Forget about the food, sometimes mealtime is less about what about I'm eating and more about what I'm drinking.
In my home, the standard scenario is to decide what I'm hungry for (or in the mood to cook) and then choose a wine to pair that is appropriate. The food usually comes first. Usually, but not always. Some nights, I just want to savor a particularly delicious bottle of wine, and the foods I choose are meant to play second fiddle, to be the accompaniment, rather than the main course.
As a means of full disclosure, the "wine for dinner" scenario did not get adopted until my husband was as solidly into wine as I was. Telling a non-wine fan that you are planning on dinner to be snacks accompanying your wine choice is akin to inviting a vegetarian to a hog roast. They aren't going to be satisfied.
But if you are lucky and you are eating with someone who will enjoy wine for dinner as much as you, here are my tips for making the most of the meal.
Choose a wine with power. If wine is the focus of dinner, this is not the place for that delicate or tasty crowd pleaser you drink all the time. If wine is going to be the star, make sure it has the presence to do so. I like to choose bottles from a region or grape that are either less familiar to me (like a Carmenere from Chile or a South African Pinotage) or that have difficulty pairing with regular dinners because of the weight or tannin (Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux Blends, and high alcohol wines). In general I avoid these wines with my everyday dinners because I find they can completely overpower many foods, or the food mucks with your palate so much that you lose the ability to really taste the wine. While I have listed primarily reds in the above examples, white wine works equally well as dinner, but stick to the same rule. An Auslese Riesling, Viognier or Chenin Blanc would be my choice over Pinot Grigio. Please note that I am not recommending it be an expensive bottle. It most certainly can be something special, but that is in no way a requirement.
Bread is essential. Crackers are nice, but a nice crusty baguette or artisan loaf makes the meal seem more special, and the carbs make it feel more substantial. Get something fun to try, or play with making it yourself (my baguette recipe is here) since you really won't be "cooking" anything else for the meal.
Serve Cheese. I know that a cheeseboard with wine is extremely predictable, but it is a classic for a reason. Just make sure that your cheeses are chosen to highlight the wine. I would not, for example, have a soft and tangy goat cheese on the board with a Napa Cab. The goat cheese needs acidity and would go much better with a Sauvignon Blanc or Chablis. Meanwhile, cheddars pair beautifully with Cabernet Sauvignon, and harder aged cheeses (like piave or parm) work magic with Barolo.
Serve Meat. And by that, I do not mean a steak, but rather, pâté, cured hams, sausages, anything you think will work with the wine and cheeses you've already chosen.
Have fresh fruit and veggies. Trust me, alcohol, bread, cheese and pâté will start to feel really heavy if you don't have something fresh on the table.
Play with additional accompaniments. Get to know your local olive bar. Try an assortment of mustards, jams, pickles, nuts, whatever pleases you and gets you playing with flavor combinations.
Wine for dinner also makes for a great party.
When it is time to eat, start first by smelling the wine in your glass. Then taste it. Then smell and taste again. Let your mouth and brain get a sense of the wine before you dig into all that cheese. Then as you are sampling the spread, make a conscious effort to try different combinations and make choices about which things you think go best together. As you taste, and after you taste, reflect. Savor. Did the flavors meld or did something overwhelm the other? This is my favorite part of "wine for dinner." You can sit, eating, drinking and talking for quite some time. Everything is at room temperature so you can relax and enjoy. For me, taking the time to slow down makes dinner more fun, and helps me become much more mindful of what I'm eating and what it tastes like. I believe it makes me a better cook and a more discerning epicure.
And if you've got questions or need suggestions - you know where to find me. Just email and I'll do my best to help you out.