Far from today's romance-infused experiences, weddings, up through the Middle Ages, were about politics and survival. Families united in economics and power, love be damned. But in this modern age, amorous couples, after the maudlin ceremony and the raucous party, fend for themselves after exchanging vows. In October, I will be entering into this social and legal rite, binding myself to a man for, hopefully, life. Organizing the wedding ritual, we've rejected many silly traditions (like the ridiculous garter toss) and deflected numerous parental supplications, but to be honest, the hardest thing hasn't been juggling the guest list or the family — it's choosing the wines. Many curious folk have inquired what this wine critic will serve at her own wedding and, naturally, the pressure to "deliver" is quite palpable. Then that minor issue of budget hangs in the air. I'm, ahem, an "older" bride, so my parents aren't exactly shelling out like I'm a 22-year-old virgin. Satisfying the wallet and the palate has been a soul search.
The bubbly is perhaps the most important decision. In celebration, people will be swilling it all night, and serving a better one helps avoid hangovers. Caterers and halls normally offer limited (and quite average) wine selections, so inquire about outside purchasing like I did. Buying in bulk without a huge markup offers a significant cost savings. Although you might incur a dreaded "corkage fee," weigh the cost difference as well as the enjoyment factor. Don't bitch about this — corkage fees (ranging from $3 to $20 per bottle) cover the overhead costs a caterer incurs for the wine service. But they are, however, highly negotiable.
If budget wasn't an issue for me, I'd pour Schramsberg Vineyards, a fantastic Sonoma Valley sparkling wine house. But at about $35 a bottle, this 38-year-old not-so-virgin balked. I finally decided on Domaine Carneros Brut, the delicious California outpost of France's Taittinger, which hurts less at $20 — before retail markup. If you need something even less expensive, there are excellent alternatives around $10 — Italian Prosecco (Mionetto) or Spanish Cava (Segura Viudas Aria).
Since my betrothed and I are both wine geeks, our reception is a three-course wine dinner. A hefty food base cushions the evening's drinking agenda. And we love to eat. As do our friends and family. On the menu is lemony and dry Altanuta 2006 Pinot Grigio ($17), fruity yet robust Bonny Doon 2004 Syrah le Pousseur ($15), minerally and soft Joseph Drouhin 2005 Chablis Domaine de Vaudon ($22), earthy and bold Marchesi di Barolo 2003 Barolo ($45 — our splurge wine — second mortgage?) and a slightly sweet and fizzy Beni di Batasiolo 2005 Moscato d'Asti ($14) for the wedding cake. For the infamous cake toast, serve a sweeter sparkling wine rather than a dry brut. The sugary smack of the cake will turn a brut pungent and flat. Look for bubblies that say "Extra Dry" or "Demi Sec" on the label. Ideal choices (if budget isn't an issue): Iron Horse Wedding Cuvée ($34), Moet et Chandon White Star ($30) or Banfi Rosa Regale ($17).
Normal people's sit-downs can be much simpler. Two wines: one white, one red. Choose a lighter, more acidic sauvignon blanc over chardonnay, since it generally melds better with food. For reds, the widely appealing and lighter merlot fits both lightweight Aunt Mae and alcoholic Uncle John. Same goes for stand-up receptions and buffets, but add more variety — at least two reds and two whites.
When determining how much to buy, remember there are about five glasses in each wine bottle and about six in a sparkling. With dinner, count on one glass of wine per person per hour (but this certainly depends on the crowd's party heartiness). During a reception, calculate two glasses if it's wine and beer only, one less if you're serving other alcoholic beverages. However, these estimates depend on how much activity you have going on — bored people will probably drink more to dull the pain. And you really don't want to have that wedding.