Going to a friend’s house for dinner? Be sure to bring the right bottle!

Wine Country 068

     As I was sitting down to post the latest installment of WWG, my thought was to focus on some interesting white wines I have recently tasted that are truly made for the changing of the season. But just as I got started, my friend emailed me with a request to write a blog that would help him choose an appropriate wine to bring to someone’s house when invited over for dinner. I thought this was a great idea and needed to be addressed ASAP, as I know it is a common dilemma. So the blog on Fall and Winter Whites will just have to wait….

     First off, you DO NOT need to spend a lot of money to get a really nice bottle. There are those in the wine world that believe the more expensive the bottle, the better the wine. Nonsense! That is not to say that very expensive wines are not good, most of them are delicious. But a lot of times you are paying for the name brand, or the rarity of the wine.

     Many wine shops will carry some of their own labels that you can’t really find anywhere else. They are typically wines that are made at some of the better known wineries in California, but instead of bottling it, the wineries sell it to a secondary label. By grabbing some of these lesser known brands, you are getting good quality fruit without having to pay the price for the name.  Each store has their own gems so ask your local merchant if they have any wines they carry exclusively. I know the Bottle King chain throughout NJ has a few (Dickson Mills Cab and Chard being my favorites), and Zachy’s in Scarsdale has the Bookster label which has solid wines across the board.

     So I guess my first point is not to buy something just because it is expensive. If you know that your hosts are fans of a particular wine, and they are of the belief that more expensive is better, than by all means grab a bottle of Silver Oak, Cakebread or Caymus Cabernet. You won’t go wrong. But if you would rather reach for something on the value side, try bringing the Artesa Cabernet or the Justin Winery Cabernet from Paso Robles. If you look at the wine magazine ratings, a lot of these less expensive wines are rated higher than the big dogs anyway!

     Another good tip is to bring a wine that you know your hosts enjoy or can connect with. If your friend is a fan of the Kendall Jackson Chardonnay, which is one of the most popular around (and a great go to wine), try bringing something similar she may have not tried before, like the Chateau St. Jean Sonoma Chardonnay. Or maybe your host and hostess just got back from a vacation in Italy. So a Chianti Classico or a Super Tuscan (a red blend usually consisting of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot grapes) may help remind them of their trip, and it shows that you’ve actually been listening to their stories.

    I also like to try and bring wines that come from the hosts family’s country of origin.  It works out wonderfully for those whose families come from Spain, France, Italy, Argentina or Hungary. My wife’s parents both came over from Hungary, so I tried to bring over Tokaji, some of the best white desert wine made in the world, as much as possible! Since it tends to carry a bit of a hefty price tag however,  it’s now more for special occasions.  Beware….if you are visiting friends of Irish or English descent, you may want to avoid this strategy unless you’re bringing over beer (which could also work out well!!).

     Lastly, try and bring something that you know YOU would enjoy drinking. Many hosts will open up the wines that people bring as gifts. It’s not a rule, but unless they have some sort of a collection or have fully stocked up for the evening, chances are that your wine will be served. So go with something at least from an area that you are familiar with so you can be confident it will be enjoyable and won’t disappoint.

     It is difficult to put together a list of what to bring as there are so many different variables involved. But below I have tried to put together some options based on different varietals (the grape used for producing the wine i.e. Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, etc) , prices and wines that are readily available at most wine shops. I also want to add that if you ever are looking for a specific recommendation, idea, or just have a general question about wine, feel free to post a comment. I check this blog often and will be able to respond pretty quickly most of the time. Salute!

WINERIES THAT HAVE GREAT VALUE WINES ACROSS THE BOARD:

Columbia Crest, Beringer, Artesa, Kendall Jackson, King Estate, Geyser Peak, Castle Rock, Barton and Guestier (B & G), Banfi, Veramonte, Wolf Blass and Peter Lehman.

 SPARKLING WINE/CHAMPAGNE

Under $15

Gruet Brut and Brut Rose (New Mexico….Really it is from New Mexico and delicious!!)

Korbel Brut Rose (California)

Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut (Spain)

La Marca Prosecco (Italy)

$16-$30

Mumm Cuvee Napa Brut ( California….don’t let the Meet the Parents stigma fool you)

J Brut Rose and Cuvee 20 Brut (California)

Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut and Rose (California….the Rose got 93 Pts from Spectator)

$31 and up

Basically any Champagne you pick out above this price will be delicious, a few of my favorites are Piper-Heidsieck, Veuve Clicquot, Henriot Brut Souverain, Nicolas Feuillatte and the Moet and Chandon family of Champagnes.

 WHITES

Under $15

King Estate Pinot Gris (Oregon)

Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc/Viogner (California)

Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay (Washington)

Brancott Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand….Marlborough great area for Sauvignon Blanc in general).

Zenato Pinot Grigio (Italy)

$16-30

Cambria Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay (California….one of my new favorites)

Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc (California)

Pio Cesare Cortese Di Gavi (Italy)

Louis Latour Chassagne Montrachet (France)

Dr. Konstantin Frank Riesling (New York)

$31 and up

Mer Soleil Chardonnay (California)

Far Niente Chardonnay (California)

E. Guigal Condrieu (France)

Joseph Drouhin Mersault (France)

Cloudy Bay Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand)

 REDS

Under $15

Louis M Martini Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon (California….all their Cabs are great)

Angeline Pinot Noir (California)

Columbia Crest H3 Merlot (Washington)

Banfi Centine (Italy…great Super Tuscan value)

Delas Cotes Du Ventoux (France)

Bodegas Hijos de Juan Gil (Spain)

$16-30

Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet (California)

Cambria Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir (California)

Whitehall Lane Merlot (California)

Tenuta Dell Ornellaia Le Volte (Italy…2nd label from one of best wineries in Italy)

Chateau de Clairefont Margaux (France)

Mollydooker The Boxer Shiraz (Australia….great boutique winery)

$31 and up

Ruffino Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale Gold Label (Italy)

The Prisoner from Orin Swift (California….amazing Zin/Syrah blend)

D’Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz (Australia)

Turley Zinfandel (California…there are many different vineyards….ALL excellent!)

Chateau La Nerthe Chateauneuf du Pape (France)

Archery Summit Pinot Noir (Oregon…again, there are a few different vineyards, but all are great depending on what you want to spend)

Ordering Wine at a Restaurant 101

Wine Country 084

     Does this sound familiar…. It’s Friday night after a hell of a long week. You have plans to meet some friends at a new restaurant that you have been looking forward to since LAST Friday. You get to the restaurant, everyone goes through the standard greeting ritual and you all sit at the table. The consensus is that everyone is drinking wine tonight and selects you to pick it out for the crew. The waiter hands you the wine list which weighs about 40 lbs and appears to be written in Sanskrit! With everyone waiting for you to choose something so they can start drinking already, (they have all had tough weeks too you know) you start to feel the pressure….what the hell should I order?!?!  

     I think most of us have been in this situation before. Well, maybe not in that exact scenario, but have looked at a wine list and not had a clue of what to order. You want to get something tasty that will go with whatever you decide to order, but don’t want to have to take out a second mortgage on it!  Not to fear, there are a few tricks to keep it simple, reasonable and will ensure you get something that you, and everyone involved, will enjoy.

1. Try not to order the absolute cheapest bottle on the list (unless it is something you are familiar with and know you will like). In terms of value, typically the least expensive bottle of wine on the list is a house wine of that restaurant. That means they are buying tons of it and are probably marking it up more per bottle than others. It is a money maker for them, but typically by spending just a bit more, and going with the second or third least expensive bottle, you will get a little more bang for your buck.

 2.  Consider what a bottle would cost you in a store and double it. Restaurants usually mark up wine about 3 times what you would pay for it in a store. In really expensive restaurants, especially steakhouses, it can be as high as 4 or 5 times! So if you see something on a wine list that runs about double what you get it for in your local wine shop, go for it! It probably means the restaurant got a deal from the distributor which works out for everyone.

 3.  Don’t worry so much about pairing, order the type of wine you know you like. More and more, there are articles being written about non traditional pairings being a fun way to go….and I fully agree. For example, if you are going to order seafood, traditionally you want to go with a light, crisp white like a Sauvignon Blanc. Similarly, if you are planning on having a fat, juicy steak, most people will order a nice Cabernet. But if you see your favorite Pinot Noir or Chardonnay on the wine list at a good price, don’t be afraid to have that with your tuna. The same goes for drinking a big, fruit forward Syrah or Red Zin with your NY Strip. The more different pairings you try, the more you will open your mind and palate to new experiences.

 4. If you trust your server…..get an opinion! Depending on the restaurant, most servers should be well versed regarding the wine list and have probably tasted most of the wines on it. If you have talked a little with your server and are getting a good vibe that he has a handle on things, ask him what he likes on the value side. If he points out the most expensive wine on the list, then you may not be the best judge of servers and that should be the last thing you ask him all night.

 5. Bubbles….not just for New Year’s Eve anymore. When you first sit down and want to take some time to really go through the wine list, just order up some bubbles. I say bubbles and not Champagne as Champagne tends to be a bit pricey at a restaurant. But there is some really tasty sparkling  juice coming out of California, Italy (Prosecco) and Spain (Cava) that is a great, less expensive option compared to the French stuff. It’s a fun way to start a meal as it can act as an aperitif and open up your appetite, and can also get everyone happy in a hurry.

     Below are a few examples of some great wine list values that I have found recently. If you have discovered any of your own, I am sure we would all love to hear about it!

 Crabtree’s Kittle House, Chappaqua, NYSeghesio Old Vines Zinfandel 1999 – $35

 They have a tremendous wine list and a great temperature controlled wine cellar with tons of older vintages at great values. It can be a bit overwhelming, so you should certainly pick the sommelier’s brain at this Westchester landmark restaurant. This wine, in its current vintage, runs about $30-35 in the store!!

 The TapHouse, Tuckahoe, NYParaiso Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara – $38

Located right across from the Tuckahoe train station, this upscale gastropub has an extensive wine and beer list at extremely reasonable prices. They carry Paraiso’s Pinot for only about double what you would pay in a store. For the best deals hit their Sunday brunch when all bottles are half price!!

 Haiku, White Plains, NYVeramonte, Primus – $36

This Japanese/Sushi chain (there are 4 other locations) has a great city feel, extremely fresh, well crafted sushi and a value packed wine list. This Chilean red blend pairs nicely with the heartier sushi options as well as the numerous beef dishes on the menu.

 Underhills Crossing, Bronxville, NYRosenblum Annette’s Reserve Zinfandel – $50       

The value on this wine list lies in the higher end bottles. This Zin runs about $28 in the store and is full of dark fruit, vanilla and spice, yet is very complex and structured. If you’re feeling a little saucy, they also carry the Far Niente Oakville Cabernet for around $140. While that is obviously not cheap, that bottle would run close to $100 or more in a store and is not easy to come by. It is hands down one of the best wines to come out of Napa.