It arrives in a box, inside a box, inside a box. It’s an invitation for a think you know what he might like. Inside are the directions to his house, a time to arrive and a request: “I’m cooking. Please bring the drinks and the wine!” And now, Pandora’s proverbial box is not only open, but open, out and unable to close. So which beverages do you pick? How do you pick them? How do you make the perfect round of cocktails to start the night off so that it’s nice and easy, but then impress him enough by following it up with wines that intrigue him, and wines he won’t have seen before? The hunt is on.
First we have to size up the mood. What music will be playing when first date, the next date, or the first “real” date, even though you you walk into his home? What will he be wearing? Are things down tempo and relaxed – Miles Davis and Nina Simone? Or is it 120 beats per minute? Is he attempting something ethnic you can eat with your hands? Or is this a quick salad and pizza? Multi-courses and candlelight?
The key to unlocking his heart is having a variety of wines to choose from, knowing something unique about each of them and why you picked these particular wines, and having some standard cocktail recipes that can be modified based on what you find in his cupboards when you get there.
Remember for that Champagne is always right, for any course, any time of day or night, for any food. It’s the universal solvent. If you go this route, try looking for estate producers, small growers that make their own bubbles instead of selling to the big houses. These wines are more specific, lesser known, more focused and make a much better impression. If you want to think outside that Pandora’s Box for a little more interesting twist on sparkling, try a Cremant d’Alsace or a Cremant de Loire.
Aperitifs. Traditionally, these little teasers are served with appetizers to get your mouth watering, literally. Find out what he is serving for a starter or bring along some almonds, olives or finger foods that will work with your aperitif. This type of drink will get the part of your mouths working that detect acidity, and you will quickly be ready for what follows. In Spain, sherry or Madeira serves this purpose; in France, it’s Pastis (or its evil twin Absinthe) or Lillet; in Italy, it is the category of Amari/Amaro, including the likes of Campari, Aperol or Sweet Vermouth.
Try making a cocktail with an aperitif at the base. My favorite is inspired from my last trip to Italy, near Lake Orta in the north:
Never Coming Home
– half an ounce Aperol (the baby brother of Campari, much less bitter)
– half an ounce sparkling Spumante
– top with ruby red grapefruit juice and a twist of lime
– serve in a Champagne flute or wine glass (or a paper cup – it’s so good, you won’t care!)
Cocktails. Here you have an opportunity to choose some options that can set the tone for your tastes, curb your desire to find out his tastes, or let out your creativity. The big question is: What type of cocktail do you want to start with? Savory? Sour? Sweet? You could start with one and progress through the others in order instead of pairing wine, or you could choose the cocktail based on the meal or mood. An easy way to pair, regardless of what he makes, is to serve a straight-up clear vodka martini that can be modified. Start with a 2-ounce pour of clear vodka. Then:
for savory: add Thai basil and shake and finish with chili oil or make a clear martini with jalapeño or gorgonzola-stuffed olives (fun to eat and share.)
for sour: add fresh lime, simple syrup and a splash of pomegranate juice or add equal parts vodka and Cointreau, a splash of orange juice, a splash of grenadine, and fresh lime.
for sweet: add pineapple juice, then sink a capful of Chambord to the bottom of the glass or add a teaspoon of warm honey, fresh lime, half a cup of honeydew and a splash of maraschino liqueur.
IF HE LIKES:
Big California Cabernet try Australian Cabernet/Shiraz blend from Barossa
Riesling try Chenin Blanc from France
American Chardonnay try an Oregon producer or Pouilly Fuissé
Pinot Grigio try Rueda from Spain
Merlot try old-vine Grenache/Garnacha from France, Australia or Spain
Syrah try Something from California’s Paso Robles region or Chateauneuf du Pape from the Rhone