The Rosés of Summer

Summer is here! Time to let down your hair, slip on your flip-flops, and pop open the rosé. Rosé is the ultimate summer wine, enjoyed by savvy Europeans vacationing on the beaches of St. Tropez and other sunny destinations for decades. As the warmest months descend upon the Northern Hemisphere, great waves of rosé (called “rosado” in Spain and “rosato” in Italy) wash over the shores of Europe and fill the impatient glasses of the thirsty population.

Why rosé? Why not? Rosé is pink in color and beautiful to the eye, floral and perfumed to the nose, and fruity but dry on the palate. Its refreshing acidity is bracing and cleanses the mouth between bites of food. Rosé is made from red wine grapes and takes its color from the skins. Depending on which variety of grapes is used and how long the grape skins are left in contact with the juice, the resulting wine can range from a pale, onionskin color to a deep, almost red hue. The finished color has nothing to do with the quality or intensity of the wine.

As all wines are different, so are all rosés. They can range from light to full-bodied, fruity and tangy to crisp and bone-dry, zippy and light to lush and smooth. The differences are part of the fun and an excellent reason to try many different rosés all year long. Rosé is meant to be enjoyed young. Buy it and drink it, don’t save it for a rainy day or stick it indefinitely in your cellar. A rosé wine should be no more than 2-3 years old. Sparkling rosé is the only exception to the rule and has the ability to age in a temperature-controlled cellar.

Rosé pairs perfectly with just about everything but truly shines when paired with classic picnic foods such as cheese and charcuterie, sandwiches and quiche. Casual bistro food is a perfect fit with rosé. It is a delightful accompaniment to savory fried calamari, briny oysters, crispy French fries, and juicy hamburgers. While we think of rosé as a summer wine, served lightly chilled at the shore, it can easily be enjoyed throughout the year with heavier seasonal fare like stuffed pork tenderloin and roasted salmon.

The United States showed up late to the rosé party. In fact, the USA was a little tardy to the wine party altogether. Unlike Europe, which has a history of wine consumption going back thousands of years, the USA was not a wine drinking nation until the 1970s. Rather than wine, Americans favored cocktails a la “Madmen,” and beer, of course.

When the wines of California began gaining international acclaim, Americans wondered what the fuss was all about. We ventured cautiously into the new and exciting world of dry table wines. Vineyards in Napa went on to become world famous and USA production of wine soared. Today, wine is produced in every state in the union, ranging from classic European varieties to sweet ice wines to fabulous, fruit wines from states like Idaho and Hawaii.

So how did rosé make its way into our vocabulary? Slowly but surely. We started drinking sparkling pink wine back in the 1940s with sweet wines like Mateus and Lancers. But these were not “serious” wines. They were created specifically for the American market, rather like Coca-cola for the older crowd. Dry wines were not favored and wine pairing with food was unheard of at the time.

Sutter Home’s White Zinfandel blasted onto the scene in 1975 after a fortuitous winemaking error and the sugary pink wine went on to define rosé for most Americans. The success of white zinfandel made many Americans assume that all pink wines were sweet. Rosé as a class of wines became gauche and discerning wine sippers avoided it. Fortunately, Americans went on to greater wine sophistication and learned the joys of dry rosé. Today the United States is the greatest wine-consuming nation in the world and at last, rosé wines have gained their rightful place in the hearts of Americans.

Rosé is such a favorite now that most restaurants serve it by the glass and offer a few different bottles on their wine lists. Some historic French rosés to seek out include Tavel, from the Southern Rhone Valley and Bandol from sunny Provence. An all-time favorite produced right here in California is Bonny Doon’s Vin Gris.

The warm weather is upon us. Better stock up now. Cheers!

 

 

 

MacLeod Ale Brewing Company

On a recent visit to Los Angeles, I had the good luck to discover a little gem of a place off the flashy, beaten track of movie stars and studio executives, tucked away in an industrial district of Van Nuys, California. Every community seems to have a neighborhood favorite that locals cherish exactly because it’s not trendy and it’s not competing to be the hottest spot in the ‘hood. These are places like the bar in “Cheers” where everyone knows your name and you’re always warmly welcomed. That place is definitely MacLeod Ale Brewing Company.

MacLeod Ale Brewing Company is a taproom and brewery all rolled into one. Authentic British ales—some from historic, original recipes—are carefully crafted in the back and served with a smile up front. MacLeod’s only serves their own products and are, in fact, prohibited by law from serving anything but their own brew. So if you’re craving a pink Cosmopolitan, this is not the place for you. But if you love a good Pale Ale chock full of character or a flavorful Brown Ale with an impossibly creamy froth, by all means, come one, come all.

In a quarter full of warehouses and auto repair shops, MacLeod’s is the unlikely favorite haunt of everyone from blue to white collar, tow truck drivers to film directors. Why? Because the beer is excellent and the vibe is friendly. MacLeod’s hosts special events on a regular basis as well as weekly Game Nights and Story Slams. This year, MacLeod’s has even organized a 12-day tour of Scotland, including whisky tasting in the Scottish Highlands, for a few of its loyal patrons

MacLeod Ale Brewing Company is not a fancy place. That’s part of its charm. It has a cool, NYC warehouse style. Pull up a barstool and stay a while. You just might make a friend or two. Fancy a game of darts? Check. Prefer to play a board game with your mates? They’ve got plenty. Craving a light meal? Macleod’s provides free peanuts for all and there is always a food truck parked out front, ready to serve up a savory snack.

Owners Jennifer Febre Boase, a native Californian who plays a mean bagpipe, and Alastair Boase, a native Scotsman, complete with charming accent and quick wit, started producing their own ales in 2014 in this location. Beer making is a serious endeavor and MacLeod’s maintains the highest standards of production. They’ve even earned a “Cask Marque” plaque from The United Kingdom for passing two very thorough (and unannounced!) examinations with flying colors. Not a surprise. It’s a classy joint.

Reverse osmosis is used to purify the water. By stripping everything out of the water and then adding minerals back in, MacLeod’s is able to recreate the waters of Dublin and London, in terms of flavor and mineral content, to accurately reproduce the true flavor of beers brewed in those international cities. British and Irish patrons often get emotional upon tasting MacLeod’s ales, so authentic are they.

Most of their malt is imported from the UK, which adds to the expense of production, but is well worth it, in terms of flavor and quality. Both carbon dioxide and nitrogen are used to add liveliness and to carbonate the beers. General Manager, Kevin Pratt, explains that nitrogen adds a “subtle sweetness and a creamy quality” like Guinness, to the ales while carbon dioxide gives them “crispness and a slight bite.”

All of MacLeod Ale Brewing Company’s ales are named after bagpipe tunes so the names are as memorable as the flavors. Go ahead and try “The King’s Taxes” Scottish Brown Ale with a rich, malty character or “Deal with the Devil” IPA with classic, strong hoppy notes.

Brews are served at two different temperatures, adding to their authenticity. Their authentic cask ales are served at the cellar temperature of 50 degrees while draft beer is served at 38 degrees for an icy, cold quality. Accurate temperature control is key. Over-chilling can remove flavor and delicate aromas won’t shine through. Try one or try them all. You won’t be disappointed.

If you’re coming down to Los Angeles on business, skip the Sky Bar and The Whiskey-A-Go-Go and head for MacLeod’s. You may be lucky enough to catch one of their famous Pig Roasts, Jennifer practicing those bagpipes, or Alastair doing a dramatic recitation of Robert Burns’ “Ode to a Haggis”. There’s never a dull moment at MacLeod Ale Brewing Company. You may just opt for a later flight home.

Macleod Ale Brewing Company can be found at 14741 Calvert Street in Van Nuys, 91411. (818) 631-1963. www.macleodale.com. Open weekdays from 5pm to 10pm and weekends from noon to 10pm.

See you there!

 

Greenbar Distillery

Did you know that the distillery representing the world’s largest portfolio of organic, handcrafted spirits is located in Los Angeles? If not, then you probably don’t know about Greenbar Distillery.

Greenbar Distillery is a revelation. Using only organic produce to create their spirits, Greenbar strives to not only produce top shelf spirits, but also to affect the earth and the environment in a most positive manner. Their mission is to make the best possible spirits and to leave the world in “better shape than they found it.”

This dedication to the Earth is not something typically found in the spirits industry. But then Greenbar Distillery isn’t your typical company. When owners Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew, a husband and wife team, started the Greenbar Distillery in 2004, they made conventional spirits with conventional ingredients. But because of their passion for organic, sustainable produce, Melkon and Litty began to experiment with using organic produce to create their spirits and found that the flavors and quality vastly improved.

As with fine cuisine, the product is the sum of all parts and if those parts are organic, fresh, and delicious, that will be reflected in the end result. The spirits produced by Greenbar have nothing in common with mass-produced spirits with which you may be familiar.

Greenbar chooses organic for the fine quality and flavors it creates in the spirits, but also to keep America’s farmland free of synthetic and artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Greenbar’s lightweight bottles and recycled labels help reduce packaging waste and pollution. In addition, Greenbar plants one tree in the rainforests of Central America for every bottle they sell. Now there’s active participation in replenishing our natural resources!

While their work in sustainability is commendable, you may be wondering how Greenbar’s spirits stand up to a taste test. The answer is they stand up straight and tall. If you have the patience and stamina to taste through their entire line of vodka, gin, tequila, rum, whiskey, liqueurs, and bitters, you’ll learn for yourself how absolutely wonderful these spirits are. Be warned, you may never go back to the big brands. Why would you? Greenbar’s spirits are affordably priced and offer a purity of flavor rarely encountered.

A trend in spirits’ marketing these days is boasting about how many times a particular spirit has been distilled. Companies brag that their spirit is better and “more pure” than the rest by virtue of being double, triple or even quadruple distilled. The irony is that with each distillation, flavors and natural characteristics are lost. The product is stripped of its unique and defining features with each process. In the end, a vodka, whiskey, or rum could taste like absolutely nothing on the palate.  Why would that be a desired effect unless the base materials were of poor quality?

Greenbar distills its spirits only once: Just enough to produce the desired alcohol levels and just enough to retain all of the wonderful, natural characteristics of the high quality base ingredients. The added flavors in the products are created by macerating natural fruits and spices to capture their beautiful flavor, scent, and color.

The zest of two whole lemons is used in every bottle of tangy lemon vodka. The spiced rum uses five whole spices, citrus, and flowers to make a rum that is rich, flavorful, and balanced. The liqueurs and bitters are intense experiences of roots, herbs, flowers, and citrus. You have to try them for yourself. Indeed, these spirits are memorable and will keep you coming back for more.

Greenbar Distillery is located at 2459 East 8th Street, Los Angeles, 90021. Look for them at Greenbar.biz and (213) 375-3668. Greenbar Distillery offers tastings, tours, and group events. Their unique products can be purchased all over California at most fine wine and spirits shops.

Rhone Valley Wines: A Trip to France in a Glass

Have you ever tried a wine from the Rhone Valley? If not, put it on your list of things to do this year. The wines of the Rhone Valley, located in southeastern France, are gorgeous, distinctive wines with savory aromas and flavors of what the locals call “garrigue,” a blend of wild thyme, rosemary, lavender, and juniper. Imagine these flavors in your glass! I love these wines and seek them out every chance I get.

The singular red wine grape of the northern Rhone Valley is Syrah, which is also known as Shiraz in other parts of the world. All of the red wine produced in the northern Rhone Valley is Syrah. By French law, winemakers are not permitted to produce red wine from any other grape in that region. The dominant white grapes in the region are Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne.

Down in the southern Rhone Valley, blends are the name of the game. While any of the grapes produced could easily be made into a 100% varietal wine, the philosophy in the southern Rhone is to blend. The locals firmly believe in taking the strongest qualities of each grape and marrying them together.

Some of the red wine grapes grown in the south are Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsaut, and Carignan. The white grapes include Grenache Blanc, Piquepoul, and Roussanne, among others. While Grenache tends to be the predominant grape in the red wines, winemakers have recently been experimenting with using larger percentages of Syrah and Mourvedre, creating bigger, more powerful wines.

If you’ve never tried a Rhone Valley wine, start with a good, basic Cotes-du-Rhone and then move on to the decidedly more glamorous and expensive Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Chateauneuf-du-Pape includes red and white wines and can feature up to 13 different grapes in its cuvée. As always, flavors and quality vary from producer to producer. Try a few different bottles to find your preference. Some of my favorite producers are Perrin & Fils, Chateau Beaucastel, Chateau La Nerthe, and Vieux Telegraphe.

The wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, or “New Castle of the Pope,” were developed and named in honor of Pope Clement V when he relocated the papacy from Rome to the seaside town of Avignon, France in 1309. “Chateauneuf-du-Pape” is both the name of a small village outside Avignon and the celebrated wine produced in the region. Traditionally, Chateauneuf-du-Pape comes in a heavy, dark bottle with an embossed papal insignia above the label.

Considered some of the greatest wines in the world, Chateauneuf-du-Pape truly lives up to its lore. Elegant, rich, concentrated, and high in alcohol, the wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape are a perfect reflection of their warm Mediterranean climate. The white wines are full-bodied with heady aromas of the garrigue, strong minerality, and flavors of ripe citrus and honey. The reds boast a refined and complex nose with a palate of fresh strawberries, tangy herbs, leather, and wet earth. Chateauneuf-du-Pape is indeed fit for a king – or even a pope!

Chateauneuf-du-Pape is best enjoyed with a few years of aging under its belt. A very youthful Chateauneuf-du-Pape may be highly tannic and difficult to drink. Red Chateauneuf-du-Pape can easily be cellared 10-15 years, acquiring notes of tobacco, spice, game, and dried leaves with time. Collectors revere these wines for their amazing potential to age.

The white wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines are best enjoyed within 1-3 years from the vintage although a small number can age gracefully and take on interesting flavors of ginger, spice, and orange zest with time. Basic Cotes-du-Rhone wines are not intended to age and should be enjoyed soon after purchase.

The wines of Cotes-du-Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape are delicious paired with cheeses such as Camembert, Brie, or Roquefort. The earthy flavors of the cheeses complement the savory quality of the wines. The wines also pair beautifully with a variety of main courses, the herbal qualities of the wines matching the herbs used to season the food. From game and hearty stews to roast lamb or chicken, Rhone Valley wines are a welcome addition to any table.

Explore the wines of the Rhone Valley with your family and loved ones. There’s a reason why people have cherished them throughout the centuries. These wines are true crowd pleasers. Treat yourself to a bottle, or buy one for a friend. Like a quick trip to France in a bottle—enjoy the journey. Cheers!

The Best Red Fizz

February is upon us and it’s time to gear up for a romantic Valentine’s Day. What will you and your beloved drink on the big night? There are so many wonderful choices. You could go classic and opt for a sparkling wine. California sparkling wine, French champagne, Italian prosecco, and Spanish cava are always popular choices. But given the spirit of the occasion, why not try a red sparkler?

A red sparkling wine? Indeed, red sparkling wine is somewhat of an enigma. You don’t find it on menus very often in the United States, so when you do, be sure to sit up and take notice. The best red fizz is made in select corners of the world but you won’t need your passport to buy these gems. You should be able to find a good bottle at your favorite wine shop. If by chance your local store does not carry these wines, look for them online. They’re surely worth the effort.

Lambrusco is a sparkling red wine from Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna in central Italy. Made from the grape Vitis Labrusca, from which it takes its name, Lambrusco comes in different styles, some slightly sweet, some dry. The first Lambrusco imported to the USA in the 1970s was sugary sweet and truly no more than slightly alcoholic grape juice. But such Lambrusco was made expressly for export. The wise Italians kept the traditional version for themselves.

Today, Italian wine producers are crafting their own Lambrusco for the world. Appealing to the modern palate, unpretentious Lambrusco is a refreshing, sparkling red wine with low alcohol (about 8.5%) and crisp, high acidity. A good Lambrusco is fruity on the nose with aromas of red fruit, rose petals, and green geranium, and dry to off-dry on the palate with a soft, bubbly mousse. Lambrusco is the perfect wine to accompany charcuterie, cheeses, and light pastas.

Heading “Down Under” to Australia, you’ll find delicious red bubbles in the form of sparkling Shiraz. Take all of the qualities you love about good Australian Shiraz and add some bubbles. An Australian favorite, sparkling Shiraz is a richly flavored, robust wine with aromas of warm vanilla, dried flowers, and smoke, and a palate of intense forest berries with a whisper of cinnamon. 

Perfect for any celebration, sparkling Shiraz pairs beautifully with roasted meats, game, and stews, hearty foods that might tempt your Valentine’s palate. Be sure to keep a few bottles around for the warmer months too, as sparkling Shiraz pairs brilliantly with grilled meats and veggies on the barbecue. The unexpected fizz of the Shiraz only adds to the fun of the occasion. As the Aussies say, “Give it a go, Mate!”

Wine drinking doesn’t have to be studied and serious. Who has time for that? It should be fun and it should be an adventure. Finding a unique bottle to share with your loved one can be truly rewarding. A red sparkler might just do the trick. A little extra effort on Valentine’s Day will surely be rewarded as 2017 pushes on.

Happy Valentine’s Day! Cheers!

 

 

 

Taste the Stars

Happy New Year! Did you drink Champagne on the big night? Or sparkling wine? Do you know the difference?

The difference is not necessarily in the taste. The aromas and flavors of some finely crafted sparkling wines often rival Champagne. The real difference rests in the origin of the wine, the actual place where the grapes were grown and where the wine was vinified and aged.

Champagne is a sparkling wine produced within the borders of France’s Champagne region in the northeast of the country. By law, a bottle may be labeled “Champagne” only if it was produced within the borders of Champagne itself. Everything else is simply called sparkling wine.

In France, almost every wine-producing region makes a sparkling wine. Those wines are labeled “Cremant” or “Mousseux.” The wines are skillfully made and artfully presented but they will never be Champagne. That’s not to say they are not delicious—they are! A few of my favorite sparklers are Cremant D’Alsace and Cremant de la Loire.

There is incredible prestige in Champagne. So much prestige, in fact, that in 2008 the demand for Champagne worldwide exceeded production. The solution? The INAO (the organization that protects the French appellations) voted to push the borders of production and allow an additional 38 districts to produce Champagne. These districts had been producing bubbly all along but in 2008, they were finally allowed to call their sparkling wine “Champagne.” 

Doubtless it was an incredible windfall for the lucky producers included in the new Champagne districts. Champagne’s fancy moniker demands a much higher price tag than mere sparkling wine. The sparkling wine producers didn’t change a thing but overnight their product suddenly skyrocketed in value.

If the wine is tasty and bubbly, why should you care where it was produced? There are many ways to approach that question. There is the historical aspect, of course. People have been drinking Champagne for centuries. Many of the venerated Champagne houses are hundreds of years old.

The style produced in each Champagne house is different and unique. Kings and queens, politicians, celebrities, and the common man have all celebrated special occasions with a bottle of good Champagne. Winston Churchill favored Pol Roger. Napoleon preferred Moet and Chandon. James Bond drank Bollinger.  Marilyn Monroe loved Dom Perignon.  The list goes one.

There is a certain cache to real Champagne. Anyone who has ever owned a pair of designer shoes can attest to that. They are not just your black pumps; they are your black “Manolos” or “Jimmy Choos”—a world of difference to the proud owner.  The same is true with Champagne. A romantic evening becomes all the more special if a good bottle of Champagne is popped.

Sparkling wine is nice too but are you looking for nice? Does the eager young man with a ring in his hand reach for the bottle of Prosecco to woo his betrothed? Not likely. Nothing against the wonderful sparkle of Prosecco, but Champagne it is not.

If you didn’t have the opportunity to celebrate the advent of 2017 with a bottle of real Champagne, fear not. Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and you have the chance to redeem yourself. This year, share a bottle of delicious, magical Champagne with your beloved.

Pour yourselves a glass and hold it up to the light. Observe the fine bubbles, called “Strings of Pearls” to aficionados. Sniff the fine toasty aromas and savor the rich flavors. You might find yourself exclaiming as Dom Perignon did so long ago, “I am tasting the stars!”

Cheers!

 

 

 

Dessert Wines: Making your Holiday Sweet!

There are very few rigid rules in the world of wine. Far too much time is spent agonizing over just the right pairing for a holiday meal when the truth is there isn’t one right answer. Many wines pair beautifully with many foods. The holidays are the perfect season to have fun and try some new wines from different regions around the country or around the world. Ever had a wine from New York? Try a Finger Lakes Riesling. Love Pinot Noir? Try a selection from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Die-hard Cabernet fan? Napa is the place for you. Want something really different? Try a sparkling Shiraz with your New Year’s dinner.

Festive table setting with silver ribbon gift on plateGenerally, it’s hard to go wrong, except when it comes to dessert. Please put away your fancy, brut champagne and dry table wines! They have no place here. With dessert, the simple rule of thumb is the wine must be sweeter than the dessert.

At first, this might seem confusing. Who serves wine with dessert anyway? The answer is you! Or it should be. Coffee and tea are so yesterday. To be truly cutting edge, the sophisticated host offers a chic dessert wine at the end of the meal. It’s not as odd as it might sound.

Sweet wine is the classic accompaniment for the dessert course. Sweet champagne and fortified wines have been the choice of kings for centuries and you’re the king of your castle, right? Having a classy dessert wine will impress your guests and make you look like a real connoisseur.

The type of wine you select depends on the type of dessert you serve. The sweeter the dessert, the sweeter the wine. Easy, right? Not always. Have you ever been served a dry, sparkling wine and chocolate-covered strawberries? The combination is often presented in hotels and restaurants. Though it looks decadent and inviting, it is ever so wrong. The flavor of a dry wine becomes bitter after you nibble on sugar. Suddenly that expensive bottle of bubbles is offensive. What a waste!

The proper pairing would be a demi-sec (slightly sweet) champagne or even better, a lovely glass of port to complement the creaminess of the chocolate and the fruitiness of the berries. Brut champagne is meant to accompany briny oysters or to cut the greasiness of crispy french fries, not to be sipped with a plate of bonbons. Dry with dry, sweet with sweet. Think about it. If you are reluctantly agreeing that perhaps I do have a point, read on…

When choosing a sweet wine, consider your dessert. Do you like chocolate? Try a tawny port. Love Tarte Tatin? Look into a luscious and impossibly elegant Sauternes. Prefer pecan pie? Try a hauntingly delicious Rutherglen Muscat from Australia. Want sparkles? A delicate Moscato D’Asti might be just the thing. Have a budget for the best? Seek out a fine demi-sec or doux champagne from France and savor every bubble.

Be adventurous this festive season. This is your chance to not only keep up with the Joneses but to surpass them altogether. Your basic understanding of wine and simple pairing will catapult you to new heights of admiration from family, friends, and business associates. Don’t tell them I told you. Let it be our secret. Have a gorgeous holiday. Cheers!

 

Why Wine?

I love wine. I spend time thinking about it, writing about it, and talking about it. But I wasn’t always into wine. It wasn’t too many years back that I knew nothing about wine and simply smiled politely as I drank a glass of bland “House Chardonnay,” imagining that mediocre Chardonnay was about as good as it was going to get. I was a little bored with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, but what are you going to do? I thought those were the only two types of white wine that existed.  I liked red wine too and believed the two choices there included Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. End of story. Four choices in wine. Easy.

Model in sweater and jeans holding wineglass, girl with wineglass, high fashion look, sitting girl, beautiful girl, blonde girl, isolated, model in studio, girl wearing jeans and sweater, long hair, gray backgroundWho knew that “Chardonnay” and “Cabernet Sauvignon” were the names of grapes? I didn’t. I probably would have found it odd that grapes have such fancy names, and been amazed to learn that there are literally thousands of different types of grapes all over the world with elaborate monikers like Mourvedre, Zibbibo, and Viognier.  Such information never entered my radar.

I found wine vaguely intimidating. I couldn’t taste “fresh strawberries” or “tar” or “baking spices.” I could taste wine. It seemed obvious that a bunch of pretentious “experts” were simply pulling fanciful tasting notes out of a hat. Wasn’t it all just elevated fiction?

Sommeliers terrified me. The wine list in a restaurant was to be feared. People who claimed to know about wine arrogantly tossed around words like “tannins,” “legs,” and “acidity.” They could speak at length about a certain “earthiness” they perceived in their glass and argue with others about “minerality.”  It was like they were speaking Greek.

European wine bottles were extremely confusing. I stayed away from them even though I speak a few European languages. Wine from English-speaking countries seemed safer. French bottles often don’t say the name of the grape, so if you don’t know what’s produced in specific regions of France, you will not know what kind of wine is in the bottle you are holding. I could read all of the information on a French label and still not have a clue about what was inside. The world of wine was some sort of exclusive party and I was obviously not invited. I never gave it a second thought until my “aha!” moment.

That was the moment that wine suddenly became fascinating. It happened about eight years ago when I decided to throw a big holiday dinner celebration on Christmas Eve. In the Italian tradition, I decided to serve a lucky “Seven Fishes” dinner and planned my menu carefully, incorporating a festive medley of seafood. I was having a wonderful time until I came to including the wine for the event. I panicked.

What could I serve? What went with seafood? White wine, I guessed, but what if I wanted to serve some red too? Would that be unbelievably gauche? What would my price point be? I wanted to buy nice wines but not break my budget buying expensive wines in a futile attempt to impress my guests. I was at a loss until I learned that Shannon, one of my guests for the evening, had been a sommelier in Canada several years earlier. What luck! I was thrilled and called her immediately.

Stretched bottle and two glass goblets with red grape wine standing close to each other in studio isolated on white and grey backgroung, vertical pictureShannon was a delight and came to my house to discuss the details of my soiree. “Tell me your menu and your guest list,” she instructed. I gave her the names of our guests and details of the fish dinner, including the preparation of each dish. Shannon cheerfully launched into an elaborate monologue of recommendations.

“I would definitely go heavy on the white wine and you can split the difference with light, minerally whites like a Sauvignon Blanc, a Muscadet Sevre et Maine, Chablis, or maybe even a brut Champagne to start. We can go with a rounder, more full-bodied white like a white Burgundy, a California Chardonnay, or an Italian Vermentino to complement the main course. Of course, Michel and Dominique are coming. They’re French so they will want red wine. You should avoid big, tannic reds like Cabernet Sauvignon because that will make the fish taste metallic. Let’s go for a light Pinot Noir, a Grenache, or maybe a Beaujolais Cru.”

We went on to discuss dessert and the possibility of having a demi-sec (slightly sweet) Champagne, as the sugary crepes would make a brut Champagne taste bitter. As Shannon examined my glassware, she recounted the legend that the old-fashioned, flat, saucer-like Champagne glasses had been fashioned after Marie Antoinette’s breasts.

I was captivated by her knowledge. How did my smart, cool friend know so much about the snooty, seemingly unapproachable world of wine just off the top of her head? She laughed and told me she had the Diploma from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) out of London, England. She said the WSET had classes all over the world and surely I could find one in Los Angeles, if I were interested. Suddenly, I WAS interested. I wanted to learn more about this mysterious world of wine. Sure enough, a class was starting up in January. I signed up immediately and that’s where it all began.

Years of wine classes and academic degrees followed.  How wonderful it is to study a subject where you are required to drink! I met the most amazing set of wine enthusiasts along the way. I learned that snobby wine lovers usually have no idea what they’re talking about. Many simply have deep pockets so they know what they’re supposed to buy and what they’re supposed to say but not much more than that.  They like to impress people by buying what they perceive to be the “right” bottles of wine and can be rather tiresome. I’ve found that if you start throwing around terms like malolactic fermentation, tertiary characteristics, or autolytic complexity with authority, such characters tend to pipe down.

What is it about wine that we love? For me, it’s the opportunity to “visit” a country through its wine. Well-made wine reflects its country of origin. If the grapes are grown on volcanic soil, you can taste the smoke. If the grapes are grown on iron-rich soil, you can taste the minerals. If the grapes are grown overlooking the sea, you can taste the salt of the ocean breezes. That’s the beauty of wine and why each bottle of good wine is like a holiday in a bottle. If you can’t afford to fly to the warmth of a Sicilian island, taste the sunshine in a bottle of Sicilian wine!

Pouring red wine in glass with rod isolated on whiteI am also drawn to wine for the incredible history behind it.  Wine has played a role in society since ancient times. Jugs of wine were buried with pharaohs in Egypt to be enjoyed in the afterlife. Wine is mentioned in famous works like The Iliad and The Odyssey. Wine plays a prominent role in many biblical stories. It’s been a part of man’s life since the beginning.

In many European cultures, wine is considered a food and regularly served at meals to adults and children alike, although the children usually enjoy their wine mixed with water.  A meal isn’t considered a meal unless wine is served with it. How very civilized.

Wine hasn’t always been a part of American culture. We didn’t grow up drinking it. We drank coca-cola and ate hamburgers in the classic American style. As illustrated on episodes of Mad Men, Americans have always enjoyed a cocktail. Beer has also been popular for centuries. Wine has been produced in the USA for years but never became part of the fabric of our society. Until now.

Immigrants from wine-producing countries brought European grapes and classic winemaking techniques to this country in the mid-1800s. After that, wine steadily gained in popularity but hit a wall in 1920 with the advent of Prohibition. Wine producers across the country were immediately put out of business and vineyards were plowed up to make way for other types of agriculture. Only a few vineyards survived under the auspices of providing wine for religious ceremonies.

By the time Prohibition was repealed, Americans had lost their taste for wine. Sweet, uninspired wines like Mateus and Blue Nun were enjoyed sparingly but wine consumption had lost its sheen. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that wine came back into vogue in the United States.

In 1976, two wines from Napa, a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and a Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, were entered into a French wine competition and had the nerve to win. The success of these two wines propelled Napa into the spotlight. From a sleepy, northern California town known more for its sanitarium than anything else, Napa was suddenly a bright star on the map and California has never looked back.

Today, Napa produces some of the best wine in the world and wine-producing areas all over California are revered for their quality. In the last 20 years, Oregon, Washington, and New York have all have become recognized in their own right for fine quality wine. In fact, every state in the union, including Alaska and Hawaii, produces wine. It may not be made from grapes, but wine it is! In fact, you may have already had the pleasure of sipping pineapple wine in Hawaii or rhubarb wine in Idaho.

But wine as a classical beverage is made from grapes, Vitis Vinifera, to be exact, although in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, interesting and delicious Lambrusco wines are made from Vitis Labrusca. The wines of today are better than they ever have been, and modern wine production is the most advanced it has ever been. Great wines have come out of all corners of the world – Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa – and they are delicious, beautiful wines worthy of world attention. The classic wines of Europe, like Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chianti, and Barolo, are still shining leaders in quality and popularity.

Why drink wine, you may ask. Why indeed? Drink wine because it is legendary. Drink it because it is a piece of history. Drink wine because such great effort and care is taken in producing it. Drink it because it is healthy. Drink it because it gives you the world in a glass. But most importantly, drink wine because you love it.

Cheers!