As the holiday season draws near, those of us responsible for creating menus, decorating the home and preparing special meals begin to worry, perhaps even panic.  It's hard enough to choose a crowd-pleasing holiday menu, but when wine-shopping time arrives, it's easy to let stress get the best of you.

Wine shopping doesn't have to be a traumatic experience.  To help you actually enjoy selecting wines for your holiday meal, we've put together some helpful tips for the three phases of holiday wine shopping.

Phase One: Planning

Before you buy your holiday wine, you will need to sit down with a pencil and paper (and, if you're like me, a calculator) and decide how much wine you will need.   Factors to consider include:

  • Number and preferences of guests who will drink wine.  If you are not sure of this number, assume most of your guests will drink one to three glasses of wine during your event.  Use what you know about your guests to help you decide whether they will drink more or less than the average person.
  • Length of your party or meal (in hours).  Typically, a guest will drink one or two glasses of wine in the first hour of a party, and then perhaps one glass per hour.
  • Type of party – cocktail party, buffet, sit-down meal.  The "three glasses per guest" rule will hold true for a cocktail party or buffet, but if you are hosting a multi-course, sit-down meal attended by wine aficionados, you might want to plan four or five glasses per guest.
  • Menu.  A cocktail party with light hors d'oeuvres will require fewer drinks per person than will a heavy meal with appetizers and dessert.  Similarly, a simple meal will call for fewer types of wine and glasses of wine per guest than will a multi-course dinner.  Plan to offer both red and white wines if you serve a traditional turkey dinner.  Many wine experts recommend buying 60 percent white wine and 40 percent red wine; feel free to adjust this recommendation based on your knowledge of your guests' preferences. 
  • Food and beverage budget.  Don't worry if you can't spend $40 per bottle.  There are plenty of good-value wines available that will beautifully complement your holiday meal.

Make your final calculation.  After you calculate the number of glasses of wine per guest for your holiday event, divide that number by five to determine the number of 750-millileter bottles of wine you should buy. 

Phase Two: Organizing

There's nothing worse than coming home from your wine shopping trip and discovering that the only space left for your wine is right in the middle of your kitchen floor.  Before you leave for your local wine shop, take some time to organize your home.

  • Find a place to store your holiday wines.  Ideally, you should store your holiday wines in a temperature-controlled area with stable humidity, away from light.  You are aiming for a temperature of about 55 degrees Fahrenheit.  Whatever you do, avoid placing your case of wine on your kitchen floor or counter, particularly if you shop before you begin your holiday baking.  The typical kitchen gets far too warm for proper wine storage.
  • Clean out your refrigerator.  Before you begin your food and wine shopping, toss out all expired food, ancient leftovers and unneeded items.  Reorganize your refrigerated items to maximize available space.  You will need to keep refrigerator space clear so you can chill wine to its proper temperature on the day of your holiday party.
  • Inventory your glassware.  Setting the holiday table is part of the fun of entertaining.  Although the current craze for specific wine glasses for each varietal may work for you, it is perfectly acceptable to drink from the glasses you own, even if they are cut crystal or colored.  If you don't own enough wine glasses to serve all your guests, consider renting (particularly for a large party) or borrowing additional glasses.

Phase Three: Shopping

Once you've made your plans and decided where to store your holiday wines, it's time to hit the road and buy your wines.

Make the wine shop your final stop.  Leaving wine in a parked car, even on a cold day, could affect its taste, particularly on a sunny day.

Ask for recommendations, but stay within your budget.  Mention menu selections and price ranges.  Even if you have researched wine and food pairings, it may be helpful to ask about particular suggestions at your favorite wine shop.  You shouldn't feel pressured to spend outside your per-bottle price range; ask for two or three suggestions for both red and white wines that will complement your main course.

Buy your wines by the case to save money and time.  Most wine shops offer case discounts of at least 10 percent; some will give you a discount on mixed cases.  Consider using one or two bottles from your case for holiday or hostess gifts if you don't need them for your meal or party.

Choose wines that both complement your menu and please your own palate.  There is no point in selecting highly-recommended wines if you don't enjoy drinking them.  After all, you are the person who has done the hard work of planning, organizing and shopping for your holiday meal.  Don't you deserve to enjoy the wines you have selected?

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