People are often surprised that I -- a food and wine writer -- don't have a wine cellar. But I don't, and probably for some of the same reasons you don't. I can't be bothered. I'm too busy to put one together. I don't have the space. I don't want to spend thousands of dollars on an oversized, refrigerated, humidity-controlled unit.
Does that mean I run out and buy a bottle of wine every night for dinner, or each time I need a cupful to make a sauce? Heavens, no! I keep a little stash. Call it a cook's wine stash. It's very basic: a little of this, a few bottles of that, all tucked into a simple hardware-store wine rack in the bottom of my pantry. I keep one bottle of sparkling wine and one bottle of white ready to drink in the refrigerator (neither stays longer than a week or two); between that and the 12 in the rack, I'm ready for anything.
It's easy and inexpensive to put together a cook's stash of 13 bottles. Just gather the following:
• Two bottles of sparkling wine. They needn't be expensive. One goes in the rack, the other in the fridge for a spur-of-the-moment celebration or even just a festive aperitif when an unexpected friend drops by.
• Three bottles of all-purpose white and four all-purpose reds. These should be simple and inexpensive, wines you'd be just as happy drinking with a weekday dinner as you would using to make a quick pan-sauce. I like to keep these wines under $10. For whites, sauvignon blanc is a good choice; if it doesn't have too much oak, it pairs with everything and works in any sauce. For red, pinot noir, soft merlot, Rioja from Spain, inexpensive Italian red, beaujolais or Côtes du Rhône are versatile to cook with and easy to drink.
• One bottle of special-occasion white, such as a chardonnay you've been dying to try or a white Burgundy.
• One bottle of special-occasion red -- for when you pull out all the stops making dinner. A meritage blend, an interesting cabernet, a red Bordeaux, Burgundy, Brunello or Hermitage -- whatever most excites you. But hey -- it doesn't have to be a special occasion to drink it; maybe you just feel like treating yourself after a rough week.
• One bottle of "wild card" white. Something that stands up to ethnic or spicy foods. Rieslings go wonderfully with Asian and Pacific Rim flavors.
• One bottle of rosé. These are terrific with casual foods, cold cuts, grilled chicken and vegetables -- just about anything. They also work well with spicy foods.
• A big red. One bottle for that night you feel like plopping a steak on the grill. Or lamb chops. This can be cabernet, meritage, syrah, red Bordeaux, Zinfandel, Barolo -- whatever chewy red you like with red meat.
Now, that's a stash you can use. The beautiful part is you get to have wine on demand, and you only need to replenish it as the stash gets low. In the meantime, enjoy!
Leslie Brenner is an award-winning journalist and author of four books on food and wine, including Fear of Wine. Her most recent book is American Appetite.
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