A cellar for the rest of us

Keep these wines ready for a variety of occasions
KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE

When I was younger, it seemed that the world was divided into two kinds of wine drinkers: people like me, who aged wine for about as long as it took to get the bottle home from the store, and people with five-figure, temperature-controlled cellars showcasing thousands of pricey bottles. Short of winning the lottery, I knew I'd never be part of the second group.

But over the years, I've realized that most wine drinkers fall somewhere between these extremes. Thousands of wines are more than most people need or can afford, but a ready stock of, say, 20 to 40 bottles can make wine an easy part of your daily routine.

But which wines should you have? The kinds I'd suggest keeping on hand are somewhat different from the conventional collection. Instead of laying away X number of vintages of Bordeaux, Y number of Burgundies, and so on, buy for current drinking and real-life situations. I've included a list of categories below, but add your own. Keep at least one bottle on hand for each purpose.

8 wines to have on hand

FOR COMFORT FOODS

It's Wednesday night, and you're having meatloaf. You might be surprised at how good an unfussy, inexpensive white wine can be: Adelsheim Pinot Gris 2002 (Oregon; $16) has a beautiful lemon-drop, vanilla, and spice character. If you like reds, try Hedges "CMS" 2000 (Columbia Valley, WA; $10), a mouth-filling blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah.

FOR COMPANY

When friends come by, the perfect wine is one that's easy to drink but has some panache. Muga Rioja Reserva 1999 (Rioja, Spain; $17) has the earthy sensuality of a Burgundy that costs four times as much.

FOR SPICY DISHES

Considered exotic just a decade ago, many fiery ethnic dishes are virtually mainstream now. A wine to have on hand as a partner: the super-fruity Georges Du Boeuf Beaujolais-Villages 2002 (Beaujolais, France; $8).

FOR RED-MEAT MEALS

Whether it's prime rib or pot roast, meaty dishes need big wines. Try the intense, well-muscled Chappellet Napa Valley Merlot 2000 (Napa Valley; $26).

FOR A CELEBRATION

You don't need to wait for a raise; just getting to Friday night is a victory. It calls for Domaine Carneros by Taittinger Brut 1999 (Carneros, CA; $24) ― exquisite, refreshing, and full of frothy bubbles.

FOR ROMANCE

The need is self-explanatory. A hauntingly delicious option is Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny Port (Douro Valley, Portugal; $45-$50). Brown sugar, honey, spices, and toffee all wrapped up into one mesmerizing flavor. (It's not cheap, but an opened bottle will last for months.)

FOR A LAST-MINUTE GIFT

Something generous but not ostentatious is good: Hamilton's "Stonegarden" Grenache/Shiraz 2000 (Barossa Valley, Australia; $17). An absolutely massive and velvety red, evocative of wild berries, cherry preserves, and eucalyptus.

FOR NO REASON AT ALL

You need a favorite variety to open on any whim. Try Annie's Lane Chardonnay 2002 (Clare Valley, Australia; $13). Just a hint of oak, with ripe apricot and melon flavors. Best to keep it chilled in the refrigerator, ready to go.

Sunset's Wine Club