sign on to work with top-flight venues, there’s an expectation that their menus and wine lists will be top-quality, even the house wines. All of these professionals want to overdeliver for their clients.
“Most holiday parties are budget conscious,” Checket says. Though some clients specifically request brand-name wines, others just opt for the restaurant’s house offerings because “people assume that at Battello, we won’t pour Sutter Home.” Like the other event experts we spoke to, he says that asking the client the right questions is key: If Checket learns that a company’s work force is very young and not so wine savvy, he’ll advise that they stick with more basic wines.
Presentation counts. You’ve chosen a terrific venue, spent thousands of dollars on a quality menu, and you’re wearing a designer suit—why go to all this trouble if you serve the filet with wines that have cartoon animals on the labels? For Battello, Checket orders custom blends of Chardonnay and Cabernet from a California winery that are labeled with the venue’s name. In the Waldorf Astoria’s banquet department, says Fusco, if they’re deciding between a few wines of equal price and quality, “sometimes [the decision about what to offer clients] comes down to the bottle. We say, ‘This is going to look gorgeous on the table.’” Some clients, she says, have particular aesthetics in mind and might reject a wine “if the label is not trendy or traditional enough” though they loved it when they tasted it blind. For wines, like people, what’s on the inside is what counts most but putting your best foot forward never hurts.
Wines for Fortune 500-sized companies’ holiday events are probably already set (if they’re not, share this link with your HR department, stat), but those of us hosting smaller Christmas parties or intimate holiday dinners at our homes haven’t likely checked that box off our to-do lists. What follows are our recommendations for please-everyone varietals, as well as some more off-the-beaten-path selections. Many of these wines might cost more than what you’d usually spend but we assure you, they’re pretty special (and the prices listed below are suggested by the manufacturer and may vary depending on your local retailer). But hey, it’s the holidays.
Villa Sandi NV Il Fresco Brut Prosecco DOC ($16) This reasonably priced, familiar sparkler has good mousse as well as mineral, pear and ginger notes throughout. A good pour for the “it’s been a great year” toast.
Piper Heidsieck NV Cuvée Brut Champagne ($40) Notes of biscuit, almond and toast add a bit of richness to the wine’s citrus-and-stone fruit core. A solid nonvintage Champagne; this time of year, it should already be chilling in your refrigerator.
Louis Jadot 2013 Meursault ($65) Chardonnay done right: Clean, pure, and round on the palate, with notes of pastry cream, citrus, and almond on the nose. All that a party needs, and then some.
Domaine William Fevre 2012 Vaulorent Premier Cru Chablis ($60) A laser beam of intensity and focus, layered with minerality and mouthwatering citrus flavors. This top-class Chardonnay will please even your pickiest guests.
Robert Mondavi Winery 2013 Reserve To Kalon Vineyard Fumé Blanc Napa Valley ($50) A fuller, richer Sauvignon Blanc than you’re probably used to but paired with a winter menu, that’s a good thing. Cream and toast accents don’t detract from a core of minerality and melon/citrus flavors.
Looking for something less expensive? Check out our article on bottles of wine under $20.
Cave de Tain 2009 Les Hauts du Fief Crozes-Hermitage ($27) This Rhône Syrah feels fresh and unmanipulated; focused blackberry/plum and stone notes drift off into a muscular, mocha finish. So enjoyable, and appropriate for aperitif through dinner.
Chateau de Chamirey 2012 Les Ruelles Mercurey Premier Cru ($55) Burgundy lovers, rejoice. This Pinot is so fragrant—floral, mineral, some nutmeg—and has a minerally shell that melts seamlessly into a black cherry center.
Chateau Lyonnat 2010 Lussac-St. Emilion ($27) This Merlot-dominant (85%) Bordeaux has finely textured tannins and a masculine blackberry-and-earth profile. It’s modern, tasty and is totally a “drink with meat” main-course wine.
Dutton-Goldfield 2013 Fox Den Vineyard Pinot Noir Green Valley ($58) Well, hello there. The Fox Den is a smooth, juicy California Pinot whose cherry fruit has darker hints of cola, bacon and dark berries. It’s a wine most everyone will enjoy, and it’s versatile enough to go from cocktail hour to entrée.
Andrew Januik 2013 Stone Cairn Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain ($40) This Cabernet has some muscle to it, but it’s still approachable now. It’s smooth, with juicy berry fruit flavors edged in chalk/mineral and a hint of caramel.
Stony Hill 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($60) This classically styled Cab is muscular and textured with tangy berry fruit; neutral oak treatment allows the fruit to shine. Bonus: This winery has produced Chardonnay for decades but this is only their fourth vintage of Cab—the C-suite Cab lovers probably haven’t had this one yet.
Marchesi Antinori 2013 Il Bruciato Tenuta Guado al Tasso Bolgheri DOC ($30) Look to this robust Italian when you want Cabernet, but are willing to mix it up a bit: It’s 65% Cabernet with Merlot and Syrah making up the balance, with meaty, bitter chocolate and spice notes accenting the tangy red fruit.
MORE ADVENTUROUS SELECTIONS
Jansz NV Brut Tasmania ($22) This Australian sparkler is reminiscent of California sparkling wines, showing light toast, white stone fruit and mineral notes throughout and a bright citrusy snap on the finish.
Bodegas Castro Martin 2013 Sobre Lías Albariño Rías Baixas ($20) Serve this palate-priming Spanish white as guests arrive: It’s all about minerality and brisk acidity, but has just enough stone and tropical fruit flavors to round it out.
Esporão 2013 Reserva White Alentejo DOC ($20) If you had to guess, you might peg this blend of Portuguese white grape varieties (plus 10% Sauvignon Blanc) as unoaked Chardonnay. It has a bouncy, medium feel; flavors are of melon, white peach and little citrus.
Tascante 2013 Buonora Carricante Sicilia DOC ($20) This all-purpose Sicilian white wine is clean and demure. Minerality plays first fiddle, and citrus sits second chair.
Waitsburg Cellars 2014 Chevray Old Vine Chenin Blanc Columbia Valley ($18) A flavorful choice that’s sure to get you out of your white-wine rut: This Washington Chenin has super pear and grass/hay flavors and brisk acidity, yet a nice roundness on the palate.
Coppo 2013 L’Avvocata Barbera d’Asti ($15) A surprisingly smooth, goes-down-easy Barbera. There’s a clay/earth quality throughout and chewy, plump red fruit. It’s a solid but different choice if there’s Italian anything on your menu.
Particular 2011 Viñas Centenarias Garnacha Cariñena DO ($22) This Spanish red is chock full of black cherry and blackberry, accented with caramel. Dark, alluring, and a little reminiscent of Aussie Grenache. Yum.
¿Por Qué No? 2012 Red Wine Napa Valley ($30) This offbeat Zinfandel-dominant blend has a superdark flavor profile—think cassis, blueberry, and mocha—but it’s not so rich that it doesn’t pair well with food. A nice choice for lamb or steak entrees.
What’s the best (or worst) thing about your company holiday party? What does your company pour? Tell @FortuneMagazine on Twitter and use the hashtag #holidayparty.
Daryna Tobey lives in New York and has been writing about wine since 2001. You can reach her at email@example.com.