What to pour this holiday season (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)
If you're lucky enough to have a sommelier as a friend, son, sister, nephew or niece, I think it's a safe bet that your holiday libations are a step up from the rest of us. Any well-selected bottle will add a glow to holiday parties and gatherings, uplifting spirits and stimulating conversation. But with sommeliers involved, occasions can be all the more memorable. The reason? It's the simple fact that sommeliers love to share wine even more than they love wine itself, and what better occasion than the holidays? So we asked a handful of area wine experts what their plans were, and what they planned to serve.
Hatfield's general manager Peter Birmingham typically throws at least one small dinner party with friends this time of year. Often his guests include other restaurant orphans who can't break away from the service floor for a prolonged home visit.
Traditionally he starts such parties with bubbles, although this year will be a variation on the theme: a classic Spritz, a Venetian cocktail made with Prosecco, blood orange juice, and a splash of Aperol, the orange-scented Italian aperitif. Times being what they are, his wine selections will be a bit modest this year, but no less satisfying for it. He'll pour two crowd-pleasing French wines: a traditional Beaujolais by Domaine du Vissoux (about $17) from the superb 2009 vintage; and a Pinot Auxerrois from Alsatian producer Albert Mann (about $18). Auxerrois is a fairly obscure white varietal grown almost exclusively in Alsace, with fresh, mineral Pinot Gris-like flavors.
Both wines, Birmingham points out, are biodynamic, which to his mind brings out an added liveliness. "The fruit is so vibrant in both of these wines," he says. "They really have the power to lift the conversation — it's like dosing everybody with low levels of giddiness."
To a disproportionate degree, sommeliers are invited to potluck dinners, for the obvious reason that they can be relied on to contribute something really good to drink. Jason Hardy, GM at the Lazy Ox Canteen, is an old hand at the practice. "I like to do things in little waves," he says, "and a lot of my friends are in the business, so each wave has to be pretty special." This year that means starting with a round of beer, the Single Hop Centennial IPA from the Danish artisanal brewer Mikkeller (about $6 a bottle). Malty and honeyed, this limited selection bears a festive, seasonally apt topnote of nutmeg and pine needles.
As for the wines, Hardy loves to bring bottles that tell a story, such as the Cantina Valle Isarco Kerner (about $20) from Italy's Alto Adige, a racy white varietal hybrid of Riesling and Trollinger that gets its name from a poet revered in Germany for his drinking songs. For the red, Hardy plans to bring a Plavac Mali from the Dingac estate (about $12), a meaty ringer for zinfandel grown on the Dalmatian coast, in an estate vineyard so rocky and treacherous that all work is done with donkeys. "That's a story worth telling at the table," he says.
If the party goes long into the evening, it just may have to conclude with cigars. "A friend of mine is in charge of the smokes," says Hardy, "but I bring the bourbon." His current favorite: the small batch Tuthilltown Hudson Baby Bourbon (about $50), made from New York cornmash with a smooth and subtle frame of vanillin that can seduce even bourbon beginners.
Dana Farner, the sommelier at Cut, and her wife, Melissa Denton, are both Midwesterners — Farner is from North Dakota, Denton from South Dakota. Both were raised with staunchly held beliefs on the importance of Christmas cookies. "Not just some cookies," says Farner. "You had to have towers of Tupperware full of cookies, or it wasn't really Christmas."
Last year, when Farner and Denton decided to throw their first holiday cookie party, 60 friends showed up — apparently L.A. is full of expat Midwesterners yearning to fill a similar void. Each brought two-dozen cookies — that's approaching 1,500, if you're keeping track.
For the party Farner decided on punch, something cheery and simple — and red. After some research in old cocktail books she came up with a variation of the Chicago Fizz that she dubbed "The Holiday Cheer," a blend of white rum, lemon juice, to which she added ruby Port (which turned it a brilliant crimson), and a portion of simple syrup infused with cardamom — all poured over seltzer. It had the sweetness to pair with cookies, says Farner, and plenty of Christmas cheer. "The cardamom gives it a Christmas-ey spice," she says, "and works so well with the gingerbread."