I recently read an article about the death of the dinner party. It was an interesting read but it left me with mixed emotions. The article argued we have veered away from hosting sit-down dinner parties in our homes to instead gathering with friends at restaurants. And I agree, my husband and I find this form of entertainment effortless. But, at the same time I couldn’t wait to host my next dinner party!
There are many reasons why the classic dinner party isn’t as popular as it used to be — the obvious is the ease of meeting at a restaurant; but also time and planning; logistics of having enough dishes, glassware, flatware or chairs; limited cooking ability; and perhaps most tragic, that conservation and hosting may be becoming lost arts.
Another reason? Traditional dinner parties are viewed as stuffy, formal affairs. My suggestion is to move away from the formal setting and make the occasion casual.
An easy way of doing this is making the wine the central conversation piece of your gathering. Consider hosting a dinner with only three courses. Nothing complex, just a salad to start, main course and end with a dessert. I will leave the preparation to you but remember there is nothing wrong with picking up your courses from a local restaurant and serving them on your dishes. Pair each course with its own wine.
Most salads will have high acid ingredients such as tomatoes, citrus and certain cheeses including goat, feta or cheddar. They pair best with high-acid wines like sauvignon blanc, riesling, Champagne or sparkling wines. To make this course an easy match avoid serving the salad with an assertive vinaigrette.
- BV Coastal Sauvignon Blanc, California (about $11 retail)
- Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc, California (about $26 retail)
Let your main course be an easy dish you have already mastered. Remember, the goal of your dinner party is just casual conversation and a relaxed setting. If a pasta dish is one of your specialties or you are a grill master, then that’s what you should serve. Just use your cooking confidence to prepare a main course stress free to you. Keep it simple with a light bodied red wine.
- Aime Boucher Pinot Noir, France (about $13 retail)
- A to Z Oregon Pinot Noir, Oregon (about $21 retail)
There is nothing wrong with grabbing a dessert from your local grocer. And remember your wine can also be your dessert.
- Chateau Hallet Sauternes, France (about $20 retail, 375 mL)
- Jackson Triggs Vidal Icewine, Canada (about $28 retail, 187 mL)
Spring is an interesting time. We have sunny, summerlike days that demand a refreshing dry rose followed by those unpredictable rainy, cool days that call for burly red wine.
By request, these are of some of my favorites to have on hand for the unpredictable days of spring. To make it easy on your budget I’ve included only the everyday drinking wines of our “value” list.
Gruner Veltliner is one of those overlooked grape varieties unlike any other refreshing white wine. This grape offers a unique flavor of lime, lemon and grapefruit wrapped into a signature vein of acidity.
- Raptor Ridge Gruner Veltliner, Oregon (about $19 retail)
Gamay is a light-bodied red wine similar to the taste of pinot noir (an actual cousin). Gamay has a bounty of aromatics ranging from strawberry, floral and even earth notes. The plus of this grape variety is its surprising ability to pair with a wide range of foods — even fish!
- Le Coeur de la Reine, France (about $15 retail)
If you are familiar with unoaked chardonnay you most likely are one of its dedicated followers. The best way to describe this refreshing, elegant wine is to imagine all the other chardonnays massed produced in the market but with no butter, vanilla and creamy taste. It’s a delicious wine for food or an everyday staple.
- Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay, New Zealand (about $17 retail)
Picpoul is a refreshing bone-dry white wine layered with grapefruit, floral, green apple, lemon and most importantly racing acidity. It’s this high acidity and citrus fruit notes that make this wine an all-around food pairing dream and chilled sipping sensation.
- HB Picpoul de Pinet, France (about $12 retail)
Albarino will always offer a refreshing taste wrapped into structured acidity while showcasing its aromas and taste of peaches, apricots and almonds. The best versions of this grape come from the Rias Baixas region in Spain.
- Martin Codax Albarino, Spain (about $15 retail)
Viognier is one of the softest, perfumed, uplifting, savory, creamy and rich white wines on the market. If you are one to stop and smell the flowers, then viognier will be your new love.
- Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier, California (about $13 retail)
We often hear, “Wine is made in the vineyard,” implying that soil, sunshine, fresh air and water are all that’s needed to make great wine. This is somewhat correct in that we can put a bunch of grapes in a bucket and most likely a yeast in the surrounding environment will take over and fermentation will occur naturally. But in reality the process is much more complex and includes a variety of other ingredients. Today, many consumers want to know what those ingredients are and why they’re being used, and advocacy groups are pushing for all ingredients to be listed on wine labels.
Unlike other food and drink manufacturers, wine, beer and spirits producers are not required to disclose ingredients on their product labels, although labels generally include grape varietal, alcohol percentage and the presence of sulfites.
I want to stress I am confident in the quality and safety of all the wines I buy and recommend.
So what are those “other” ingredients?
Mega Purple is a newer additive used in very small amounts to add color and sugar to wine when one or the other may be deficient in the fruit. It is considered a natural ingredient because it is derived from grapes. Simply put, it’s really just a grape concentrate. The addition gives wines a more harmonized flavor and aroma ending with a more jammy, soft quality in the wine. French winemakers have been using beet juice for many years obtaining the same result.
Liquid or powdered tannins, tartaric, citric or malic acid are also commonly used. These ingredients may sound mysterious, but they are components found in most fruits. They are used in many wines when the fruit is harvested overly ripe to make the wine more structured.
Fining agents are among the more controversial additives used. The fining process is used to finish wines by clarifying and removing dead yeast, grape solids or tannin. The centuries-old traditional method uses egg whites, milk protein or isinglass (a gelatin made from sturgeon bladders). These agents are considered controversial because they are not vegan or kosher. Minerals such as bentonite or kaolin can also be used. For most of us there’s no need to be concerned because only traces of these agents are left — in minute quantities at a molecular level — in a finished wine.
Sulfites are already disclosed on labels, but advocacy groups are pushing for disclosure of Velcorin, a brand name of dimethyl dicarbonate. It is used to eliminate yeast, bacteria and molds with potential to contaminate wine. It is introduced in the first 24 hours of winemaking and then breaks down into minute amounts of flavorless and nontoxic carbon dioxide and methanol. It is already used in ready-to-drink teas, sports drinks and sweet fruit drinks.
Some of these additives are necessary for producing a quality product, others are used as shortcuts, and some are used to save a vintage that Mother Nature wasn’t kind to.
Do any of these ingredients pose a threat to our health?
But knowing these ingredients are in your wine — and why — makes you a more-informed consumer and can help you gain a greater appreciation for how your favorite wine went from field to glass.
There are certain times of the year when your questions have a recurring theme, and the weeks leading up to Easter is such a time. “What wine should I serve with our Easter gathering?”
It’s a great question not only because you are asking but because I am also planning my family get-together. I’m usually in charge of recommending the wines but this year have the added honor of hosting our family brunch. This would have a simple answer with a menu as straightforward as fish or red meat. But most likely your menu — as does mine — entails an array of traditional family dishes such as deviled eggs, green bean bundles and the customary ham.
Hands down, my favorite choices are riesling, gewurztraminer or dry rose.
I know, I know… unless you have been in one of my wine and food pairing classes you may not believe me on these “very rarely go wrong” recommendations. But trust me. There is no other way of explaining these pairings of perfection than by experiencing them. The key is finding wines that can serve one simple task, not competing with the food. With such an array of food flavors your wine choice should be a stand-by participant. These wines will always deliver.
If you have a family member who refuses to veer from his or her beloved red wines you can always depend on a light-bodied pinot noir.
- 2018 Bell Rose, California (about $15 retail)
- 2017 Chateau Ste Michelle Dry Riesling, Washington (about $10 retail)
- 2018 Domaine Bousquet Rose, Argentina (about $11 retail)
- 2017 Hogue Cellars Riesling, Washington (about $11 retail)
- 2017 J. Lohr Monterey Riesling, California (about $11 retail)
- 2016 Louis Guntrum Dry Riesling, Germany (about $14 retail)
- 2014 Anne Amie Dry Riesling, Washington (about $19 retail)
- 2017 Presqu’ile Winery Rose, California (about $22 Retail)
- 2018 Monchhof Slate Riesling, Germany (about $25 retail)
- 2018 Rudi Weist Monchhof Estate Riesling, Germany (about $19 retail)
I’m an avid dog lover so those vineyard visits where the shaggy, lovable canine comes to meet you in the vineyard are some of my favorites. Dogs have long been part of some vineyards’ operations — some so much they’ve been immortalized in glossy photograph-filled coffee table books boasting the warm smile of the vineyard’s loyal canine.
There are many benefits of the vineyard dogs you may have not considered. In addition to their companionship, their keen sense of smell and protection instincts make them invaluable vineyard workers. For centuries, growers have boasted of their trusted companions’ ability to determine a grape’s readiness for harvest based on sniffing out the sugar levels. And dogs are trusted with keeping the leaf-eating and trampling invaders, namely deer, at bay from the vineyard. These hardworking wine dogs patrol the fields deterring other pests such as gophers and squirrels and chasing away hungry birds.
But there is a new mission for the vineyard dog. Recently, Bergin University of Canine Studies in California began working with and training dogs to sniff out a wide-spread nuisance constantly plaguing grapes, the mealybug. This pesky little creature feeds on the base of the vine shoot, preventing the plant from producing fruit. If you are a sustainable or organic wine producer these tiny bugs can be a colossal problem. Pesticides are needed to kill the bugs, forcing many grape growers away from all-natural methods. Dogs are being trained to identify the scent of the female vine mealybug and then pinpoint its location, even to the specific vine. It’s the same method trainers have used for search and rescue missions. Why is this so important? This canine super-smeller can find a single vine infected with the pest, eliminating the need for broad use of pesticides.
Michael Honig of Honig Vineyards has been working with these select trained dogs since 2007. The winery dog (aka Honey) was one of the first in the pilot program training golden retrievers to detect the pest. This has been crucial for keeping their respected and diligent sustainable measures.
So, the next time you see that wine label, glossy calendar or celebrity wine dog book just remember these stars are more than just a fluffy, playful addition to the already exceptional vineyard visits.
- 2018 Honig Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, California (about $19 retail)
- 2017 Honig Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $49 retail)
Blending different grapes to produce wines is not a new concept considering it was how most ancient wines were vinified. The grapes were picked, thrown into a vessel and voila — wines were made. This was known as a field blend. But for modern blends the question I am most asked is: Are these wines of lesser quality?
The short answer: No.
It’s important to address because many consumers seem to have a tendency to shy away from blends for fear they aren’t as good as single varietal wines.
Today, the process for most blends is for the grapes to be picked and then fermented separately before blending. Most grapes are blended with what are known as traditional blending partners, for example you rarely will see a cabernet sauvignon blended with pinot noir, but cabernet and merlot are common blending partners. There’s more behind these partnerships than most people realize. It’s important to understand the concept and the simple agriculture rules for why winemakers chose to blend rather than use a single variety for production.
It isn’t simply because some grapes taste wonderful together. It’s also a matter of viticulture strategy. Most grapes with similar growing climate demands will generally be good blending partners. Consider if you have a crop of any grapes growing within miles of each other. Chances are very strong you will need to have some type of “insurance” against one grape variety ripening early only to be destroyed by frost or another dilemma of climate factors forcing one variety to ripen too soon while another just can’t seem to get the sunshine to gain the sugars and is racing in acidity.
Blending allows vintners to bring out the best qualities of each grape, while providing some crop (and profit) protections in the field.
Examining some of the most famous red blends of Bordeaux is a good start in “blending 101.” The top grapes grown are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot. Cabernet is considered the body and tannic structure while merlot, very similar to a cabernet, offers more refined tannins and juicier cherry and herbal notes. While cabernet franc and malbec can obviously stand alone, they bring complexity of peppery flavors, plum and a lot of creamy fruit flavors. Which leaves the distinct petit verdot usually used sparingly because of its intense opaque color and a splash of floral and tannins.
So, when picking up your next bottle of a blended wine consider the strategic growing practices and of course the care in the art and science of the winemaker’s direction.
- Chateau Bonnet Rouge, France (about $20 retail)
- Chateau Greysac Medoc, France (about $30 retail)