Crappy Wine Doesn’t Have to Be So Bad

Mixers aren’t meant for booze alone.

Even in the most pedigreed of banquet halls, filled with the most fabulous of guests, waiters serve crap wine. Throughout my career, I've sidestepped into the catering world a few times. I've lived through $200,000 weddings that spared no expense, except with the rotgut merlot. I've been to charity auctions in which some kindly distributor had unloaded the last 24 cases of a wine that nobody else wanted. Place is no indicator of taste when it comes to banquet wine. Hotels and banquet facilities must squeeze every dime out of every decision; they'd serve Two-Buck Chuck if they could. The wine you drink is the wine for which your hosts were willing to pay, and as a good guest, it's your responsibility to accept it.

On my own time, I am a colossal wine snob. I'd rather drink a cold, cheap beer than suffer bad wine. But if I'm attending a wedding or an event with a plated dinner, I'll drink what's available and costs me bupkis. Here's how I muddle through.

No matter what entrée is on the menu, remember: white before red, and bubbles before both. Carbonation helps to hide a wine's craptasticness, and a glass of sparkling wine is the easiest to make palatable. Ask the bartender to make a champagne cocktail by adding a bitters-soaked sugar cube to your flute. Or do it yourself; in many parts of Italy, people add sugar to their prosecco if it's not exactly to their taste. You can also look for a bottle of Grand Marnier or some such liqueur to add a dash of flavor. In fact, a splash of triple sec (a low-rent orange liqueur) will get the job done.

If your host isn't serving sparkling wine, there's always the ubiquitous banquet "bardonnay" (not my term—I'm stealing from radio personality Stephanie Miller). It's sure to hang you up and over. The bardonnay bottle most likely contains lowly grapes from California's Central Valley treated with God knows how many additives, like the oak extract that gives the wine its unique Brach's Pick-a-Mix butterscotch aroma (fancy!). So repeat after me: When life gives you bardonnay, make rosé. Ask for a splash of Chambord, crème de cassis, or sloe gin—hell, even cranberry juice—and call it a kir. The French have employed this technique to jazz up cheap bar wine forever. Alternatively, I sometimes add seltzer and lots of lime. White-wine spritzers may not be in fashion, but they're a smart choice for a long night of drinking.

Cheap reds are insufferable. Period. Whether the wine suffers from a lack of fruit, a harsh flavor, or a vinegary aftertaste, a bad red wine is as appetizing as lukewarm lemonade. But if you're one of those "I only drink red" people, make sure your water glass has plenty of ice. That's right: Temperature is the only thing that can make a red wine taste better. Cooling down the wine will take away some of the brash and put a damper on any alcohol content.

You may still have to eat the overcooked meat on your plate, but what's in your glass is never beyond help.

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