Opening the door to a tart gust of pine and a knot of jubilant loved ones may be the peak winter holiday moment. But preparing for this season of recurring revelries from Thanksgiving through Kwanza, Chanukah, Christmas and New Year’s takes some planning, especially when the format can range from cockails to dessert parties, family dinners to an intimate soiree for two, fundraising galas to impromptu gatherings after a snowball fight. So we’ve asked veteran hosts and wine professionals, who face the same dilemma, for tips on the best way to stock a home cellar for the busy weeks ahead.
“I like to do my own holiday cooking for our extended family and friends,” says Dr. Jefery Levy, the lawyer turned film professor/screenwriter/director who has created avant-garde classics like Inside Monkey Zetteland. While he acknowledges that a ’61 Latour is ideal for just about anything from his home-smoked turkeys to pizza,Jeff and his wife, Pamela Skiast, co-founder of Juicy Couture, fearlessly mix high-end wines with value offerings. “Without a doubt, the best way to do this is blind,” warrants Levy, who gleefully recounts the night his wine club rated an ’89 Petrus and an ’86 Mouton far below a $40 Hungarian Kopar. “If you pick the years well,” with wines similar in style and taste to the high-end bottles, Levy attests, you’ll be amazed at what happens.”
While wine experts enthusiastically endorse stretching a budget by serving high priced and value wines at the same get-together;the occasion and timeline may dictate which to serve first. At cocktail parties, Stephen Sterling, president of the Association of African-American Vintners, starts with high end sparklers then moves on to less expensive bottles. At dinners, however, he finds bringing out the “big guns” with the last few courses enhances the event’s inherent drama.” Both scenarios play on the psychological impact of recalling the first and last aspects of an experience,” he notes. Sterling also suggests adding a dimension to holiday dinners by serving wines of different prices around a single theme, such as kosher wines, African American-made releases, wines from a single continent, or one varietal from different U.S. states.
Blackstone winemaker Garv Sitton mixes price points with an eye to his guests’ wine knowledge. He starts less experienced drinkers with simpler, fruit forward bottles, presenting a higher-end wine with similar structure or flavors as a showpiece with the main course. Yet even when serving more complex, thoughtful wines to a group of winemakers, he doesn’t hesitate to mix in a lower priced bottle with similar characteristics, since “all wine-drinkers, experienced or not, appreciate value,” he affirms.
How much to buy? At standup events, most crowds average two glasses of wine per person during the first hour and one glass per hour thereafter, our experts agree, imbibing a bit more red than white. At dinner parties, guests usually consume one drink per course. Count 5 glasses per bottle and buy on the theory that leftovers will be put to good use. This is also the time for magnums and larger formats, which say,’ “It’s a special occasion, let’s celebrate” Levy declares. And don’t forget water and soft drinks for designated drivers.
In choosing a wine style, most experts favor lighter releases for standup events and heavier or more complicated bottles for sit down dinners. For cocktail parties, Eric Woods, co-owner of Harlem Vintage, suggests whites such as Gruner Veltliner, fruity Sauvignon Blancs and less oaky Chardonnays, as well as light reds like Pinot Noir, Rioja, or an approachable Chianti. For large parties, Deen Solebo, owner of New York’s Bacchus wine shop, likes value crowd-pleasers such as Malbecs from Argentina, Cabernets from Chile, and Sauvignon Blancs from South Africa or New Zealand. Light, food-friendly rosés can work for both standup and sit down occasions, advises Blackstone’s Sitton, who finds more choices as this style grows in popularity, both California releases and Grenache-based vintages from Spain and the Southern Rhine.
For hard-to-pair foods such as spicy dishes or Asian cuisine, try wine with a touch of residual sugar, suggests Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel sommelier April Bloom. She suggests an off-dry Loire Valley Chenin Blanc or a German Riesling. And if you have a feeling Aunt Mary will be bringing her beloved artichoke salad, pop onto the wine and food matcher developed by Natalie Maclean, author of Red” White and Drunk All Over (www.nataliemaclean.com/matcher), which demystifies pairings for even the trickiest dishes: she comes up with 9 wines for artichokes and 12 for asparagus.
Champagne, of course, goes with everything. While not everyone can afford Cristal, Sterling notes that Roederer, the Anderson Valley sibling of this high-end French company, produces a well-regarded NV brut and NV brut rosé at a fraction of the price. If you do have the budget for French, try the emerging class of grower-producer Champagne,suggests Brian Rosen, President of Sam’s Wines and Spirits: look for ‘RM'(Recoltant-Manipulateur) on the label.
When its time for dessert wines,Sterling suggests surprising guests with under-the-radar choices like Ficklin, made by former students of the Fresno State Enology program, and Meyer Family Port from Matt Meyer, son of Silver Oak co-founder Justin Meyer. And if the meal must end with Sauternes, Levy maintains that anything from 1983 is superb, even the less prominent labels.
For cocktails, Sam’s Rosen advises first laying in gin and vodka, which work for the widest range of mixed drinks, then adding a versatile silver Tequila. Rosen also recommends stocking one Bourbon, one smoky Islay Scotch, and one un-smoked Highland Scotch. If you’re investing in high-end bottles, X.O. Cognacs won’t let you down, Solebo vows.
For those blissful evenings when you are the guest, a trophy bottle will always be appreciated-and remembered. Beyond the usual choices from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont, Tuscany and California, Woods suggests Spätlese Riesling, which ages beautifully and can become quite valuable.To Levy and Shiast,the holidays are the ideal time to show their appreciation for people they cherish by sourcing wines from the year of their birth. For last New Year’s with the winemaking Coppola family, Levy spent months hunting down 1987s for the 2lst birthday of Francis’s granddaughter, Gia. With the help of Christian Navarro, co-owner of L.A.’s Wally’s wine shop, Levy found ’87 Diamond Creek and Vega Sicilia magnums, and spent months rounding up every Guigal La La from 1987, which he presented with a rare ’63 Grange to mark the birth year of Gias father.
Levy admits he sometimes spends an extraordinary amount of time seeking out the perfect wines for important occasions. He alerts sommeliers, favorite wine shops and haunts auctions such as Zachys, where auction director Michael Jessen helped him purchase two pristine cases of BV Reserve and two of Martini from 1958, the year he and many of his childhood buddies were born. “I’m making it a point to get together with every single friend turning 50 and drink one bottle of each,” declares Levy, who aspires to finish all four cases by the end of the year. “In our egocentric world,” he feels, “the true spirit of the holidays is devoting time and care to honoring your friends.”