Wine for Your Big Holiday Dinner

This post was originally about picking a wine for Thanksgiving Dinner, but then we realized, not everyone wants to celebrate Thanksgiving. Some folks would prefer to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day. And there are other big holidays coming up during this time of year, many of which involve special foods and cooking turkeys. So why not look at picking a wine for a Big Holiday Dinner? So, we are.

Wait. Isn’t this the middle of October? Uh, yeah. So why worry about what wines to serve for a Big Holiday Dinner now? Well, we’re offering an easy way to figure that out. Catch is, it takes some time to make happen. Besides, you don’t want to be drinking three to four bottles in one night, do you? Yeah. Didn’t think so.

All you need to pick the perfect wine for your Thanksgiving Dinner.
All you need to pick the perfect wine for your Thanksgiving Dinner.

If you’ve never made a Big Holiday Dinner before, you can check out Anne’s series of blogs on the process, starting here. If you’ve simply been asked to bring the wine, then you can also use this post.

Now, the trick with wine for holiday fare is that not all of the traditional foods are all that wine-friendly. Sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, anything sweet, can make even the best cabernet sauvignon taste sour and icky. Think sipping orange juice after a big syrupy bite of pancakes. Blech. And wine experts will recommend all kinds of different wines. Some love pinot noir with turkey, others insist on a robust syrah, still others prefer merlot. Almost any of those will do quite nicely with a turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy. With the sweeter elements of a meal? Not so much.

Fail-safe wine

Our two fail-safe holiday wines are dry sparkling wines (including Champagne, Cavas and California sparkling) and Beaujolais Nouveau. The Nouveau is the first wine released in France and it always comes out the Thursday before Thanksgiving. Since it’s literally new wine, from this year’s harvest, it’s light and fruity, which does well with some of the sweeter parts of the meal. Plus it’s not so in-your-face heavy. That’s great for those of your guests who are new to wine, or even red wines. Bubblies are wonderful because they are already associated with celebrations, and dry bubblies go with just about everything on the planet.

So your options are boundless. And so are all the variations on a theme on the shelf at your local wine store. It’s a bit overwhelming, but fear not. You’re not going in blind and hoping the wine will work. You’re going to buy a sample bottle or four and taste them before you buy however many you need to serve your guests. And you will know how many bottles that is because each bottle has about four to five glasses of wine inside, bubblies have five to six glasses of wine.

Note, we will taste even our standard Nouveau because not every year is that good. It’s not as big a deal because there are usually only two or three brands available. Also, while whites are nice to serve with salads and soup, you’ll probably want a red to go with the stronger flavors of the main event.

The Big Holiday Dinner test tasting

For your test tasting, you’ll need three to four bottles of potential wine. You’ll also need samples of some of the different foods you’re going to be eating. For example, if you’re celebrating Thanksgiving, you might want some turkey potpies, a couple sweet potatoes and some cranberry sauce. If you’re making a brisket for Channukah, then some beef stew, some potato and onion cooked together, and whatever dessert you’re serving. Finally, you’ll need a note pad and pen or pencil.

Cook or reheat your food samples, open up one of your bottles, pour a splash and taste it while eating the pot pie and the potato. Check the nose or aroma, look at the color, but most important of all, does it taste good with the food? Write down why you think it tastes good or why it doesn’t. Is it really sour with the sweet potato? Does it taste harsh on the back of the throat even after a good mouthful of beef stew? Does it taste even smoother and more delicious with the turkey?

Then repeat the process with the other bottles. You may want to do one a night, and have someone help you finish the bottle. Or you can try sealing the bottle and putting it in the fridge and finish it some other evening. If it’s a white, just seal it and pop it in the fridge. Just don’t serve it with Thanksgiving Dinner. Red wines tend to oxidize after they’ve been opened and bubblies lose their bubbles. And whites will sometimes go off.

Once you’ve got your notes, you may have a clear winner. You may not. But that’s not such a bad thing, especially if by the time you get back to the store, your preferred wine is gone. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it does happen sometimes.

No go and taste and let us know what you’re tasting. We can always use a new idea.

Wine Headaches and Scout & Cellar Wines

Please note that we don’t get wine headaches, so we can’t comment on whether the wines will prevent them. Also, we were sent two bottles of Scout & Cellar wine after the interview happened. We did not request them, but we did not pay for them, either.

With all the green-washing out there these days, it’s certainly reasonable to question just about anything labeled “clean” or “green.” Neither term has any official meaning with anyone. But it’s a term that has meaning for Sarah Shadonix.

“I’m super passionate and geeky about wine,” she said.

Passionate enough to give up a career as a litigator, then go to work for an ecommerce site, curating their wines.

“I was going out to Sonoma [County, California] once a week, refining my skills,” she said.

Getting wine headaches

That led to an advanced certificate from the Wines & Spirit Education Trust, (the WSET thing you hear sommeliers claim fairly often). But then she started to develop headaches when she drank wine. Like many wine-drinkers facing this problem, not all wines gave her headaches. But not like many wine-drinkers, Shadonix dove “deep into the rabbit hole.”

Label report from Scout & Cellar wines which helped Sarah Shadonix with her wine headaches

What she found was a problem with the labeling on a lot of wines.

“There wasn’t a clear package on the market,” she said.

Which sounds a little odd when you consider just how stringent the rules are when it comes to wine labels.

Creating the winery

Shadonix decided to create her own wine company, one with a mission to create clean wine. What this means in her case, according to the Scout & Cellar website, is wine that’s been grown “without toxic pesticides” (well, not toxic to humans), “artificial processing aids or ingredients,” and wine that is low in sulfites.

Shadonix said that it was probably residue from commonly used pesticides in some of the wines she was drinking that caused her wine headaches, and also the amount of sulfites in the wine. All wine has sulfites in it. It’s a natural by-product of the fermenting process. But Scout & Cellar wines are made to have 100 parts per million of sulfites. It’s on the company’s FAQ page.

As noted above, we don’t get wine headaches so we can’t comment on whether or not you will when drinking a Scout & Cellar wine. As for the two wines we were sent, they weren’t bad.

We tasted a 2021 Conte de la Terre Pinot Gris from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Based on the very light color and lack of florals in the nose, it was probably a cool climate Pinot Gris. The nose did have melon and a hint of minerality. The medium body could have been a combination of steel and neutral oak. A hint of richness in the mouthfeel and a bit of acidity also supports the mix of wood and metal. A bit short in the finish but very dry which can be a challenge in some “native” ferments that tend to poop out before the sugars give out. Savory snacks like spicy nuts, hard and creamy cheeses, olives and charcuterie made this wine easy to enjoy without regard to its creation. It is good wine regardless of the yeast and/or chemical inputs.

One other interesting note, Shadonix obviously understands that designating a wine as clean has no official standing. Instead, the website touts the wine company’s Clean-Crafted Commitment – which is their proprietary designation and a trademark.

Important Reminder – Always Bring Your Corkscrew

Fred is, alas, no longer with us, having lived to a good, ripe old age. So this picture is actually a few years old. But Fred, being the great little guy he was, used to say that it doesn’t hurt to keep a corkscrew in the glove compartment of your car. You never know when there’s going to be that impromptu picnic or when someone else forgot theirs.

Fred and the Corkscrew (click for bigger image)

Of course, you don’t want any open containers of alcohol in your car and designated drivers are important. We couldn’t let Fred drink – he was such a mean drunk – or drive. He couldn’t reach the pedals and see over the dash, and then there was that problem of no opposable thumbs.

And Fred was… Well, he looked like a dog, but we think he may have been part Martian.

Self-Swirling Wine Glasses. Really?

It was several years ago, at a Garagiste Festival in Paso Robles, that we ran across a vendor hyping self-swirling wine glasses. Of course, our first thought was, seriously? How lazy do you have to be?

That being said, they were rather attractive, with nice big bowls and a narrow mouth, and Anne thought they might be fun to test for a blog post. So she bought a pair in spite of Michael’s protests. Hey, they weren’t that expensive and they are pretty.

We planned to test them, but once we got the glasses home, we discovered that they have a flaw so fundamental, you have to wonder why the manufacturer hadn’t thought of it. You can’t set the glasses down.

Well, you can, but they aren’t very stable. And while they don’t swirl enough to actually aerate the wine, we’re not betting our best chairs that a glass will stay in place well enough to grab a sip while reading the latest Donna Andrews mystery.

We forget who made them – it’s not important, anyway. The real point is that this is a cautionary tale. Ninety-nine percent of the gadgets and gizwatchies out there meant to “enhance the wine experience” don’t do squat. All you really need to enhance the wine experience is some good food or some good people you care about. Preferably both.

This is important to remember when you want to buy something for your favorite wine lover. Your best bet is to buy that person some wine. If you feel like you don’t know enough to do it well, then either find a good, non-chain wine store, and talk to the nice people behind the counter (and leave if said people look down their long-bony noses at you), or get a gift certificate to a good, non-chain wine store. Or better yet, offer a dinner out with your wine-loving friends.

It’s not about the gadgets and gizwatchies. It’s always going to be about the wine, and that’s what makes it good.

Smoke Gets In Your Wine

A quick cautionary tale about jumping to a conclusion about a new wine.
Once in a while we will buy several low cost bottles from our local Trader Joe’s. Rosés, a french wine and maybe a Chilean red or something to round out the home inventory. This specific bottle is a 2014 California Pinot Noir from Monterey County.

We don’t know the producer as it is under TJ’s private label. The price was under $6 so not a great risk of grocery money. It didn’t get long for us to notice a strong smokiness in the wine that really got in the way in any fruit flavors that would been present. This was not a smoky barrel flavor but something else and not a good something else.

Being aware of any number of wildfires burning in wine country over the last few years, including 2018, I thought I would consult our friends at wikipedia about any 2014 wildfires in Monterey County.
Here’s what I found: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soberanes_Fire

What does this have to do with this Pinot Noir? Smoke particles can become of part of the grapes as they approach ripeness in the vineyards even if they are many miles from the fire source. It’s the timing that makes a difference. The October 2017 fires near Santa Rosa took place after most of the grapes had been picked and being fermented. If the fires are early enough, they won’t have an impact. The 2014 fires started in late July and weren’t controlled until early October – during the harvest time for Pinot Noir.

So, knowing this, we decided to try different foods to find something that would work with this wine. The savior in this case was regular potato chips but any flavored chips might work as would some really smoky BBQ.

So why are we bringing this up? The long term forecast calls for bigger fires burning any time of the year so this is only one example of a tainted harvest. So, as wine lovers, we need to be aware of the growing conditions here in California where “vintage” isn’t as variable as it has been in France where bad weather such as rains and hail are affecting grapes somewhere each year. So maybe a 2014 Monterey County may not be such a great wine except at $6 when Pinots normally sell for much much more.

But it’s also a chance to make lemonade out of lemons. What foods go with a flawed wine? More generally, who decides what’s a flawed wine? Smoke taints have their fans as do brett and cork taint wines. Staying informed and being aware of a vintage in a specific region may be unusual for Californians but this is normal for the Europeans.

So don’t avoid a mystery wine if the price is right. If it sings to you, great. If not, maybe it’s a teachable moment in our wine education that can lead us to a better understanding of what’s in our glass today. Tomorrow is a different day and a different wine.

Wine Vending Machines – A Peek Inside

Ever wonder what’s inside one of those machines that sell wine by the glass? We did, and back in August 2015, we had a chance to see the inside of one at a restaurant show. And then promptly forgot about the pictures.

So, just for the fun of it – here they are:

What’s Dry Cooking Wine?

It was a simple question. Anne’s daughter saw a recipe that called out dry white wine and dry cooking wine, dry white wines, dry red wines, cooking with winewondered what makes a dry cooking wine? Or dry wine for cooking?

And as with most simple questions, the answer is… Well, not so simple. We could post a list of types of white wines, but then, with our luck, you’ll stumble into the rare one that’s made in a sweet style.

So let’s start with the basics. Fermentation in wine is what happens when yeast consumes sugar in a juice and spits out alcohol. In most cases, we’re talking about grape juice, but wine can be made from any number of juices, including some stuff you don’t even want to think about as juice, such as parsnip and bell pepper (trust us, don’t go there). In dry wine, the yeast consumes all of the sugar in the wine before dying of alcohol poisoning. In sweet wines, either the fermentation is stopped or the alcohol is so high it kills off the remaining yeasts before it can consume all the sugar.

As Anne wrote in her mini-blog, From the Dark Side of the Fridge, earlier this week, dry wine has more acid in it, so it brightens flavors up. Which is why you generally use dry wine in cooking, as opposed to sweet wine. Sometimes, it will be a dry red wine, which usually goes with stronger flavored foods, such as beef. Often it will be a dry white wine, which is not only more acidic, it’s going to have a lighter flavor that won’t overwhelm other flavors in the dish.

So Which Dry Cooking Wine do I Buy?

All of the above is interesting, but admittedly not a lot of help when you’re at the grocery store staring at row upon row of wines, mostly grouped by grape variety or country of origin, and there’s no friendly shopkeeper within miles to help.

Wine snobs will tell you that you don’t want to buy any wine for cooking that you wouldn’t drink. But while the vast majority of what a wine snob will tell you is, indeed, a veritable load of horse manure, they’re sort of right on this one. Only sort of right.

You don’t want really, really horrible wine. Most jug wines fall into this category (though not all). That makes sense – anything that tends to be overly fruity or oxidized is not going to add the best flavor to your meal.

That being said, you don’t want really good wine, either. All the things that make really good wines good – the subtle layers of flavor, the interplay between tannins, acid and fruit – that’s all lost when you’ve added the meat and/or veggies, the herbs and other flavors and cooked it all together. So there’s no point in spending $30 for a bottle, then cooking out all of the reasons the bottle is worth $30 (assuming, of course, that you got one that really is worth $30, which is another post all together).

What you want is a basic bottle in the $5 to $7 range. The infamous Charles Shaw label from Trader Joe’s is perfectly acceptable for cooking and won’t set you back much more than $3.50 in most parts of the country ($2.50 in California). Red wines cabernet sauvignon and merlot are generally fermented dry. On the white side, you can generally count on chardonnay and sauvignon blanc to be dry. In fact, these are so commonly fermented dry that if they do happen to be made as sweet wines, it will say so on the label. Or should. Alas, nothing is absolute in the wine world. But it’s a pretty safe bet that something labeled cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay or sauvignon blanc will be a dry wine.

Beware of anything that says “late harvest” on the label. That means the grapes were harvested well after most of their pals that became dry wine, which in turn means that there was more sugar in the grapes and it’s probably a sweet wine. The other thing to be aware of (although it’s an older thing that you see don’t too often in grocery stores anymore) is anything actually labeled “cooking wine.” It usually has salt added and is pretty nasty.

There are lots of other wines, both red and white, that are dry, and if you have a particular fave that’s generally on the wine rack or in the fridge, then there is absolutely no reason not to use it when the recipe or whatever you’re making calls for a dry red or white. As long as it tastes dry to you.

 

We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties

Annoyance of annoyances. We’re hoping you’re not experiencing the glitch that’s been popping up when you click on one of our post’s actual pages. But if you are, please let us know, including which browser (IE, Firefox, Chrome) that you’re using.

In the meantime, instead of writing another post this, we’re going to figure out how to fix the verdamnt problem.

The Last of our WBC14 Posts. We Hope.

A vineyard visit, photo courtesy WBC 14.
A vineyard visit, photo courtesy WBC 14.

The Wine Bloggers Conference last July was indeed a rich experience, with good friends to be made, lots of great information and even more wonderful wines. But there was one problem – and we know we’re not the first to point it out. There was a serious lack of women winemakers represented. At a time when it seemed like every winery in the Santa Barbara region had some representation, why were the wineries owned by women mostly absent?

Now, it is possible that Cold Heaven Cellars (owner and winemaker Morgan Clendenen), Riverbench (winemaker Clarissa Nagy), Fiddlehead Cellars (owner and winemaker Kathy Joseph) and Rideau (owned by Iris Rideau) were all asked to participate and for whatever reason couldn’t. Heaven knows, we’ve had the devil’s own time trying to pin Ms. Clendenen down for an interview. It’s also possible that with so much going on, we didn’t see that there was more than the one Fiddlehead bottle at the one lunch floating around. But, even beyond WBC, when panel after panel at wine event after wine event feature nothing but White male winemakers, even when you know there are good women who could be there, you have to wonder what’s going on.

As our colleague and fellow attendee Alison Smith Marriott noted, this isn’t about being cranky and pointing fingers. We do want to acknowledge the excellent #MerlotMe panel that featured Marisa Taylor, winemaker at Rutherford Hill. Nor do we have anything against White guys – heck, Michael is one. Still, what about the local women, one of whom happens to be a woman of color, by the way?

The thing is, we know this kind of exclusion is not intentional or even conscious – and that’s the problem. Winemakers are a very jolly lot and as a rule do not see each other as competition. There’s always room for another winemaker at the table simply because consumers don’t stop drinking Brand A when they discover Brand B. But because the vast majority of winemakers are White males, very often we forget that there are women making fabulous wine, that there are people of color making fabulous wine. It simply doesn’t occur to us to ask.

Well, here at OddBallGrape.com, we’re asking and it is our goal to feature as many women and people of color in the wine biz as possible. We’re not going to ignore the guys – come on, when you’ve got Rick Longoria talking tannins, you don’t turn that down. But we want the emphasis here to be on the under-represented. Because the world isn’t going to remember that winemakers and wine lovers all come in different genders, colors, sizes, whatever, unless some of us who have a voice remind them. Fair enough?

There’s (Finally) an App for That, What We Found at WBC 14

This post is pretty much coming at you from Anne’s voice, since Michael is a Luddite and doesn’t get all that excited about apps and Anne does. The below video is basically a commercial, but it does a lovely job of showing what the app does.

I kind of have to say this upfront, but the timing of this post is our way of entering a contest. That being said, we would not be writing about Quini if we didn’t like it. Because, really, the odds of us winning a contest are pretty much nil. But since we’d be writing about the app anyway, may as well take a shot at that .0000000000001 percent chance of winning.

Frankly, I’ve been pretty skeptical about wine-related apps. We’ve been asked to review several and I haven’t really found any that were truly useful. The vast majority of them want to recommend wines for us and we don’t need recommendations. Plus, when you consider that one of the purposes of this blog is to help you become confident in making your own wine choice, it doesn’t really make sense to encourage using an app to make the choice for you.

But Quini, which was presented at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference, intrigued me from the get-go. It’s designed to help you write your tasting notes by using the visual metaphor of a flower. An easier way to take tasting notes? Now, that is actually useful. It’s a royal PITA trying to take notes on a small pad of paper while holding a wine glass, pen, spit cup and maybe even a camera, which is what we’re up against when we go to these major tasting events. Usually I just sit Michael down in a corner where there’s a table and I run and fetch for him. But that’s not as much fun for him since he can’t talk to the winemakers or whoever’s pouring, assuming the crowds aren’t so heavy we’re both ready to run screaming.

The good news is the app does mostly work as advertised. You enter the basic information on the wine you’re tasting, or pull it up from Quini’s database (which we have yet to do, guess we’re not drinking what everyone else is). Then you Open for Tasting (press the button), and go through the basic elements from color to nose to taste and everything in between. But it’s the way you do it. Beyond the basic data, there’s no typing on a tiny phone keypad, just swiping up and down and back and forth on a colored “petal.” You can also check off various nose and flavor elements.

Keep in mind that we were testing the beta Android version, which just has the basic family of flavor elements, such as floral, woody. While I was playing with the web app, which I suspect reflects the iOS version more closely, tapping a flavor family pulled up more specific elements, like rose and orange blossom under floral and a veritable fruit bowl under the fruity family label.

Quini also has a wish list section, so if there’s something you see in a wine store that intrigues you, but you can’t buy it just then for whatever reason, you can presumably enter the wine there and then when you’re trying to remember what it was, you can pull it up. It can do recommendations, which are based on the wines you review and how you review them, but you don’t have to use it. Or you can. Up to you.

We haven’t tried the actual version, nor have we really put the app through its paces at a major tasting. But we will. We will.