By Elizabeth Myllenbeck
It’s that time of year when everything seems to move a little faster. The days are shorter, and we are making every effort to get that long list of must-dos completed. Among the joys of the season are parties and the fun of fellowship. The important thing is to have fun, relax and enjoy, which can be a big order when you are the host. This holiday season, make sure you remember to take off the proverbial apron and share in the celebrations of your preparations.
First, strongly consider Ina Garten’s rule of entertaining: Make three things and leave the rest to good quality foods from your favorite grocery store. Top things to purchase are cheeses, charcuterie, olives, cornichons, chips and crackers. Bake a ham or roast a chicken. The smells wafting will have your guests crowding into my favorite party room – the kitchen. Bake, shop and do as much as you can in advance. Leave the last-minute sweating to someone else.
Wondering how to make a party extra special? Wine. It is the gift of the gods and a joy to share, as each glass is different from the next. Even glasses from the same bottle have subtleties as the wine opens and breathes, becoming rounder, softer and more exquisite. Wine moments are such a pleasure in life.
What wines to choose? Winter parties tend to have richer foods, which call for richer wines to complement. Special varietals of whites, rosés and reds will make your party an evening to remember.
Chardonnay, Viognier or a white blend with some aging are the best bets to complement creamy and blue cheeses. My favorite is the Rogue Creamery Company’s Smoked Blue. It is not a stinky blue, and it has a hint of smoked bacon that makes it perfect.
Chardonnay has gotten a bad rap in the past for being too buttery and oaky. I like to call it creamy with notes of vanilla and baking spices. Find a Chardonnay that has been barrel aged but has a crisp finish. It should taste like stoned fruit with a hint of heat and even citrus, not buttered popcorn. That crisp finish cleans your palate.
Viognier is traditionally barrel aged and has more depth and earthiness. Many other white blends are perfect for holiday entertaining, so do not be afraid to give them a try.
Rosés are usually kept for the hotter months, but a lovely salmon-colored rosé of Pinot Noir is a wonder with turkey. Its traditional strawberries and cream aroma and mineral finish are perfect for finishing off delicious stuffing, gravy and yams.
Red wine is a popular favorite, especially around the holidays. For parties, you want a wine that does not overpower the food, but rather enhances it. It is easy to find a big Cabernet Sauvignon and then you find yourself not interested in the lovely spread.
Challenge yourself to find a red with medium tannins. Tannins are those things that dry out your mouth and have “grip.” Rhone varietals are perfect. Try a bright, fruit-forward Grenache, an earthy Mourvedre, a Syrah or a combination of all three called a GSM.
Pinot Noir, as my favorite varietal, also sits in this camp as well as a Tempranillo or Zinfandel. These varietals are, however, on the opposite ends of the tannin spectrum and are very different from one another. Pinot Noirs can be more elegant and lean in their tasting profiles, whereas nothing gets more jammy than a big Zin.
The trick is to find a good wine, one your guests will rave about and want to take pictures of the label so they can buy themselves a case. A simple solution to better wine buying is staying away from the bottom shelf at your grocery store.
Instead, find a wine shop that will give you advice on quality wines that will not break the bank. It is well worth it to find a wine confidant and become more confident yourself by tasting where you can and dialing in your favorites. When people ask for my favorite, I usually blurt something out then seconds later start to name off many more. Wine is amazing that way.
Another trick to a great party is to hold a blind wine tasting. You can find some great games on the internet, but to make it easy, cover the wines with small bags and number them. Then, have your guests rank their favorites and pair the wines with your delicious bites.
Have a beautiful holiday season.
Elizabeth Myllenbeck is owner and chief executive officer of Sonoma Cellar, a wine tasting room and restaurant in Old Town.