Monthly Archives: September 2006

Wine Over the Holidays


How to Wine this Holiday Season

Deborah Kay Swanson Patrick

My cousin collects it. My future brother-in-law makes it. I drink it. It’s a great combination. And when it comes to wine and food, it’s the combination that makes both taste great.

First, wine is not a four letter word — don’t let selecting wine intimidate you.

Yes, making wine involves science and art. And great wines are complex in nature, with layers of aroma and texture and hints of this or that which winemakers and those who bestow awards wax on about. Wine connoisseurs have a lot invested in making the whole process sound like a foreign language – the nose, the bouquet, the finish.

But the enjoyment of wine? That depends on your personal taste buds. And wine sellers, who of course are interested in selling you as much as possible, say forget all that – wine is a three-letter word – FUN.

A couple of recent events motivated the mass public even more to “get into wine”—the movie “Sideways” and the arrival a few years ago of popular party guest Charles Shaw. The dialog in Sideways about the character and nature of wine was beautiful, and so, to many, is the price of Trader Joe’s idolized “Two Buck Chuck,” as Charles Shaw is nicknamed, produced from odd lots of wine bought up and blended with varying degrees of success.

Debate these developments all you like for their artistic merit; their impact has been felt. Especially here in
California where we have an increasingly robust wine industry. The Wine Institute says
California produces more than 520 million gallons of wine a year, valued at more than $15 billion. Total U.S. consumption has grown 63 percent since 1991 (excluding wine coolers).

All this is great news because it means there is lots of wine out there. More choices. More confusion. Because doesn’t it all come down to what to serve with your Christmas or holiday dinner? I polled a few wineries to get some opinions about this annual consternation.

Jerry Comfort, Certified Specialist of Wine by the Society of Wine Educators, is the wine/food educator at Beringer, which was established in 1876. They’ve been at this for a very long time. And Comfort, a chef of 25 years, knows his food AND wine.

In fact, he has created his own version of “comfort food – and wine” by making an easy formula for wine selection. He puts wine into five categories, from softest to strongest. There is some overlap here, because wines of the same variety can vary in intensity and tannins (the sharpness from the skin of the grape), and I’m not including every possible varietal due to space.

Wine Categories

1.         Sweet — these have more sugar and can range from very sweet to “off-dry.” The sweetest are Ports (my favorite),
Madeira, Sweet Sherry, Takaji, Sauternes, Vin Santo and Late Harvest Rieslings.

The Off-Dry include Johannisberg Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Chein Blanc, White Zinfandel

2.         Dry white without oak (Champagne, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris, dry Rieslings, Semillon, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, dry rose)


3.         Dry white with oak (oaked Chardonnays, some Sauvignon Blancs, Chenin Blanc, Johannisberg Riesling)

4.         Light reds (Rose,
Beaujolais, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Sangiovese, Dolcetto, Shiraz/Syrah, lighter Zinfandels)


5.         Strong reds (Merlot, Sangiovese, Shiraz/Syrah, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, heavier or “fat” Zinfandels.

He created these categories because food has several categories as well, called flavors: salt, sweet, sour, bitter and savory (called umami, this is protein).

So what’s the point of all this fuss? Simple: food changes the way a wine tastes.

The flavors in food affect your taste buds. For example, a full bodied red that tastes great on its own, could taste bitter with something sweet or spicy. That’s usually why I stop drinking wine when dessert comes – it just doesn’t taste good anymore. So finding the perfect pairing means the food AND wine tastes great together.

At the simplest level, the saltier the food, the easier it is to pair with wine.

Conversely, the least strong wines are easier to pair to foods. Sweet wine is the most food friendly. And several experts agree that White Zinfandel will work with just about everything, which probably accounts for its popularity.

A few wine top notes:

  • Oak flavors make wine stronger. You know if a wine is “oaked” if it’s described as toasty, smokey, rich, buttery, etc., says Comfort. (Most international Sauvignon Blancs aren’t oaked, but half of
    California’s SBs are, so read the label.)
  • As wines get heavier it also gets more food challenging. Lighter, fruitier reds are easier to pair than heavy reds.

Here is how Beringer breaks down its brands of wines:

Beringer Stone Cellars are the most fruit forward, least amount of oak, so the most food friendly

Beringer Founders is an equal blend of fruit and oak

Valley wines are full oak

Beringer’s Reserve is a strong varietal with strong oak

Pairing Wine and
Holiday Food

Turkey – all whites and light reds

Roast Beef, prime rib, etc. – all reds

Shrimp – Claire Silver says try
California champagnes, dry Rielslings or Chardonnay

For Paella try lighter reds and Zinfandel


This holiday favorite seemed to be the most difficult, as it’s salty but often served with sweet glazes. So here’s the trick, says Comfort:

If you have sweet glazes on the ham, then drink fruitier whites and reds.

If baked with
Dijon mustard, serve any wine in the world with it.

Claire Silver from Tobin James, probably the most irreverent and fun winery anywhere, is a little more specific. She says roses and other light reds are the answer.

Wine and Cheese

Cheese presents an additional set of challenges involving the same flavors as described for food, but complicated by cheese’s creaminess and age.

So here are more tips from Beringer’s Comfort:

The newer and creamier the cheese, the lighter and fruitier the wine (whites and light reds)

Young and tangy cheeses need crisp light white wines and fruity, low tannin reds

Fresh, tangy and salty cheeses need most white wines and most reds

Aged, salty cheeses do best with sweeter wines

If you can remember only one thing from this story, remember this:

CHAMPAGNE GOES WITH EVERYTHING! Don’t buy the cheapest (you will regret it) and you don’t have to go broke, but in the $7-40 range there are plenty of great French or California Champagnes and sparking wines to choose from.

Side BarTrends in the business

It’s true, screw tops are in and wine in a box is not the joke it once was. It’s decent, non-vintage table wine and very practical. Comfort says “wine quality gone up around the world in last 15 years with best practices and shared learning, better sanitation and good barrels making for much better wines made inexpensively.”

Screw tops are being used in wines that are to be consumed in a year or two, including all white wine (it’s red wine that is collected and kept for years).  

How long can you keep wine fresh?

Any wine you open and drink, put cork or cap back on, will last three to five days MINIMUM in the refrigerator. If you leave it on the counter, two to three days MAXIMUM.

But with wine inside a bag in the box, it will last “eternity,” says Comfort. The bag collapses so no air is allowed in, keeping the wine fresh. And the little 187 ml bottles are just fine for everyday drinking, as well.


I’ve heard things like….The better the wine, the thicker the bottle, or the deeper the indentation on the bottom, the better the wine.

Comfort says:

“That’s what people want you to believe.  The truth is that the more lead foil, or heavier the bottle, the more it costs to ship. The more expensive to ship means the wine is more expensive, not better.”


I’ve been curious about the word “reserve” as it seems to pop up a lot these days. Comfort says the more reputable brand (winemaker) will have done something special to the wine to make it more desirable and deserving of the word Reserve. That can be as simple as putting wines in barrels or lots and tasting through them to find one that tastes better. It could be labeled reserve and may age a little longer to improve flavor. Beringer, he says, picks specific areas known to be better for wine, then they are aged better. Legally, however, winemakers don’t have to do anything to label wine reserve, even though the price is usually higher than non-reserve wines.


Have a wine tasting party. Beringer even has the placemats for you to download on their web site, plus full instructions. They also have wonderful guides to wine and cheese pairing and wine and food pairing.

Sylvester is leading the way with several boxed wines at very reasonable prices. My brother-in-law to be is the winemaker there so look for his excellent wines to be out soon – he’s a master of Zinfandel. You can join their wine club, or flock, as they call it since their logo is a goose, at It’s a lovely winery to visit, as well, nestled in Paso Robles off Highway 46.

And to have a get down, get funky, and try and get back up time with the craziest people in the business, visit the Tobin James Winery in Paso Robles Their website doesn’t have too much in the way of information, so you’re much better off to visit their old stagecoach house in person and say howdy. Their bar is absolutely stunning. (photo) If you want to taste one of the finest dessert wines made, try Tobin James’ Liquid Love, with some quality chocolate. You’ll never be the same. While you’re at it, check out their other passionately named varieties: Pinot Envy, Made in the Shade Merlot, Rock and Roll Zinfandel, James Gang Reserves.

Online, there is also a site called You can put in your menu and your wine preferences and it will match you with a variety of wine choices. And if you’d like to check out other people’s opinions, go to I found the Wine Diva, aka Laura Winzeler, who’s an artist and waited tables at premier wine country restaurants. She has very sound advice on selecting wines in restaurants. Her best advice is to ask to sample a wine before committing to purchasing an entire glass. And when ordering a bottle, stick to what you know, don’t risk trying a new wine since the mark-up is often 100 to 200 percent. But do pay a few extra dollars for a wine you will really enjoy as opposed to going for the house or lower end wine.

Where You Can Go

One of the most fun things you can do is hit some local wine tastings to get your palette prepared and see how a tasting is coordinated. Here are a few locations to try:

In Temecula, you can drive to all the wineries yourself, take a limo tour or even get a bird’s eye view by balloon! Visit or for a full list of everything there is to offer. I thoroughly enjoyed Thornton Winery for its full range of champagnes, spectacular food and special events. I also joined the wine club of the Churon Winery.


Then check out local wine bars, cafes, winesellers and liquor stores that specialize in wine. Many have wine tastings to bring in business, too many to mention here.

As published in Senior Life!





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