Yes, I know, this is Train Wreck: Dysfunctional corporate behavior. But hey, there's a time and a place for everything. And the holidays aren't about blogs, they're about family, friends, food, and of course, drink.
Wine is a complex subject that can be intimidating for novices. It takes years to really know what you're doing just with American wines, let alone those from France, Italy, Australia, and everywhere else. If you want to learn enough to buy or order good wine but don't know where to start, you're in the right place.
Years ago I wrote a column called Tobak's great wine for techies. It's timeless stuff. Click on this link and you can read the archives. You'll find articles that will teach you everything you need to know to get started with wine.
In the meantime, here's a quick tutorial on wines and wine merchants to get you through the holidays. Enjoy.
In general, wines that pair best with holiday meals--like turkey, ham and the like--are relatively lighter reds that won't overpower the food. Heartier whites work well, too. Pinot Noir is a great choice for red wine because it's very food friendly. Pinots do vary quite a bit--many are actually quite big and robust--but you can't really go wrong with a good one.
Some of my favorite American Pinot Noir producers are Acacia, Archery Summit, Au Bon Climat, David Bruce, Calera, Chalone, Dehlinger, Domaine Drouhin, Etude, Gary Farrell, Kistler, Rochioli, Saintsbury, Sanford, Testarossa, Thomas Fogarty, and Williams Selyem. French red Burgundy is also made from the Pinot Noir grape.
Some of the best red wines in the world come from Italy, and so does another food-friendly, versatile red: Chianti or Chianti Classico. American Sangiovese is the same thing, although in a different style (Sangiovese is the actual name of the grape). Brunello is also made from Sangiovese, but it's typically more heavily oaked. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a very good and reasonably priced Sangiovese. Try Avignonesi--a great producer. Barolos are also great reds that pair well with a wide variety of food.
Be aware that most of these manufacturers offer wines that range in price from the low teens to $50 and up. Buy what fits your price range until you can visit a few of these wineries and do some tasting. When you go tasting, it's always best to do it with someone with better tasting skills than you have. You'll learn more.
Chardonnays are relatively big, versatile whites that go with a wide variety of foods. Some of my favorite producers are: Arrowood, Au Bon Climat, Chalk Hill, Chalone, Chateau Montelena, Chateau St. Jean, Dehlinger, Ferrari-Carano, Grgich Hills, Kistler, Gary Farrell, Matanzas Creek, Merryvale, Newton, Patz & Hall, Pine Ridge, Qupe, Ridge, Rochioli, Rombauer, Saintsbury, and Testarossa. French white Burgundy is also made from the Chardonnay grape.
Another versatile white is Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris (same thing). Etude makes a great Pinot Gris; Au Bon Climat makes a good Pinot Gris / Pinot Blanc blend; and there are quite a number of producers in Oregon and Italy. I also like Grenache Blanc and other whites from Spain. K&L Wine Merchants has a nice selection. Experiment a little.
Sauvignon Blanc is sharp and citrusy and goes well with seafood and other light cuisine. My favorite American producers are Matanzas Creek, Rochioli, and Kathryn Kennedy. The world's best Sauvignon Blancs may come from New Zealand's Marlborough region. Try Cloudy Bay--good stuff.
Every year there's a big fuss about Beaujolais Nouveau, which is a quick-fermented version of the Gamay grape that's released on the third Thursday of November. It's a very light red and can be served chilled. I'm not a huge fan. I love Rosés in the summer, but I'd rather go with a light Pinot Noir this time of year.
In case you're wondering about heavier reds, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and other Bordeaux-style wines; they go better with heavier foods, like beef and lamb. They're also excellent without food and with chocolate. I also give these as holiday gifts, since they're the most age-worthy and widely accepted reds in America, for better or worse.
Speaking of dessert, I like sweet Rieslings from Germany; Icewine or Eiswein, also typically from Germany or Canada; and French Sauternes. Mondavi makes a low-cost Muscat that's quite good, and Bonny Doon makes several popular dessert wines. All these wines pair well with a wide variety of desserts, especially pumpkin and apple pies.
In my opinion, the three best West Coast wine merchants--for both online and brick and mortar sales--are:
If you happen to be in the Bay Area, you can stroll into any of these places and they'll take you by the hand and take care of you. They'll even shop for you. Folks in the wine industry are generally very helpful.
Absolutely the best online search engine / resource for wine is: www.wine-searcher.com. It's also the best way to find wine merchants in your area. Check it out.
FYI, these merchants and those that come up in the search engine will typically have about the best prices you can get for good wine. With rare exception, you will pay more at supermarkets and liquor stores, although Costco and Sam's have good pricing for the limited wines they carry.
If you like this stuff and want to learn more, check out the archives. And, as always, enjoy your wine responsibly--don't drink and drive! Happy holidays.