Baby boomers usher in the cocktail party with a toast to wine


December 06, 1992|By Michael DresserMichael Dresser | Michael DresserMichael Dresser,Staff Writer

It's hard for baby boomers to imagine, but if you had gone to a classic American cocktail party of the 1950s and asked for a glass of white wine, people would have wondered if you were some kind of Commie spy.

Those were the days of martinis and Manhattans, of Scotch on the rocks and rum-and-Coke, except for the bad New York state champagne everyone drank on New Year's Eve.

It wasn't until the 1970s that wine made its appearance as a popular American party beverage. By then, the cocktail party was out, replaced by the wine and cheese party -- a gathering at which denim-clad people drank bad wine, ate bad cheese and felt infinitely more hip than those social dinosaurs who persisted in going to cocktail parties.

Now come reports that the cocktail party is back in vogue as a social ritual. Perhaps, but don't expect the cocktail itself to regain a central role.

Too much has happened in the last few decades for baby boomers to revive the drinks of their parents' generation. You can bring back the slinky cocktail dresses and silly little wieners on toothpicks, but the martini won't be coming back. Health concerns and the daunting prospect of blowing into a Breathalyzer bar the return of such a potent potable.

No, wine is here to stay. Its relatively low alcoholic kick and its relatively healthy image make it the socially acceptable way to imbibe in the 1990s.

So for the host or hostess of one of these neo-cocktail parties, that raises the dreaded question: Which wine?

Nothing too good, nothing too bad.

Truly fine wine is lost in a cocktail party situation. Guests are far too busy trying to acquire a promotion, new sex partner or reputation for wit to pay much attention to nuances of bouquet and flavor. Save the sit-down wines for a sit-down occasion. Besides, they're too expensive.

At the same time, nobody wants to serve too loathsome a wine. People will talk, and the guests' efforts to subtly discard the stuff will be hard on the plants. Save the really cheap swill for charity events, where people will feel too guilty to complain.

No, the solution is a sound, economical, maybe even mildly appealing jug wine. Not the humongous 3-liter jobs of old, but sensible 1.5-liter magnums, nothing much above $12.

We recently went hunting for a few good jugs, and with the help of some amiable wine merchants assembled a group of 21 to try. Most were white or pink, as that's what people tend to sip at parties, but we threw in a few reds, too. There are some hard-core red wine drinkers, but you can generally figure your guests will consume three times as much white.

In general, the quality was acceptable. A few stood out, there were a couple that were more suitable for cleaning drains, but most were drinkably unexciting.

If there was one unpleasant surprise, it was the mediocrity of the Robert Mondavi Woodbridge line. You can't blame the famous Napa Valley vintner for trying to work some leverage off his name, but if he's going to produce jug wine it should at least be good jug wine.

At the same time, the August Sebastiani "Country" series of jug wines showed an admirable consistency. Despite some pretensions, Sebastiani has always been a jug wine house, and the expertise pays off.

Top choices

WHITE: 1991 Rutherford Estate Cellars Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($12). A plump chardonnay with a lot of buttery oak and vanilla flavor, it offers surprising intensity and character for a jug wine. It's an old-style Napa chardonnay that needs to be drunk within a year, before it collapses under its own weight.

RED: Georges Duboeuf Merlot, Vin de Pays d'Oc ($10). This merlot from the south of France displays good varietal character, without excess herbaceousness, in the style you would expect from a producer known as the "king of Beaujolais." There's nothing complex here, but it's a vibrant, easy-to-drink wine.

PINK: 1991 Glen Ellen Proprietor's Reserve White Zinfandel, Series 3 ($8.79). Scorn not the oft-insulted white zinfandel, at least not when it's made in such a crisp, refreshing style as this Glen Ellen. It's not over-sweet, and there's plenty of acidity. It has pleasant flavors of cherry and spice, with not a trace of the cotton candy flavors that bedevil many white zinfandels.

Good whites

* 1990 Angelini Chardonnay, Veneto ($12). Most inexpensive Italian chardonnays are insipid, but this one has definite character. It's a crisp wine with little if any oak influence. There are flavors of mineral, green apple and lemon and an appealing freshness.

* 1991 August Sebastiani Country Sauvignon Blanc ($9.89). The slight residual sugar takes off just enough of the herbal edge to make this a very pleasant wine for party sipping. Its light grassy, smoky flavors are a pleasant introduction to the sauvignon blanc grape.

* 1990 Monterey Vineyard Classic White, Monterey County ($9). A solid, steady performance from this reliable producer. The wine has good peachy fruit and decent body. No complexity, but it's cheap.

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