When I recently found myself sitting down to dinner with a dozenfriends and clients in San Francisco, a town known for its winesophistication, I found myself facing a common challenge among avidwine drinkers. While I knew my dining companions well, I had littleidea of their wine tastes and -- just as importantly -- theirappreciation for wine.
When you are the host, that can be intimidating. While many wouldsimply pick a bottle of red and a bottle of white and let the corksfall where they may, I was very focused on the setting, the mood andthe enjoyment of guests. And, knowing how wine brings me pleasure, Iwanted to extend that enjoyment to my other pals at the table.
So I decided to turn dinner into a wine tasting, an opportunity tosample a number of different wines with different foods. And whatbetter way to make the wine a part of the dinner conversation and givemy friends a chance to discover a wine they liked.
Knowing that one couple had just returned from one of theirfirst trips to the Northern California wine country, I also hoped thatour wine sipping would provide an opportunity for them to share theirimpressions and experiences of that part of the country.
The plan worked beautifully. In all, we shared eight bottlesof wine over the course of a three-hour meal. Not everyone fell in lovewith all of my selections, but the discussion at the table wassurprisingly robust -- from talk of vintages and varietals to moresophisticated observations about how various selections complemented --or hindered -- the meal.
Before we get to the wines that we tasted, here's a cheat sheet on setting up a wine tasting on the fly.
First, size up the crowd. While you may not know your guests'exact wine idiosyncrasies, you probably know enough wines to makerecommendations. A nice, medium-bodied Chardonnay for a white and apinot noir or merlot for a red are always good starters. Watch howpeople react to those wines and ask what people think. My crowd wasvery open about likes and dislikes. And, more importantly, they werevery open-minded about trying new wines and experiences.
Second, study the restaurant's wine list. The more you know ahead oftime, the better. In a setting like this, I like to find wines I knowfor a couple of reasons. Ordering wines I know gives me an idea of whatI'm getting. Moreover, a familiar vineyard gives me plenty to talkabout -- my experiences at the vineyard, what I know about thewinemaker, why I like it, what other wines come from the vineyard andthe like. Those stories led to stories from others about experiences atsimilar vineyards and wines, many of which are now on my list to try.
Third, involve others. While you may not want your guests to pickdirectly from the list if you are concerned about price, I decided toask the couple who just returned from Napa to talk about theirexperiences and their favorite vineyard from the recent trip. One oftheir favorites was Nickel & Nickel, so we sampled one of theirwines at our dinner.
Finally, enjoy the wine and dinner. I was amazed at howengaged everyone became in the discussion about the wine. Moreover, Iwas incredibly pleased that every guest seemed to enjoy the impromptuwine seminar throughout the meal. In fact, one guest said dinner wasmore like an adventure than just a meal.
Exactly what I was hoping for.
The Wines of the Evening
With a red-meat dinner ahead, we were more focused on bold reds thisevening than on whites. But we did start the night with a very tastychardonnay.
The Plumpjack Chardonnay Napa Valley Reserve 2000 is a simpleyet buttery white wine that has just enough hint of fruit to make itfun to drink. It should sell for around $35 a bottle in your local wineshop.
We tasted four reds this evening, all of which I knew well,which helped me pitch the wines to my dining companions. We began theevening with the Dominus Estate Napa Valley 1998. A cabernet sauvignonblend, with a bit of merlot, petite verdot and cabernet franc, the wineis an often overlooked vintage as it is sandwiched between two greatyears, 1997 and 1999. However, it is a solid blend that, while not asbold as earlier vintages, is very smooth and quite approachable. It'savailable in upper-end wine shops for about $80 a bottle.
For the second red, we stepped out a bit and took a chance on the 1987-- yes that's 17 years ago -- Spring Mountain Estate. Mostly cabernetwith just a touch of merlot for blend, this wine is a solid drinkingwine, very smooth to the palate. Very dark in color and, after 15minutes in a decanter, this Spring Mountain offering is indicative ofthis vineyard's ability to produce wines with long shelf lives. Thewine was very approachable, with good fruit flavor and a hint of oak.Interestingly, this wine was the first production for what was a newvineyard planting for the winery. With its age, it's a difficult wineto find, but should be about $70 if you can track it down.
Our third wine was the Nickel & Nickel Cabernet Rock CairnVineyard 2000. The single vineyard offering from the founders of FarNiente is a more earthy Cabernet that pairs well with beef. Earthy andfull-bodied, the wine is best when paired with food. Overall, Nickel& Nickel is one of the most unique vineyards in the Napa Valley andshould be visited by any wine enthusiast that wants to learn more aboutthe subtleties of wine making. You can expect to pay about $70 for thisbottle at most retailers.
We finished the evening with one my favorites, Merryvale'sProfile Napa Valley 2000. While not the best of the Profile vintage,such as the 1999, it nonetheless is enjoyable. Very earthy and complex,it will be fine in your cellar for another year or two, but the petitverdot, cabernet franc and merlot blend isn't meant to be cellared muchlonger. You should be able to find this in most retail stores and somediscount stores for around $60 a bottle.
Now, it's your turn. I want to hear about your wineexperiences and interests. As I continue to write about wine, let meknow what's on your mind. I'd very much like to make this column asmuch an exchange of ideas as a one-sided conversation. After all, wineis a lot more enjoyable if you have someone to enjoy with.
Please, send me an emailwith your wine questions, stories, experiences or anything else thatseems relevant to this magical beverage. I'll use your ideas as thefoundation for future columns as well as answer your questions as bestI can.