Christmas as a parent is exhausting, wonderful, but exhausting. When they are tiny, there are scouting trips to the to find the best mall Santa and spreadsheets with the logistics required to shoehorn a photo op with Santa between feedings, nap schedules, and exploding poopy diapers. Then once you get them on his lap, they all have to be looking at the camera. By 3 kids, I had given up on things like smiling. And then number 4 hated anyone in costume, and a set of arms sticking a screaming baby at the edge of the Santa photo became the norm.
As they started talking (and thinking), I faced the decision about hedging the question of the realness of the mall Santa and then the concept of Santa himself. I have four kids with a seven-year age difference between oldest and youngest, so when the first questioned the mythology, I carefully constructed my answer about if we believe in goodness and putting others first, then we believe in Santa. I didn’t want to outright lie and say yes, but I also didn’t want to ruin the magic for my younger kids. I felt like I had dodged a philosophical bullet, but then as the years dragged on, I became increasingly ready to blow the fat man’s cover. Maintaining the Santa mythology is so much work, and trust me, I thank my lucky stars every Christmas that my kids were too old for that damn elf-on-a-shelf and his Instagrammable hijinks.
These days, everyone has copped to knowing who puts the coal in the stockings and Christmas Eve has become the night of the annual screening of Die Hard. Instead of whispered conversations, sometimes through gritted teeth, like– “I don’t know why it seems like she has more presents than her sisters—Count them again!” Or, “I can’t remember where I hid the American Girl doll furniture set that cost more than our living room furniture!”–we have raucous rounds of Cards Against Humanity and the Fishbowl Game. While the girls traded the matching Christmas dresses for matching JCrew flannel pjs, they are still atwitter on Christmas morning, which thankfully now starts somewhat later than 5am. I’ll always cherish the memories of when they were little and carefully set out the milk and cookies for Santa and the reindeer food for Rudolph, but my kids are growing into fun almost-adults that I love to spend time with — and I don’t have to untwirl the 6,000 twist ties that hold the average Barbie to her packaging.
Buying an estate-grown Napa cab or 1st growth Bordeaux isn’t hard, it just takes gobs of cash. Finding a great wine without bankrupting myself or my friends, is a challenge, albeit a fun one.
Here’s this week’s look at cheap shit I love
It ain’t wine, but it is Missoni! I found these awesome little bottles of DiSaronno all dressed up in Missoni labels. They were $9.99 for 3 bottles, but this may be the only time in my entire life that I can say I took the Missoni in every color!
For cabs, I love the B Side and Decoy-they are a little wild and rough, but I find that less expensive cabs that try for smoothness end up tasting like cherry NyQuil. The Louis Martini cab is always my restaurant fall-back for by-the-glass cabs. The Chateau Greysac médoc tastes way beyond its price point and seems to pair with everything.
The Muga Rioja (around $37 at Total Wine) busted my $30 price bracket, but it is one of my favorite riojas and, again, is a great wine to pair with food. I’d say it’s the best choice of wine to bring to a party (or my house) because it will make you and the food look like a rockstar. The J Vineyard pinot noir is a gem from the Russian River Valley and I love it because it is so drinkable with or without a meal. The Hilary Goldschmidt cab is a roaring, bold cab for a pipsqueak price. Pop the Hilary, feel like a denizen of Napa, and only be out thirty bucks.
With my economical wine choices, you could say I’m a cheap date, but then you haven’t seen how much I drink. Whether you buy the wine for yourself, as a hostess gift, or for me, have yourself a merry little Christmas (or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Festivus.) Cheers, my friends!
As someone who is often accused of being impossible to buy for, I give you my definitive list of gift ideas for people who like to drink wine.
- Kleenite glass cleaner because sometimes there’s more wine than clean-up at the end of the night. It works wonderfully on glasses and decanters. I ordered my bottle from Amazon.
- A drying rack for stemmed glasses and say goodbye to condensation inside the glass.
- Drying cloth—mine is from Riedel. It really is the only way to get wine glasses sparkling. Well, I guess you could always turn the lights way down low.
- Alternatively, cross off number two and three and buy stemless glasses that can go in the dishwasher. Much to the horror of the friendly salesperson at Williams-Sonoma, I put my Riedel stemless glasses in the top rack of my dishwasher and knock on wood, they don’t seem worse for wear.
- A decanter is a must-have to really appreciate the complexity Cabs and Bordeaux without aging them for decades. We have some high-end Riedel decanters and tend to use the Riedel decanters from Target. As much as I love our spiral Riedel decanter that I bought for my husband on our 25th wedding anniversary, cleaning it and making sure the twists in the glass are not harboring and leftover water makes using it a pain.
- A drying spindle for decanters is a must-have. Before I started using ours religiously, I decanted a Caldwell cab before I realized there was a tiny puddle of water in the bottom of the vessel. My tears mixed with the cab and the leftover rinse water. We still drank it, though.
- Chalk markers because no one remembers what their charm looks like after the second glass of wine. Write their name on the base and you’ll always know who left took the extra pour and didn’t finish it. Put that name on the naughty list.
- Wine! Why is this so hard?
Next week, I’ll share what wines I’d love to find under my tree!
Thanksgiving was always a dream holiday for me–a homebody–I didn’t have to go anywhere, recipes are predictable (and there’s always premade gravy), no gift-giving angst, and most amazing of all, everyone volunteers to help with the dishes. I love to cook and after 20 or so turkeys dressed and in the oven, I learned every trick to roasting the perfect bird, including a bag of innards accidently left in the cavity can be removed before carving and no one is the wiser (Thanksgiving #1). We hosted all the Thanksgiving orphans and as our friends all got married and started their own families, we began hosting friends for a Thanksgiving-eve dinner. I learned to be mindful of how much wine to drink Wednesday night in order to avoid making the stuffing while resting my head on the kitchen island (Thanksgiving #22). We took a leisurely approach to the day compared to the Thanksgivings I remember with my mom and mammaw. They would get up at 5am to start dinner and not leave the kitchen until the food was put on the table, but I don’t recall ever eating before 2pm. I’ve never been able to figure out what exactly they were doing for 8 hours—maybe there was a secret cocktail hour before they started the stuffing. My Thanksgivings started with mimosas before I ever put the turkey in the oven. With the Macy’s Day Parade playing in the background, we peeled potatoes and browned sausage, and enjoyed a day spent at home.
I loved presiding over the bountiful table laden with food and my husband always chose a fantastic wine for us and our family and friends to toast all the things we had to be thankful for. The day ended with the annual screening of How the Grinch Stole Christmas , and when the kids were little, the screening would be repeated ad nauseum until February or someone found the Frosty DVD that I had hidden. Black Friday was the day we started dragging out the Christmas decorations. The second day of leftovers and bringing out the Spode Christmas tree china signaled the beginning of the holiday season.
I swore nothing could make us change our well-loved traditions. But then again, I also swore that we would never be one of those travel-team families where the family schedule was consumed with practices and games. I learned to keep my swearing to the four-letter variety, because my oldest tried out and made a travel field hockey club team, and our schedule became consumed with practices and games. Unbeknownst to me, the biggest field hockey tournament of the year takes place over Thanksgiving and we were headed to the Palm Beach for my favorite holiday.
Thanksgiving morning we watched the sun rise over the field hockey pitch as our daughter played and in the afternoon returned to our rental to make Thanksgiving dinner. It was a lovely house for a light-footed eighty-year-old—the home’s collection of museum-quality antique glassware (there was a sign with historical provenance) in the rickety glass display case shook and clinked every time the kids ran down the hall–Everything survived and I got the security deposit check back to prove it. Eating by candlelight on the poolside patio that evening, I conceded that it was a pretty sweet set-up, even if we weren’t at home.
With four girls playing field hockey, our Thanksgiving tradition became a yearly pilgrimage to the polo fields of Palm Beach and Palm Springs- the location switches every two years- for field hockey and evolving customs. Sometimes we rent a house for a week and cook dinner “at home” and sometimes we stay in a hotel and enjoy (sorry, I’m lying) the Thanksgiving buffet. A newer tradition began after one kid forgot to pack her STICK and we paid an extra baggage fee to bring an empty stick bag to California. Back home in Virginia, Nana had to climb into the back of my husband’s Jeep to send the “lucky” stick to California via FEDEX Overnight (Thanksgiving #24), so now we triple check that the girls brought their most important piece of equipment. These days our older girls fly in to Florida or California from college separately from us, staying for different lengths of time, and no one wants to watch Frosty anymore.
This year we have a fabulous hotel on the beach and our Thanksgiving dinner reservation is for an oceanside table, but I’ve come to realize that the holiday is about taking the time to remind myself about all there is a lot to be thankful for. By hook or crook, my husband and I get our girls together and we have 3 days with field hockey, family, and laughter (and at least one fight over clothes.) We’ve spent the last five Thanksgivings traveling to the tournament and with my youngest starting high school this past fall, we only have 4 Festival visits left. I’ll have the Williams-Sonoma-worthy dinners at home again someday, but for now I’m committed to enjoying the tail end of the ride.
Inspired by A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage (which I’ve had to buy 4 times so each of my kids could have a clean copy to annotate for pre-AP World History) and in honor of my upcoming wedding anniversary, I thought I’d do a little retrospective of the past 27 years in six glasses.
Tequila: In case my kids ever find and read my blog, let’s leave it at tequila and frat parties. Enough said.
Beer : While we may have graduated from college and dirty tap lines at the fraternity house, we were definitely still on a beer budget between paying for grad school and law school. We tried to get fancy, but still on a domestic price tag–anyone remember Michelob Dry–and my husband got into home brewing. His hoppy adventures came to end the evening that he lost control of the bottling hose while filling bottles in the sink. Our frantic screaming as the hose whipped back and forth spraying beer all over the kitchen brought our two dogs and two cats into target range as they investigated the ruckus. He regained control of the hose to continue bottling, minus several bottles worth of beer, while I started bathing the animals. It was closing in on my midnight while I bent over the tub bathing two Australian Shepherds almost 7 months into my first pregnancy. He got to wrangle the uncooperative cats into the tub and his equipment into storage…FOREVER.
White Zinfadel: We were a little bleary eyed from a year with our first kid when we joined a beach vacation with extended family. His cousins and their spouses were in their thirties and seemed so sophisticated with alcohol that needed special equipment—a corkscrew. They introduced us to white Zinfadel. I’m not even sure what that really is, but to someone who between pregnancy and nursing had not had much to drink in almost two years, it tasted like the nectar of the gods.
Chardonnay : While we had kids two and three, friends were out living life in the early 2000’s and were kind enough to share what was happening on the bar scene. Bottles of Chardonnay were broken out for dinner parties and barbeques. Compared to the soft drink taste of white zinf, the butter and oak of Chardonnay tasted like a tour down Sophistication avenue.
Bordeaux: Life with 4 kids aged seven and under meant we needed two babysitters to go anywhere and teenage babysitters are as rare as a narwhal in a bathtub. If we wanted a dinner that did not include an obligatory visit to the germ pit, I mean play place, we needed to cook at home. Armed with subscriptions to every cooking magazine and Food Network playing in the background while I folded endless laundry, I managed to acquire two nuggets of wisdom. Let steak come to room temperature before cooking and a little something called Bordeaux wine went well with beef. We discovered the Saints– Emillion and Julien, Margeaux, Haut-Medoc, and stayed forever confused whether we like right or left bank wines. For what seemed liked a princely sum of $40 we could pop a bottle of Bordeaux, put the kids to bed at 8, and feel like we were dining in a French bistro, at least until it was time to do the dishes.
Cabernet Sauvignon: My husband returned home from a trip with exciting news—at a business dinner he had tried the most amazing wine, a Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon and he found a bottle of it at Total Wine! I loved him when we married, and loved him as helped me raise our children, but I may have loved him most when the first taste of Cab touched my soul. I thought Bordeaux had my unmitigated loyalty, but the bigger, bolder, more seductive Cab won me over in a single night. It helped that my foray into California Cab was a great one—no introduction via the 1.5 liter bottle on sale at the grocery store for $8.99—and searching for the perfect glass of Cab became our hobby and passion.
So there is our marriage from tequila shots to estate-grown Cabs. Each chapter tells its own story and has a happy ending—whether as newlyweds, parents of a growing family, or half-way to empty-nesters, celebrating the moment we were in defined us. It is my sincere hope that we stay at Glass 6 for a long while, I’m not nearly ready to change my Cab for Metamucil.
A chance to taste a mind-boggling selection of early twentieth-century Bordeaux precipitated our most recent visit to Napa when we received a backdoor invitation to a rare wine dinner in Napa. We knew the dinner would be on a Saturday night, but we struggled with how long to spend in Napa because of three youngest daughters had the potential to be in playoff games the days before and after the set date. We checked calendars and ran through every conceivable bracket combination and then threw caution and frugality to the wind and booked a quick Friday through Monday morning trip. With every conference win, we worried that our return home on Monday afternoon would conflict with a game. Sadly, the playoff run for the kids’ college and high school teams ended on the same Wednesday before our trip. Even more sadly, it was, of course, way too late to change our reservations and get an extra day in Napa. And then, most sadly of all, the rare wine dinner was abruptly cancelled because of low numbers. After a little pissing and moaning about the whole reason we were shoehorning the trip in a jam-packed month was the dinner, we realized a short trip to Napa is still a trip to Napa and we suddenly felt flush with cash from our anticipated wine dinner refund.
Because I take my bad travel juju with me wherever I go, our flight was delayed on the tarmac for over an hour before takeoff. We joked that we’d have to ask the valet to keep the car at the front so we could quickly check in to our hotel and change into our dinner clothes before our first tasting of the trip and a dinner at Meadowood. Then we hit Friday afternoon traffic leaving San Francisco. Our window to check-in at our hotel kept shrinking every time Google Maps said, “slow down ahead” and we realized that we would have to go straight to the Herb Lamb tasting and change there. Classy, right? And figure out what to do with the car since we had planned on Ubering over to the winery and then dinner. We updated our destination to the Lamb vineyard and were well-rewarded with our decision to drink wine rather than get gussied up for dinner. The tasting at Lamb helped us unwind with their selection of reds and we ordered the HL cab.
A short drive to Meadowood and the valet staff understood our car quandary and offered to bring the car up when the Uber arrived so we could transfer our luggage and parked our car overnight. When we caught sight of the wine list, we were grateful we had another ride home. We chose a 2013 Paul Pillot white burgundy to go with the beginning of the tasting menu, then a 1998 Dalla Valle cab that had mellowed out, and we moved onto a bolder, newer Cab with a 2012 Beckenstoffer Dr.Crane from Paul Hobbs. We finished with a bottle of 2007 Sauternes.
Our first visit Saturday morning was the Italics property. We loved the documentary Decanted and Italics was featured, but at the time of filming, it was just getting started. I’ll admit we were a little star struck when we toured the cave that had been under construction. The recurring theme at every winery was what to do about the smoke taint on this year’s vintage. Italics had some fermentation barrels that they were experimenting with doing some sort of chemical bonding to get rid of the smoke molecules.
A quick trip to the Oxbow Market for lunch and then off to Del Dotto for a barrel tasting. The cave is a tad theatrical with its velvet drapes, Murano chandeliers, and marble imported from Italy and they employed a bit of showmanship by filling our glasses courtesy of a wine thief straight out of the barrel. I was not won over until we got to their Howell Mountain David cab; my husband liked everything—so much so that we ended up in the wine club and then had the “privilege” of buying their member-only wines. Our retirement may be delayed for a few years thanks to their flagship cab—the Beast. It’s worth it.
A parade of the biggest and boldest cabs met us at the Vintner’s Collective. Getting a box from them is sort of like opening a Christmas present—it’s always just what I wanted and, for me, a surprise. Kudos to my husband who can keep track of all the nays and yeas at the end of a wine-filled day. With grey teeth and an overwhelmed palate, we had a quick pizza and beer dinner.
Sunday we drove to the Vaca Mountains to visit the Jarvis winery. For the first time we saw the damage from the wildfires up close and like the morning after a campfire, we could smell the charred wood in air. Our host informed us that the interior of the Jarvis cave had some smoke damage, but from ceiling of the enormous cave to the velvet chairs in the anteroom, everything was pristine and there was no lingering scent of smoke. A standout from the tasting was comparing the 2011 and 2012 cabs. The 2011 smelled like jalapeno—freakiest thing ever. I loved that Jarvis offered cases of half-bottles. Oh, and they have great swag for wine club members.
A farewell lunch with our friends, and some strolling through Napa rounded out our Sunday and then up at o’dark thirty to get to SFO in time for our morning flight. So while I still haven’t tasted a Bordeaux grown and bottled while all of Europe battled in the trenches of WWI, I had something better—a fun-filled weekend with dear friends and a chance to taste new Napa wines.
We delayed Napacalypse II until 2016 and returned a little jaded, but how could we know that our first trip had just scratched the surface of what Napa had to offer. Once again we sampled both public and private tours, and found great wines everywhere.
The day of we went to Shafer was ungodly hot and we declined the vineyard tour, plus this way we could get to the wine a little quicker. I’ll confess the sole purpose for booking the wine tasting was the option to purchase Hillside Select. We first tried their flagship cab at Restaurant August in New Orleans for our anniversary in 2015 and plotted for almost a year to get more. I should have known that any winery that can make something as spectacular as Hillside Select would have some more pretty good bottles. The Eighty Four Malbec and the 1.5 Cab added to our order as well as their Firebreak dessert wine, which while sweet, doesn’t have the cloying syrupiness of port. Alas, while trying to grab a 1.5 cab out of our wine fridge, my husband mistakenly grabbed our sole Firebreak and decanted it. Spoiler alert—it does not go well with a steak dinner. Miraculously, we’ve managed to resist popping the Hillside Select while our two bottle allotment ages, but we’re growing old kicking our heels to get off the Hillside Select wait list. #waitinglistinperpetuity
The concierge at the Hotel Yountville called ahead to arrange our visit to Kuleto. The drive to Kuleto is beautiful, especially as you circle Lake Berryessa. The winery itself overlooks Lake Hennessy. It’s a one-lane road to the winery through the vineyard and the tasting room is picturesque with its vine-covered trellis. The reds were quite nice–the Danielli and Lone Acre Cabs stood out for us and we also ordered the Syrah.
Hill Family Tasting Room
This little gem is on the main street in Yountville and we stopped in on a whim to find some moderately priced wine that will beat most grocery store wines in the $50 range. Their rose´ of pinot noir, with its bubble gum nose, is a great bottle to sip by the pool. Their reds, especially the Atlas Peak cab, are not the over-the-top bombs of Caldwell or Fantesca, but their less assertive taste profile makes them a great choice for a weeknight dinner or if you or your guests don’t care for bolder wines but can handle some tannins.
More need to know a guy tastings
The visit to the historic Martin Estate Vineyards was a mash-up of wine-tasting and museum visit. The vineyard, which struck me as more European-looking than a lot of Napa vineyards, was part of the original Caymus Land Grant and dates back to the 19th century. Our tasting was hosted by Greg Martin and along with his dry wit, he shared some of the best, and surprisingly affordable, red wine in the Valley with the backdrop of his antique armament collection. The rose´ of cabernet is a fantastic bargain and the Rutherford Cabernet is a stellar estate-grown offering that belies its fair price.
Another beautiful winery with a picturesque outdoor picnic spot where we enjoyed a lunch of fried chicken from Ad Hoc (you absolutely must get the fried chicken) with sparkling wine and rose. One of the best parts about Napa wineries is getting to meet the dogs of wine. Leila exuberantly greeted us during our barrel tasting and after a tour of the wine-making facilities, we moved on to the tasting room. They showcased Heidi Barrett’s chardonnay, a Russian River Valley pinot noir, the Estate Cab, and All Great Things ‘Duty’. Fantesca’s wines are great examples of the bold California wines, and I love their All Great Things ‘Duty’ offering. Ironically, in the tasting room I didn’t care for the Estate Cab and yet, when we sampled our shipment at home, the Estate Cab skyrocketed to my top 5 list. The only drawback is they are pricy, but they are a treat for a special occasion.
Like Martin Estate, Fisher Estate has more reasonably priced reds that are out of this world and their dog Bougie (not quite sure how to spell that!) is a doll. Cameron Fisher, who embodies the down-to-earth winemaker who loves her craft, hosted our visit, and kindly gave us the rundown on where Napa locals go to chow down. While she and our driver, a long-time friend, chatted about goings on in her family and their Napa neighbors, I was secretly plotting how to convince her I was really a long-lost sister to join her quintessential wine country life. After a tour of the cellar, we sat down at a picnic table under the trees for one of the most perfect settings for an afternoon of tasting a variety of wines, all distinct and all delicious. The chardonnay won the vote for best white of the day, but picking a favorite cab among the Coach Insignia, Mountain Estate, and Wedding Vineyard proved impossible. We kept tasting, however, to make sure, really sure, that we couldn’t pick a victor.
Before my first visit to Napa Valley in 2014, the extent of my wine sleuthing was at Vino Volo in the airport and Total Wine. And, not gonna lie, I still love them, but they could not have prepared me for the beauty of the Napa Valley, the intimacy of meeting the winemakers, and, of course, the amazing wine wherever we went.
Our trip, affectionately dubbed the Napacalypse, consisted of two types of winery tours—public and by recommendation only. On day one we had made arrangements to visit my husband’s favorite vineyard and left it up to chance and our concierge Google where else we would go. The second day I was gifted with the holy grail of insider wine tours. Through friends who joined us, we had a well-connected contact who had visited Napa for business and pleasure countless times over the years and we were given the name of his driver for transportation and the behind-the-barrel tours. Some of the tours were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for me to see what goes on outside the tasting rooms—so sorry, I don’t have the connections to get you inside, but I’d love to share what I saw and tasted!
The evening before our tasting was spent at the Poetry Inn, which sets on the hillside overlooking the Cliff Lede vineyards. Yes, it is spectacular and the private outdoor shower attached to our suite was amazing. Preceding the tasting, we toured the vineyards, facilities, and the winsome collection of record cover art on the property. Our tasting was accompanied by small bites and it was a lot of fun having the wine and talking with our tour mates. My husband loves all things Cliff Lede and eagerly signed us up for the Rock Block collection club and truthfully, every club the vineyard offered. The bottles out of the Rock Block hold a place as some of my favorite Cliff Lede wines, and Cinnamon Rhapsody is one of my all-time favorites wines out of Napa. I must confess, however, I’m not a huge fan of their flagship wine Poetry. Part of the reason might be my husband had a vintage bottle of Poetry at a business dinner and for the few years before I tried it, waxed poetical (lol) about the magnificence of the wine. I’ve just been underwhelmed every time we’ve had it. For a weeknight wine or second bottle, I love their Claret because it’s a nice bottle for the price and its taste isn’t pushy.
We absolutely loved the Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon before we visited, and were excited to stumble across the vineyard by accident. Lucky for us, it was a weekday and we were able to enjoy a Portfolio tasting as walk-ins. Ordering the cab was a no-brainer, but these die-hard red drinkers were surprised to find we really liked the Darioush Chardonnay and added that to our order. While we didn’t have it at our tasting, the Caravan Cabernet Sauvignon is a peach of cab for under 50 bucks.
I know saying you love Opus One makes some wine elitists think you like it for the cachet of being one of the most expensive wines in Napa, but it really is good stuff. As wine tasting newbies on our own, we first went to the huge Robert Mondavi tasting room with all the tourist buses. The hostess was unfamiliar (!) with Opus One, but our concierge Google saved the day again and we located the Opus One location. For $40 we got a glass and a warning to hold on to our wine glass as we went to the wind-swept tasting room at the top of the promontory. The wine was awesome, even if standing around clutching our glasses in what felt like a wind tunnel may not have been the most relaxing way to enjoy a fine wine. Their nonvintage Overture delivers a great experience for a more price-conscious $100.
This is the day where you need to know a guy….
The incomparable John F. Caldwell hosted our tasting and what a way to be introduced to California wine country. A raconteur of old, he is charmingly rakish, and hot damn, can he make wine. Bold and dynamic Cabernets and a rose´ that tastes like a quintessential summer day that is so perfect, there might never have a been a summer day perfect enough to be compared to his rose´. That’s the line I use when I’m trying to convince my husband we need more of Caldwell’s $70 rose´. If you are looking for more affordable introduction to his heady reds, Rocket Science delivers a wallop for the price., but his Signature Platinum and Gold Cabs should be tasted at least once. We signed up for the wine membership, and after a short time on the waitlist, we able to join the Society of Smugglers.
Our visit started with a ride in a WWII-era army vehicle to see the lower part of the vineyard. The bumpy ride would have been tons of fun except I took the admonishment to stay well-hydrated during our day of wine tasting to heart and spent the ride ready to pee my pants. After a bathroom break, I enjoyed the spectacular scenery and what a hoot it was to off-road up the mountain to arrive at the tasting room overlooking Diamond Mountain. Picking a favorite Napa wine can feel like picking a favorite child, but Constant’s wine may be my secret chosen one—but don’t tell!
Our last stop of the day was a wine bar in the town of Napa, and we found even more great wine from vineyards that generally do not have dedicated tasting rooms or are not open to the public. After sampling an array wines of varying styles and hearing our opinions, our host Chris then pulled bottles he thought would be the perfect match to our taste preferences. To Chris’ credit and the detriment of our bank account, he was spot on figuring out what we liked. We walked out with a new-found love for Pinot Noir thanks to the offering from Ancien and another blockbuster Cab. this time from Roy’s Estate (one of my Top 5 Cabs of All Time).
After this day of behind-the-barrel tours and tasting some of the best of Napa Valley–and tasting and tasting some more–our palates were so overwhelmed that we went with tapas and beer for dinner. Before we flew home the next day, plans were already in the works for Napacalypse II. Until next week, cheers!
Last week, I was horrified by the hellish images of flames ravaging California and checked the status updates of wine country Instagrammers like teenagers tracking their Insta likes. My heart sunk as they shared their worries and photos of the encroaching fire and smoke, and yet, in the midst of the fear and fire, there were posts of residents helping both neighbors and strangers. Struck by the generosity and neighborliness of Napa and Sonoma during the fires and how much I love Napa and Sonoma wine, all I could think was good wine is made by good people. And maybe we can take a lesson from wine country.
Let stress make you better
Stressed vines make the most complex and enjoyable wines.
Let the difficult season in your life pare away what’s not working for you. You will be left with your strengths and a concentration of the best parts of you.
Year to year, the weather can be too dry, too wet, cold too late, or warm too soon, but the vineyards irrigate, prune, dry with fans, and pick the fruit earlier or later. They are trying to improve the growing conditions within their power, but know that there is only so much we can do with what is under our control.
Work like hell with what you’ve got and improve what you can, but at the end of the day, accept and celebrate that each year will have its own flavor.
Complex wines will not appeal to everyone, but those that appreciate the depth and complexity are crazy in love. Be genuine and full of nuances and you will find appreciation.
Know the difference between bottle shock and corked wine
Give people a second chance, maybe they are in bottle shock and not showing their best side during a first meeting. The second time around, you discover their true selves and find a great friend. But also know when to send a bottle back. You can’t mitigate wine that has turned to vinegar or been corked, and you can’t fix crazy.
Be strong and kind
And sometimes, there are wildfires that scorch the earth with no warning and take everything away from you and all you can do is grab the hand that is reaching out to help you and begin again. And if you are witnessing someone else’s wildfire, lend your hand. The world would truly be a better place if we were all #sonomastrong #napastrong.
Some of us may be cult wines and some of us may be as popular as $5 Chard at a mom’s happy hour, but we should be loved for who we are. Be genuine, but no matter what—don’t be Apothic Red.
There are books, websites, magazines, infographics, even an entire profession devoted to selecting the perfect wine that will turn a meal into a foray into the sublime. It’s intimidating. I kind of know what kind of wines I like and as a home cook, I kind of know what dishes I can reasonably cook for a crowd. We (my husband) invited 3 other couples to our home for a Napa Valley wine tasting dinner. He promised four wines from around Napa to give our guests an idea of the variety of a great Cab. My first reaction was, oh my God, a sit-down dinner for 8 with a menu that would pair with 4 different Cabs. My second was, oh my God, I don’t think we have that many wine glasses or have ever had that many wine glasses.
While I wrestled with the menu and glassware, my husband chose the four wines. I found tasting notes for our wines and wrote them on a large chalkboard, with each wine corresponding to a numbered decanter.
My first choice of an entrée would have been ribeye, because, seriously, is there anything that goes better? The very same fat that tames tannins in the big California cabs also causes flare-ups in my gas grill. The weather forecast was only in the low thirties the night of our dinner party and I knew me standing sentinel in the freezing cold grilling ribeyes while on fire prevention duty would not make my guests feel at ease. I could slap 8 tenderloin steaks on the grill, come inside, share a glass of rose´, flip them once, chat some more, flip them a second time to get my grilled hatch marks, refill my glass, and then pull 8 med rare steaks off the grill without ever putting on a coat. The problem I had to solve was somehow getting a high fat taste. Well, baa, baa, black sheep, it was lamb rib chops to the rescue. The lamb had the succulent fat to stand up to the tannins so at least my guests could see what cabs and fat can do. The rib chop is a perfect tasting portion and super quick to grill.
Making side dishes while I entertained and grilled would be troublesome, so I picked two that I could make ahead and just reheat. Earlier in the day, I steamed pee wee potatoes, and then right before I put the steaks on, I smashed them with a fork, drizzled with olive oil & flake salt, and stuck them in the oven to roast and get crispy. The butternut squash puree´ was even easier—the night before I roasted butternut squash chunks with olive oil, garlic, and salt and then pureed the chunks and dumped them in a small, covered casserole. While chatting over the rose´ and charcuterie, I grated some fresh nutmeg over the puree and put it in the oven to heat up.
The only hiccup during the cooking was it was very windy that evening and my grill had a little trouble maintaining the temperature when I opened it. My concern over timing because the grill was running a little cool made me forget to ask if anyone wanted their steak other than medium rare. As I was plating, a sheepish request was made for well-done. My fault, I always ask so I can put a steak on grill sooner or later than med rare.
We sat down to dinner and a sea of glassware. I ended up ordering 8 Riedel XL glasses from Amazon, and then used every other wine glass in the house—stemless, burgundy, promotional glasses from the Society of Smugglers, and the ones my husband hates the most—the Cab glasses with the Wegmans stamp of the foot. We drank rose´ out of white wine glasses. Since I didn’t have a glass left in the house, I passed around chalk markers to mark our wine glass with our names. Because if you lost your glass tonight, you were out of luck. We had decanted the four cabs and each decanter had a number, so we used the chalk markers to label the glasses with the number of the wine as well.
At the end of the night, it was really about drinking wine with friends, but the evening went more or less smoothly because of the planning. Although I spent the most time thinking about the meal, the number of wines and the glassware is just as important of a consideration. My husband suggested just reusing the same glass. I was stuck on the fact that it is easier to compare wines in a flight and the logistics of how to pass 4 carafes up and down a table without our food getting cold while waiting for the next tasting. Having eight dinner plates is pretty common; having 32 wine glasses took some ingenuity, a little shopping, and, for me, swallowing my pride that I had to use burgundy glasses and one orphan wine glass meant for an indeterminate varietal for the cabernet. No one cared about the mix and match glassware, but being able to smell and taste all four wines at the same time was awesome.
Sharing wine with friends is such an intense pleasure and the evening was worth the planning and hand washing 32 wine glasses (and yes, cleanup was a bitch!)
The wines we served
2012 Beautiful Generation – Cliff Lede Vineyards
2013 Mountain Estate Cabernet – Fisher Vineyards
NV Overture – Opus One
2012 Rutherford Cabernet – Martin Estate Vineyards
The Overture got the most votes for favorite wine, Beautiful Generation came in second, and my ranking went : Overture, Martin Estate’s Rutherford Cab, Fisher’s Mountain Estate, and last but certainly not least, Beautiful Generation.
When the air turns crisp and the bugs finally go to wherever bugs go when it gets cold, I think to myself, “I should make getting dinner ready harder than it already is between practices, games, and never-ending errands–let’s cook in the outdoor fireplace tonight!”
For my foray into pre-industrial revolution cooking, I was feeling like roasted artichokes, lamb burgers with goat cheese, sweet potato spears provençal, and baked pears with cherries. I’m still feeling and tasting my way through French wines, and other than a Bordeaux with beef, I depend on googling the wine selection at Wegman’s trying to find a good fit. I came across a 2008 Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste Pauillac for $55 and with a little sleuthing I found out that while 2008 wasn’t the greatest year for Bordeaux, it is a good vintage for Pauillac and it is recommended with lamb—into the cart it went. I know that food and wine from the same region marry well, so for the provençal flavorings I grabbed a 2011 Minervois from Hecht & Bannier in the south of France. I’ve had the Minervois and their Côte du Roussillon Villages and I think both outperform their $20 price point. I decant both bottles and remember to write the name of the wine on the decanter because sometimes my wine comparison experiments end up as blind taste tests.
I start the fire before I begin any of the food prep so that the bed of coals can get white hot. And I’ve learned the hard way, quite literally, that foods like potatoes and sweet potatoes can end up only partially cooked in the fire, so I prep the sweet potatoes first. I quarter each sweet potato to help speed up cooking time and place in the side of the fireplace. It’s a good time to add a couple of more logs.
Next, I want to steam the artichokes to tenderness before I grill them because nobody has that much time. The artichokes are too big to fit the lid of my steamer insert, so I just cover them with a tea towel to keep them bathed in steam. When I can easily pierce one of the outer leaves with the tip of my knife (20-25 minutes), I turn off the heat and let them hang out there until I’m ready to grill.
The biggest reason I make roasted artichokes is to eat aioli. My version is more of a Faux-oli. I start with store-bought mayo, and add lemon juice, garlic, and salt to taste. Now it’s time to run back outside and add more logs to the fire.
I want to get dessert started and in the fire before I begin grilling dinner. A cast iron skillet is perfect for cooking directly in the fireplace, so to mine I add butter, brown sugar, pears, and frozen cherries and top it all with a little more brown sugar and butter. I cover the skillet with aluminum foil and stick the skillet on the other side of the fireplace from the sweet potato packets. I check on the fire to add my last logs and clean and oil the fireplace grill grate.
Back inside, I check my pedometer app to see if I’ve hit 10,000 steps yet from the continuous loop between the kitchen to the fireplace and brush the artichoke halves with olive oil and some flaked sea salt.
To grill the artichokes, I pull some of the white hot coals under the grill grate and place the artichokes cut side down on the grate. It takes about 15 minutes to get a nice char on the artichokes and as I take them off, I pull some more coals under the grill and add the lamb burgers to cook to medium-rare. More information at Recipes, more what you’d call guidelines than actual recipes
Now it is my favorite part of the whole evening—time to eat and drink! We start with the Minervois because I’m betting that the sharp, wild berry flavor can not only stand up to the lemon and garlic in the aioli but will complement the earthy, smoky taste the artichokes picked up from the wood fire.
I serve the Pauillac with the lamb burgers and the sweet potato spears. It is smooth and surprisingly light bodied. It pairs well enough with the meal – like a boring, well-behaved dinner guest, it is inoffensive and doesn’t detract from the meal, but forgettable.
To top the baked pears, I whip heavy cream with vanilla, and a couple splashes of Four Roses bourbon and that pairing was a winner.
The Minervois was what we finished sitting by the fire. There was nothing wrong with the Pauillac and there is something to be said for a wine that won’t compete with the food. My Bordeaux conundrum is that I can find $150 bottles that are amazing and I enjoy what is probably a $15 bottle at the local French brasserie, but I am always disappointed with the bottles in between. I’m not sure if my expectations are out of whack, and while I don’t think the Pauillac at $55 should be three times better than the Minervois at $20, I do think it should be noticeably better.
If I love anything more than drinking wine and homemaking, it is scouring Pinterest and the downloading the self-help section of Amazon while drinking wine. I’m seduced the images of laundry rooms and pantries sanitized of any evidence of commercial containers, mesmerized by the thousands of pins about minimalism (ironic, right?), flabbergasted by all the frugal and crazy, I mean clever, ways to save money and repentant about my lack of a capsule wardrobe and failure to live like the mythical French woman described in dozens of books.
I always end up feeling like I just wasn’t measuring up to everything I was seeing and believing to be the standard. And, then one night I had an epiphany and I believe a bottle of Caldwell Cab—who the hell are they to really say what is the best way to dress, decorate, and live—emphasis on the live part?!? I’m still working on distilling what resonates with me because I do love aspirational books, but I no longer think of them as rulebooks.
I’ve come to accept a few truths about me and my life and thought I would share them here.
- Making ice cubes out of leftover wine is a waste of wine. Drink good wine and you’ll never have to worry about leftovers.
- I think that the ideal Parisian woman would have more clothes if her pied-a-terre had a walk-in closet. The size of the wardrobe is because of real estate, not intellectual superiority.
- I think the real reason French women, with their 10-item wardrobes, don’t get fat is because they chain smoke and pick at their Caprese salad.
- While I fervently hope that I don’t end up on an episode of Hoarders, I think the stress of trying to keep a family home free of the detritus of life will rob the home of the calm being clutter-free is supposed to endow.
- I can’t buy into the Konmari method. I can’t make myself thank my screwdrivers for being so useful and just the thing for tightening a screw. I get frustrated at them when they are less-than-desirable substitutes for a box cutter and can’t open yet another package from Amazon
- Mason jars, specifically their ability to go through the dishwasher, make great storage containers. Contrary to Pinterest, they look charming on a shelf or in the fridge—even without hand-painted, washi-taped, chalk-board labels that are so beautiful that illuminated manuscripts gets jealous.
What other so-called truths have made you stop and say, “I’m not buying into that?”