Holiday Wine: A Story of Family

| December 29, 2011

Mine ain’t a family of wine snobs.  That’s not to say my relatives don’t have fantastic taste (they do!), but—as this holiday season has reminded—we all have different criteria when it comes wine.  Dad, for example, enjoys a good drop but he’s also happy drinking wine that has sat open for a week.  Grandfather likes his red, and stocks up according to deep supermarket discounts… Economy is king.  My brother Will—who is alarmingly astute at describing wine—boasts an unfathomable ability to accurately describe then continue drinking anything, whether he says it tastes like burning car fumes or finds it reminiscent of luscious wild summer berries. I get the feeling he practices this dubious talent at college.  Mom doesn’t really drink much at all.

Enter wine-geeky me, fresh off the boat from two years of studying all things wine in Australia, tasting great stuff almost daily with equally geeky friends who can go on for hours about oak, tannin, structure, and minerality.  I openly acknowledge that normal people should not spend 85% of their time, as we wine geeks do, thinking about wine.  But after two years’ absence, I did want to share a little bit of my Australian wine experience with the family.

With my holiday vacation to the USA approaching, I hatched a plan to impress and delight the family while creating a holiday scene that would bring a tear to Norman Rockwell’s eye.  Never mind my expectations were wholly unsuited to the reality of Christmas Dinner as I have experienced in Cleveland, Ohio over the last 2.5 decades.

Here’s how Christmas usually unfolds:  We get stuck into a bottle of something inexpensive and nondescript an hour before dinner.  By the time the roast is on the table, no one feels impelled to crack open a prized bottle.  Never mind that the family’s wide-ranging preferences don’t lend themselves to a guided degustation.  The typical extent of our wine-centered discussion is a debate over the merits of paying $2 versus $50 for something as temporal as 750mL of fermented grape juice.  Never mind the fact that the most likely wine snob candidates in the family (Dad, Aunt, and me) are also the most likely to have polished off two-to-three palate-numbing cocktails before dinner.  So there were challenges.  Darn the naysayers… I had a dream!

I had a vision of a Christmas wine/Sarah’s nostalgia tour like never seen before….

In the late afternoon, we’d pop into Grandfather’s long-hoarded 1990 Moet et Chandon Dom Perignon Brut Champagne Cuvee (Riems, ~$400 auction price).  My brother and I surmise that Grandfather has no idea what gems he’s got in his cellar, and it’s time to start enjoying the wealth.  The evening would then move to the living room and the kitchen as final preparations went into the Christmas meal.  I would open a bottle of 2010 Rustenberg Chardonnay (Stellenbosch, ~$20) from my good friend Murray’s family vineyards in South Africa. The Chardy is sensationally crisp despite its fermentation in oak barrels, and would beautifully accompany either the soft cheeses shared by the fire or the delicious stone crab claws we were mauling with wooden mallets in the kitchen.  The relatives more inclined towards red would tuck into a highly recommended 2009 Joseph Carr Merlot (Napa, ~$20).  She’s a cranberry-bright, juicy little number with enough depth and seriousness to carry us seamlessly into the main meal.

Once at the dinner table, I would share a bottle of 2006 Dutschke ‘Sami’ Cabernet Sauvignon (Barossa Valley, ~$30).  There are few things more satisfying than a brambly, rich Cab with some age on it, and while I intended to set this wine down for a few years, the story of how I came to know Dutschke Wines, its generous proprietor Wayne Dutschke, and his daughter Sami is in many ways the backdrop to the story of my studies in Australia.  With the Dutschke business as example, I would explain to my family how my studies caused me to think differently about the wine industry and the merits of small producers bound to the land of their fathers.  My family would gush about the joys of wines with great stories behind them… and all this would whet their appetites for the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

Then I would present my mom with the first of her wine-related Christmas/Birthday gifts (she benevolently shares her birthday with Jesus), a bottle of 2008 Clos Erasmus ‘Laurel’ (Priorat, ~$45).  This is a wine by preeminent female Spanish winemaker Daphne Glorian, and is an absolute steal by comparison with some of her $150-200 labels.  My mom—whose name is Constance—happened to go to a high school called “Laurel,” hence the gift-connections.  We would round out the meal with birthday cake and another present: Vin de Constance (Constantia, ~$50), one of South Africa’s most famous and historical sweet wines.

Sadly, I can’t tell you what the Vin de Constance tastes like.  I’ve read about orange peel and fig and a delicate balance of sweetness and acidity.  On her Christmas birthday, Mom decided she wants to save the bottle for a special occasion.  This is the problem with giving gifts… you lose your right to open them yourself. As consolation, as my eminently wise little brother pointed out, “Cake goes pretty well with milk.” Grandfather prefers coffee with his dessert anyway.

Truth be told, we didn’t crack into any of my intended bottles on Christmas Night.  Most of them are still lying in my suitcase.  Just like last year and the year before, Dad and I got into the Manhattans and the cheap wine before dinner.  Grandfather (as is custom) asked me to blind-taste two wines under $5 and guess which one was the more expensive.  The stone crab-smashers were too busy with the crab legs to bother with a matching wine.  Mom was fretting over the Yorkshire pudding.  Half the cousins at the meal were under-aged.  When the moment came, even wine-snobby ol’ me didn’t care anymore about drinking the good stuff.

My sentimental epicurean vision overlooked the most salient feature of the traditional family holiday: family tradition.  We have a way of doing Christmas, and it wouldn’t matter if the Angel Gabriel showed up and announced a bottle of 1990 Dom Perignon.

What I did care about, it turns out, was letting the course of family events go as they always have.  The same arguments, the same menu, the same unfancy drinks.  After all, isn’t my family’s tradition what I came halfway around the planet to be part of? There is a time and place for wine-snobbery, but at the holidays, I realized it’s best to simply eat, drink, and be merry… no matter what the drink.  That’s the way we do it at my place, and family would want it no other way.

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Category: Featured Articles: Travel & Culture, Travel & Culture, US & Canada

About the Author (Author Profile)

Never one for rules or boundaries, Sarah was raised in Florida, and educated in New Hampshire. She explored India, South East Asia, Europe, and the USA before running out of money. She did some time in New York earning a regular professional living, then signed on as the cook for a ship that sailed her across the Pacific. She is currently pursuing her dreams and studying wine in Adelaide, South Australia. In addition to sustainable viticulture, the global wine trade, local markets, culinary treats, and sharing good times, Sarah gets a kick out of journaling, hiking, rock climbing, theater, and the occasional game of tennis.

Comments (3)

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  1. Dottie says:

    Love reading it! Love You! Write more………

  2. Bea says:

    You are an accomplished writer and I love reading your “stuff”, but you didn’t mention the wine I make in my kitchen.

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