What should I drink at Thanksgiving?

Ah, yes. You have that fifteen year-old bottle of Barolo, or a First Growth Bordeaux, or an Oregon Pinot Noir that got a perfect score from Robert Parker, and you are thing that a festive occasion like Thanksgiving is the perfect time to open it. DON’T!

The problem is that Thanksgiving, with its emphasis on family togetherness and a mixture of foods, plus the fact that most of the people at your table will not be wine aficionados, means that Thanksgiving is perhaps the worst possible time to open a bottle that you want to show off.

Setting aside the guests, let’s look at the menu. Turkey, by itself, is going to go with about anything you serve, although it is unlikely to create a pairing with wine that will be memorable. The real problem comes from the side dishes. One, if your guests are bringing dishes, you have no idea of what will match up with the hodge-podge of food. Two, most Thanksgiving dinners contain dishes that are sweet, and sweetness is the enemy of any good dry wine.

Now, let’s look at your guests. Unless you have a group of people who are all serious wine aficionados, you are going to make most of the people at your table feel uncomfortable if you serve an expensive bottle and they don’t like it. Besides, the center of attention at Thanksgiving should be the love you share with one another.

Does that mean that you are doomed to drink something that you don’t like? Of course not. Here are some of the reliable standards that I have served over the years that solve for the mixture of foods and that avoid the appearance of wine snobbery, starting with whites and rose’s:

Spanish Sparkling Wine, aka Cava (I have a soft spot in my heart for Serra, but that’s only because I used to sell it.) Just be sure not to get Brut, which is too dry for your meal. An Extra Dry (I know, it sounds wrong, but Extra Dry is actually fruitier than Brut) or a Rose’ should go well and will be festive.

Riesling. I lean toward Oregon or Washington Rieslings. Of course, if you live on the Atlantic Coast, there are some great Rieslings, especially the ones from Long Island. If you are feeling like splurging, a German Spätlese would be great.

Gewürztraminer. Half the fun of this wine is saying the name, but it’s my personal favorite for Thanksgiving. “Gewürz” means “spicy’ in German, and it smells like nutmeg, vanilla, cardamom, and other wonderful stuff, but it tastes similar to Riesling as you drink it. Besides saying the name, it matches well for things like sage-flavored dressing or peppery vegetable dishes.

Rose’. You need to be a little careful here, because there is some really bad rose’ out there. When America went through the White Zinfandel craze years back, the market was flooded with stuff that tasted like bubble gum. In fact, my wife was convinced that she hated rose’, period. Well, we survived that craze, and there are a lot of good rose’s out there. In some ways, this is an ideal wine to serve because it doesn’t make a statement, but it still tastes good. What you are looking for is something that has both fruit and acid in a nice balance. Wines from Washington, Oregon, and the cooler regions of California fit the bill, as well as Tavel, d’Anjou, or Provence from France. Now, here are my favorite Thanksgiving reds:

Beaujolais. The domestic equivalent to Beaujolais is Gamay; remember, good winemakers in the U.S. never steal the names of regions to describe their wines, but use the name of the grape instead. Unfortunately, Beaujolais is sometimes difficult to find, due largely to a scandal that hit the region last decade. But the wines today are wonderful, nice and fruity, perfect for people who think they don’t like red wine.  I used to be a big fan of Beaujolais Nouveau which, due to way it is made, is meant to be consumed as quickly as possible after the harvest. I still love it but, unfortunately, it has become a fad wine that is now grossly overpriced.

Barbera. This is sometimes called, “the Italian Beaujolais.” Not a terrible description, but it is a little bit more full-bodied than Beaujolais so it might not be as popular with people who don’t like red wines. Since Barbera is the name of the grape, you can find both Italian and domestic Barberas, and they tend to be good values.

Zinfandel. This can be wonderful with Thanksgiving dinner, but be careful! There are some hefty Zinfandels out there that will overpower the food. If the wine label states that it is an Old Vine Zinfandel and/or it contains more than 14.5% alcohol, save it for a wine tasting. But if the wine is around 12.5% alcohol, what you will get is a wine that smells like blackberries and even tastes like a variety of berries. Back in the bad old days, people would ask me, “is there such thing as a red Zinfandel?” Yes, there is, and that’s what you should be drinking instead of the plonk that was popular twenty years ago.

 

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Viognier: a wonderful surprise in the wine world.

By way of context, I should reveal that I was in the wine profession for about 15 years as a retailer, wholesaler, and importer. The work in these fields is not nearly as glamorous as you might think, but I guarantee that I rode the glamorous stereotype for as long as I could before I got married!

I mention the context just to show how much things changed in 25 years. Back when I was in the business, no one knew what Viognier was. I ran into it a couple of times when a customer ordered Condrieu, and my natural curiosity led me to look it up. Condrieu is a tiny appellation in the Northern Rhone and, apparently, it had fallen into disfavor in other areas because it was notoriously finicky compared to other available white varieties; the window of picking Viognier is very narrow, because if you pick it too late, its acid levels tend to drop and it is a grape that requires enough acid to make its peach-apricot-honeysuckle qualities come through.

Fortunately, just when it looked like Viognier was on the road to extinction, two powerful forces came to the rescue. One was Georges DeBeouf who, so famous for his Beaujolais wines, was looking to branch out. While I have yet to see any of his Viogniers in the U.S., he has been influential throughout both France and places as far-flung as Australia.

Josh Jensen (who deserves a post of his own) showed what the wine world now knows:  a willingness to experiment and a resolute refusal to blindly follow traditions. As far as I can tell, he was the first one to bring Viognier to the United States and make commercial wine, followed shortly thereafter by the “Rhone Rangers” just to the south (another group worthy of its own post.)

Good Viognier, to me,  fills the same flavor niche that good Chenin Blanc does. It is a wonderful sipping wine on its own, but it matches well with anything in a cream-based sauce, including some dishes that are mildly spicy. What was once its curse may be its blessing; Chenin Blanc sadly fell out of favor because it could be grown in huge, bland yields that hurt the reputation of the great Chenin Blancs, but Viognier is always going to be a low-yield grape.

So, where does it grow best? Viognier loves warm to hot days, but cool nights. Josh Jensen and the Rhone Rangers of San Luis Obispo have got the right climates. So do Southern Oregon and Eastern Washington.

Chardonnay: Why all the arguing?

If there is a wine grape in the world that has a wider reputation range than Chardonnay has endured in the past 50 years, I have yet to read about or taste it. So, why has Chardonnay attracted commentary like “wine for people who don’t like wine” and “overpriced jug wine”, but also been the center of much of the global respect that the New World now commands, and whose European bottlings were the original wines to be called “poetry in a bottle?”

There are entire books written on the subject, so I’ll keep this brief. I believe there are three primary variables that account for the range in like/dislike for Chardonnay:

1. OAK. Used with discretion, oak is a wonderful enhancement for Chardonnay. Like other wooden storage devices, it allows a very gradual and minute amount of air to reach the wine that takes some of the sharper edges off of it, a quality that is especially desirable in wines containing a lot of malic acid. In addition, oak contains the chemical vanillin which, as you might guess, imparts a slight vanilla quality to the wine that makes even a bone-dry chardonnay seem fruity and even slightly sweet.

The problem is that some Chardonnays are so heavily oaked that no one can taste the underlying grape. In one of my tasting classes, I put a glass of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and dry Chenin Blanc next to each other and asked my students to taste each and take notes. I dosed the latter three with vanillin extract. The comments were interesting, but most interesting is that every single student (including some with experience in wine-tasting) assumed that all four wines were Chardonnnays! I would wager that a lot of people don’t even know what the varietal character of Chardonnay is supposed to be, but that statement begs the question…

2. TERROIR. Usually translated as “sense of place” it refers to the qualities that a wine picks up from its combination of soil, rainfall, angle of declination, latitude, degree days, etc. that are unique from place to place. When a Chardonnay is allowed to express its terroir, there are few grapes in the world that more wonderfully express a range of tastes. Unfortunately, when it became the most popular white wine, winemakers around the world all seemed to aim for the same sort of flavor: off-dry, easy to sip even without foods.

Want a real treat that will blow your taste buds! Try a bottle of Premier Cru Chablis (100% Chardonnay from the far north of Burgundy, not the jug wine from California) with raw oysters, mussels, or (if you can afford it) caviar. The Chablis has no oak, and the combination of the food and the wine is almost addictive, with the steely, crisp Chablis making you want to eat the salty seafood, making you want to drink the Chablis.

3. TONNAGE. Part of the problem with the meteroric rise in popularity of Chardonnay and the fact that it melds almost too well with oak is that it is an easy grape to grow for high profit. Unlike Riesling, Pinot Noir, or Nebbiolo, to name just a few, Chardonnay will grow almos everywhere. If you grow it in the hot, flat Central Valley, then dose it with lots of new oak, you can get yields of over 50 tons/acre and produce a wine that, to a novice, tastes significantly better than a run-of-the-mill house white. On the other hand, grown in a cool area and limiting yields to, i.e., 5 tons/acre, and you can produce wines that not only sell for over $100 bottle, but are worth it.

Enough for now. I’ll write about more Chardonnays as the weather gets warmer.

Much-maligned Merlot

In the film Sideways, one of the lead characters goes off on a rant against Merlot. The character, a prototypical wine snob, denigrates Merlot because it is “red wine for beginners”:  straight-forward fruit flavors, easy to drink with or without food, but lacking any real character.

I have two reactions to this. One is that Merlot can absolutely be a “beginners’ wine”, especially if it is grown in a warm climate and allowed to yield many tons of grapes per acre. Part of Merlot’s popularity, in fact, is that it is relatively unfussy to grow in a wide variety of climates and soil types. But, so what? For me, rule number one for drinking wine is to drink what you like. I can guarantee you that, if inexpensive Merlot is your favorite, that will not get you uninvited from my home, and after 35 years of drinking and collecting wines, including 12 years of retailing and importing them professionally, most people regard me as a “serious” wine person.

My second reaction, though, is that the wine snob (who does get his comeuppance) is displaying his ignorance. If yields are kept low, Merlots are among the greatest wines in the world. (Side note:  most Merlots are blended with a little Cabernet Sauvignon, just as most Cabernets are blended with a little Merlot) Some of California’s superstar wineries built their reputations on great Merlots, reputations they deserve. And what French Bordeaux consistently commands the highest prices? Chateau Petrus, which is (depending on the vintage) 95-100% Merlot!

The only grape that has gotten more bad press from wine “sophisticates” in recent times is Chardonnay. I’ll tackle that in future posts.

Entertaining vegan friends?

First off, my philosophy on food is to eat healthily, locally if you can (but don’t you dare try to take my coffee away from me!), be an omnivore but, most importantly, don’t be obsessive. Turning down a meal invitation is generally a bad idea because it is rude; even if it “throws you off your diet”, you can compensate later on.

As an omnivore, I still have vegetarian friends, some of whom are vegan. You can imagine I’m not going to be very close to anybody who turns a meal, which should be a celebration of life and love, into a political event, but I want to be able to entertain friends even if they have different dietary standards than I.

The following is my favorite “go to” recipe for entertaining vegans. It is a vegan curry. Omnivores, you’ll still enjoy this even without the meat and dairy:

VEGAN CURRY

Ingredients:

2 tbsp vegetable oil (preferably peanut oil or something with a high smoke point. I LOVE olive oil, but it tends to burn and scorch in this recipe because of its low smoke point)

2 cloves garlic, minced

3/4 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground cardamom

1 1/2 tsp ground cumin

3/4 tsp turmeric

2 tsp ground ginger

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

2 onions, diced

4 tomatoes, chopped or one 12 oz can diced tomatoes

3 carrots, sliced

1 cup peas or lentils

2 potatoes, chopped into one inch pieces

1/4 tsp salt

3/4 cup water

Preparation:

Heat the oil over medium heat. Add garlic and all the spices and reduce heat to low. Cook for just one minute, stirring once or twice.

Add onions and sautee for 3 minutes, or until onions turn clear. Add tomatoes, carrots, peas, potatoes, salt and water. Cover your pan and allow to cook for about 20 minutes, or until potatoes are done, stirring occasionally. Serve over rice if desired, and enjoy!

The original recipe called for half the amount of vegetable oil and replaced the remainder with margarine. Try it that way if you like, but I’m not keen on the transfats and other aspects of margarine and how they affect your health.

Just what the world needs: another blog.

It is traditional to start a blog by explaining why the author started it. Well, I have all kinds of interests that I want to share, and hope to hear from others how they feel.

My guess is more people want to know why the pseudonym “Publius17” was chosen. First, I have to use a pseudonym because I need to protect my privacy within my working world; the reasons for this will become apparent with time. Next, “Publius 17” was chosen (I couldn’t use just Publius since it was already claimed; the “17” has a personal motivation) for two reasons:  it was the choice of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison for publishing the Federalist Papers (perhaps the greatest collection of English language essays in existence) and because “Publius” means “the people” in Latin. Since my blog will be covering topics as serious as politics and religion and as whimsical as wine and baseball, I think that it will be a fairly representative display of how most of us are. Don’t most of us have issues about which we feel passionate, but also try to keep a balance of fun in our lives?