Anniversary Bottle: Santa Barbara's Chuck’s Steakhouse Celebrates 50 with Local Syrah

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 2/16/17


You could say that the syrah Brad Schuette is pouring these days was 50 years in the making.

“I’m telling our staff and guests that it pairs perfectly with our Teriyaki Ribeye,” says the general manager and head bartender at Chuck’s of Hawaii Steakhouse in Santa Barbara.  The 11-ounce piece of prime beef, marinated in tangy-sweet house made teriyaki sauce and charbroiled to order, is one of Chuck’s hottest dinner items.  “The wine has all the varietal character it needs to stand up to the steak.”

The wine is a 2014 syrah by renowned vintner Fred Brander and Brander Vineyards winemaker Fabian Bravo.  The fruit for this all-syrah bottling came from the legendary Zaca Mesa vineyard in Foxen Canyon, and the wine spent 14 months in American oak barrels.  It is a delicious syrah – a nice balance of fruit and earth that makes it especially well-suited to pretty much any protein on the Chuck’s menu, whether it’s the eight-ounce filet mignon, the 12-oz. prime top sirloin or the 18-oz. center cut T-Bone.  Ripe berries and black cherries upfront and mid-palate give way to smoky vanilla flavors and elegant tannins.

The wine’s merits aside, what makes it special for Schuette and his team is what it celebrates.  This is the official bottle marking Chuck’s 50th anniversary, a remarkable milestone in a foodie-friendly town where few eateries survive the test of time.  A lot of that has to do with the Chuck’s philosophy, which rings as true today as when Larry Stone opened its doors on Upper State Street back in 1967: quality steaks in a casual setting.  The people who’ve clocked in here over the decades have much to do with Chuck’s success, too. 

Schuette has worked at Chuck’s for a whopping 37 years.  A legend of Santa Barbara’s culinary scene, you could say.  And someone who keeps his clientele foremost in mind when putting together Chuck’s wine list.

“I’ve got people who come in here and want a glass of red whatever, and then there are others who want something specific and high end,” says Schuette.  “I want to be able to take care of both.”

At Chuck's 50th Anniversary party w/Larry Stone & Steve Hyslop

Schuette recalls that Chuck’s started to get serious about wine in the mid-1980’s, an effort driven by Stone’s business partner, Steve Hyslop.  Investment in equipment, like temperature-controlled units and nitrogen preserver-dispensers, allowed the wine-by-the-glass to flourish.  Santa Barbara’s wine industry has blossomed simultaneously in the 20-or-so years since, giving Schuette plenty more to choose from.  “I always prefer to do local stuff,” he says, “although I have a little bit of everything.

Many of Scheutte’s choices are personal, driven by his friendships with winemakers and wine reps who come to Chuck’s for dinner often.  The Jalama Canyon Ranch pinot, for example, is the pet project of vintner Wayne Siemens, a regular.  The only California tempranillo on the list is by Rick Longoria, who supped here just last week.  And the Cloud’s Rest Femme Fatale pinot out of Sonoma is a venture by Schuette’s brother, Scott.  Local labels like Fess Parker, Summerland, Au Bon Climat, Qupe and Margerum are complemented by Northern California whites and reds by labels like Stags Leap, Caymus, Rombauer, Duckhorn and Opus One.

Brander, a local pioneer who just celebrated his own 40th anniversary making wine in Los Olivos, makes several appearances on the Chuck’s wine list.  The sauvignon blanc and the reserve cabernet are top sellers.  But it’s Brander's latest syrah that’ll likely get the most play this milestone year.  “We’ll be coming up with a variety of specials to promote the wine throughout the year,” Scuhette tells me.

Currently, the 50th Anniversary Chuck’s Syrah sells by the glass for $9.50 and by the bottle – along with two limited edition golden anniversary logo glasses – for $50.

Chuck’s of Hawaii Steakhouse, 3888 State Street, Santa Barbara.  805-687-4417. www.chucksofhawaii.com.

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In the Mood for Merlot? One Santa Barbara Winery is Banking on It

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 1/19/17



The long-lasting effects of Sideways on the Santa Barbara wine industry are well documented.  The Oscar winning comedy from 2004 romanced pinot noir while delivering a blow to merlot.  Pioneer vintner Louie Lucas, who’s been growing wine grapes for close to five decades, saw it happen first hand.

“Merlot got a bad rap in that movie,” he says.  “Merlot became tough to sell, and California vineyards went ahead and removed 25,000 acres of merlot by either grafting or replanting.”  Lucas & Lewellen – the winery that Lucas started with retired Superior Court Judge Royce Lewellen in 1996 – took a cue from Sideways and beefed up its pinot production, too.

But Lucas is putting the spotlight back on merlot now, in part because “it’s definitely making a comeback” with consumers.  He’s putting his money where his mouth is, in fact, having just released a 2014 merlot he calls “Judge’s Reserve.”  At $58 a bottle, it’s the priciest wine in the Lucas & Lewellen portfolio.  And based on club members’ reaction to barrel samples early on, it’s the first wine the winery has ever pre-sold.  “We sold 50 cases while the wine was still in barrel,” Lucas says.

The Judge’s Reserve, an homage to Lucas’ longtime friend and business partner, marks the renowned grower’s “renewed interest in merlot.”  It’s a new focus that goes beyond an uptick in consumer attention, though, and one that emerged straight from the vine.  

“I was driving around vineyard in 2014 and saw a spot I really liked,” Lucas recounts.  “It was exceptional – grape maturity, uniformity of the vines, the flavors were great.”  The block, growing by a creek and in clay soils speckled with rocks, reminded Lucas a lot of Petrus, the famed Bordeaux producer whose legendary wine, like the Judge’s Reserve, is 100% merlot.  And the vineyard’s location in mild, marine-kissed Los Alamos – a valley many might consider too cool to grow optimum merlot – smacks of Bordeaux, too, where merlot accounts for 60% of vines.

“People these days are growing merlot where it’s way too hot – merlot does not like it where’s it’s too hot,” insists Lucas, who grows 15 acres of merlot across three different Los Alamos Valley properties.  “Sure, the heat gets you a nice red wine, but you can’t tell it’s merlot.  And the world is full of ordinary red wine.”

Lucas & Lewellen's Los Alamos property
The grapes for the 2014 Judge’s Reserve ripened slowly and fully.  They were handled separately from the rest of the merlot harvest and treated to two years in high-end French barrels.  The wine, made by Megan McGrath Gates and with plenty of aging potential for years to come, is plump, curvy and intense.  It’s inky dark, and the flavors are a mouth-filling amalgam of dark berries, vanilla and earth.  A real pleasure.  “I’m so happy it turned out unique,” says Lucas.  Only 191 cases were made.

Lucas & Lewellen, which grows 24 grape varieties throughout Santa Barbara County, also sells a Santa Barbara County merlot for $24.  For more information and to nab your own bottles of the Judge’s Reserve go to www.llwine.com.

The bigger picture takeaway here, of course, speaks to Santa Barbara’s still-budding potential for growing quality Bordeaux wines like merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and malbec.  (Lucas has a new carmenere program in the works, too).  The secret is in the setting – perfect pockets where these grapes will get whatever it is they need to blossom into exceptional fruit.  Most of the attention locally is driven by heat, in areas like Happy Canyon, Los Olivos and Santa Ynez – warmth allows these grapes to develop, ripen and mature all the way.  In that sense, Lucas’ discovery in a cooler area like Los Alamos bucks consensus. 

But site, and whatever magic it imparts, often trumps consensus.  The proof is in the bottle.

And now that you’re in the merlot mood, also try Brander’s 2015 Los Olivos District Merlot (I’ve seen some wine shops selling it for less than $20), as well as merlots by Gainey, Sunstone and Baehner-Fournier.


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Curti’s Comeback: Popular Chef Launches New Restaurant in Solvang

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Tenley Fohl, Tenley Fohl Photography
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 1/5/17

When Leonardo Curti launches his new restaurant later this month, he’ll be opening his doors to plenty of expectation.  And he’s well aware of that. (UPDATE: Leonardo's opened for business on January 18th!)

Chef Leonardo Curti
“Your customers get used to the flavors you create,” he says.

For almost 20 years, inside a buzzy dining spot in dusty downtown Santa Ynez called Trattoria Grappolo, Chef Leonardo Curti made a name for himself.  The restaurant he co-founded in 1997 was known as one of the best in the county and, for a long time, by far the best Italian place to eat in the Santa Ynez Valley.  Over the years, Mr. Curti padded his rising star status with occasional TV stints with the likes of Giada De Laurentiis, and he authored three popular cookbooks.

But earlier this year, “it was just time,” Mr. Curti says, and he sold his interest in Grappolo to set his sights on something new.  He cast out a wide net: “I called every restaurant in town to see if anyone would sell, or if they needed someone to work,” recalls Mr. Curti, who spent several months in the kitchen of Mad & Vin at Solvang’s new Landsby Hotel.   But it was finding just the right location inside the Nielsen Shopping Center in Solvang – “It’s the heart of the Valley, in the middle of everything,” he says – that pushed Mr. Curti to launch his own restaurant anew.

“And now we’re going to have the old Leonardo back,” he says, enthusiastically.  “I’ll be able to spread my wings and do my creations as a chef once again.”

Leonardo’s Ristorante will begin welcoming customers on January 18th, and the fact opening day happens to fall on Mr. Curti’s birthday is fitting.  This is, after all, a very personal venture, inspired by this Calabria native’s own traditional roots (his culinary training began alongside his grandfather at age six) and by his relentless need for “a taste of home” (at his Buellton residence, he replaced the front lawn with olive and cypress trees and a sangiovese vineyard). 

The main attraction will likely be the exhibition kitchen that’s been built right in the middle of the 50-seat restaurant.  The voyeuristic perks for diners abound, to be sure, but this is a setup that fits Chef Curti’s outgoing, engaging personality well.  “You can almost hear the customer ordering the food, you can see who’s coming in the door, you see people reacting to your food” says the chef, who envisions a system where orders are shouted out to the kitchen, or announced, rather than written down or entered into a computer.

The exhibition kitchen and imported pizza oven at Leonardo's

The centerpiece kitchen will also feature a pizza oven, which arrived from Italy just last week.  The commercial grade oven is traditionally Neapolitan, with a semicircle brick dome shape and dual gas and wood-burning options to provide both functionality and experience.  “You can see the guy flipping the pizza in the air right in front of you,” the chef says.

The Leonardo’s menu will also include traditional renditions of fish, steak and veal that are driven by ingredients that are locally and seasonally available.  Here, Chef Curti will depend on relationahips with purveyors that he’s been cultivating for decades – Jordanno’s, The Berry Man, All Itallia Imports, Universal Seafood – and relationships he continues to keep person-to-person.  “I don’t need a computer form to order my food,” he insists, in his genuine Italian accent.  “I can find info online myself, but I like the relationship, when the salesman comes over and we just talk.  Come one, we’re ordering food.  I’d like to talk to a person!”

That conversational approach has always defined Chef Curti’s rapport with his clientele, too.  “A customer is like a friend coming to your house – you have to make them feel welcome, not just like someone who pays a bill,” he says.  In fact, Mr. Curti is training his staff to get to know repeat clients: where they like to sit, what they like to eat.  “It takes a few tries, it takes time,” he admits, “but as soon as they come in, customers have to feel good.”

Chef’s chattiness extends to the kitchen, too, where Mr. Curti is not too shy to admit, colorfully, that he talks to his food.  “You speak love to the pizza, it makes it perfect,” he says.  “Every single ingredient adds its part.  It’s not just pepperoni or just tomatoes.  It’s not just a round disc with ingredients.  Pasta sauce on its own is basic, but you put it on the plate and it becomes part of something.  So you have to talk to it, like it’s alive.  You have to create a relationship with the food you’re making.”

Chef Curti has shown his hand to reveal some of his upcoming dishes.  Like the Pizza Cent’Anni, with mozzarella, ricotta and parmigiana cheeses, arugula, spinach, prosciutto “and an egg yolk on top.”  A bagel-inspired pizza will feature mozzarella, craime fraiche, salmon, caviar and green chives.  The traditional Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe will come with fresh-ground pepper and plenty of pecorino Romano cheese.  And the dessert bamboloni – stretched out pizza dough that’s shaped and deep fried – will be sprinkled with sugar and served with vanilla and chocolate sauces for dipping.

The chef is also giving himself plenty of creative leeway.  He says the “Leonardo’s” name also doubles as homage to Leonardo da Vinci, a genius whose many talents included cooking and developing forward-looking rules of restaurant etiquette.  “So why not be traditional but also creative? Why serve lasagna always in layers, why not as a roll?” muses the chef.  Mr. Curti will also launch a menu he dubs Aficionado, inspired by five friends who’ve been Monday night regulars for years and who always order whatever Mr. Curti wants to whip up on the spot.  “It’ll be a menu on the wall, with unique dishes,” he says, that expose clients to new flavors and offer the chef creative license.

The wine list at Leonardo’s is still a work in progress but will be heavily focused on Santa Barbara, with a few imported Italian labels.  It’s being put together by Mr. Curti himself, who insists, “It has to be representative of this region we’re in.”

Leonardo’s Ristorante, 606 Alamo Pintado Rd., Solvang.


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Holy Spirit: SoCal Winery is Major Sacramental Wine Producer

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/22/16
images courtesy of San Antonio Winery

When Father Lawrence Seyer led a wine tasting last month, he was on a mission.

The parish council at Montecito’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, tasked with choosing a new sacramental wine, sipped through options from three producers.  Some were too sweet.  “More like a sherry,” says Father Seyer, who, for practical reasons, was actually leaning toward a rosé.  “I’ve always thought a lighter wine makes it easier to clean the purificator.”  That’s the white linen cloth used to wipe down the wine chalice during and after a Catholic service.

But in the end, “San Antonio Winery won,” says the parish’s new reverend, “and the council went with the red, because the color best resembles the blood of Christ.”

The relevance of wine for the Catholic Church, as well as for several other Christian denominations, is well known.  “We can look at it in two dimensions,” Father Seyer explains.  “The ritual of sacrifice, for one, as well as a reminder of the last supper Christ had with his apostles.”  During a Catholic service, it’s with a priest’s blessing, known as the consecration, that wine is symbolically transformed to represent the blood shed by Jesus during His crucifixion.

This iconic sacrament dates back 2000 years, of course.  And for San Antonio Winery, it has been an important element in its portfolio from the beginning.

“Making sacramental wine is what allowed us to survive Prohibition,” says Anthony Riboli, fourth generation winemaker at San Antonio, whose great-great uncle, Santo Cambianica, an Italian immigrant and devout Catholic, founded the winery in downtown L.A. in 1917.  Saint Anthony of Padua was his patron saint.

A frightening Prohibition sight: lawmen ordering wine be dumped!
Prohibition, the constitutional sanction on the production and sale of alcohol that stayed in place from 1920 to 1933, decimated Los Angeles’ flourishing wine industry.  “About 100 wineries existed here before the ban, but there were only about 10 after,” Riboli tells me.  Thanks to Cambianica’s strong ties to the Church, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles exempted San Antonio and allowed it to continue to make altar wine during the ban.  The winery not only survived Prohibition, it emerged from the restrictive injunction as a prominent California winemaker.

A century after its launch, what is L.A.‘s oldest winery remains a major player.  The original downtown winemaking facility, a designated cultural monument, remains at its original Lamar Street location.  There’s a tasting room in Ontario, too, and a state-of-the-art production facility and visitor center in Paso Robles.  The company’s estate vineyards stretch from Napa to Monterey to Paso.  Its brands – more than a dozen labels – include Italian imports, popular products like Stella Rosa and upscale bottlings like San Simeon and Riboli Family Wine Estates.  Anthony Riboli, a UCSB grad who joined the family business in 1998, is one of three lead winemakers.  And even his grandfather Stefano, who emigrated from Italy in 1936 to ultimately take over the family business, and who just turned 94, is still calling the shots.

San Antonio Winery's original downtown L.A. façade
On the sacramental front, San Antonio Winery remains an industry leader.  The pious products sell to various denominations, including Lutheran and Episcopalian, although Catholics remain its biggest buyers around the world.

“The key to altar wine is consistency – they’re typically slightly sweet,” Riboli tells me.  “But a priest can use any wine he wishes and they’ll typically find a style that fits their comfort zone, or that their parishioners like.”

San Antonio Winery's downtown L.A. façade today
To that end, San Antonio offers four options: a light muscat, a rosé and a red, all around 12% alcohol, as well as a fortified 18% alcohol wine called Angelica.  The wines carry a California appellation; grapes are sourced from Central Valley vineyards near Fresno and Bakersfield, mainly, because warmer weather yields natural sweetness.  And the wines are non-vintage, “allowing us to do blends from year to year to guarantee a consistent style.”

Riboli admits that sacramental wines are distinct from their higher-end counterparts geared toward serious drinkers and collectors.  The lighter, fresher, fruitier style does have a secular audience, though; the wines are often sold over-the-counter at the downtown L.A. tasting room.  And the wines remain “a very important part of what we do,” Riboli adds.

At Our Lady of Mount Carmel, one of the 305 churches in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, orders of sacramental wine are placed by the case on a quarterly basis.  Though many churches serve it at every mass, the Montecito church only offers it on Sundays, during the 10am mass.  And while most every parishioner accepts the Eucharist during Communion, many opt out of sipping from the shared chalice.

Demand for the wine is likely to go up this Sunday, though; after all, we pretty good Catholics always become really good Catholics on Christmas.

For more information on San Antonio Winery, including on the various events to celebrate its centennial throughout 2017, check out www.sanantoniowinery.com.


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Italian Inspired: Santa Barbara's Four Seasons Resort Announces New Chef and New Menus


by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo 
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/15/16

"That view – it reminds me of home,” says Marco Fossati, the new executive chef at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara.  He’s sitting inside the Montecito hotel’s Bella Vista dining room, gazing out at Butterfly Beach, as the afternoon sun bounces off the water.  A lot like the Italian Riviera.

Chef Marco Fossati in the kitchen
Chef Fossati’s childhood culinary influences, in fact, stretch back to the shores of Italy’s Liguria region – home to Portofino, the Cinque Terre and Genoa – where “I was always next to my grandma in the kitchen,” he recalls.  He still uses a tomato sauce recipe she taught him.  As a teen, summers were spent working at local restaurants, “doing everything from cooking to cleaning.”

The gastronomic path he’s followed ever since has been as diverse as it’s been impressive.  He moved to Milan in the mid-1980s, where he worked alongside another up-and-coming chef, Alessandro Cartumini.  The fellow Italian gourmand preceded Mr. Fossati at the Biltmore – he spent seven years in Santa Barbara’s flourishing food scene – and is now Food & Beverage Director at Four Seasons’ deluxe resort on the Big Island of Hawaii.

In London, Chef Fossati cooked for royalty.  In Paris, he was chef at the first Italian restaurant to ever earn a Michelin star.  And in Egypt, he catered to a well-heeled international clientele.  Most recently, he helmed the restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley in Palo Alto.

Santa Barbara became home for the Fossati family – Chef Marco, his wife and their 2-1/2 year old daughter – this past May.  His influence on the Biltmore kitchen – and the four restaurants it feeds – has been evident ever since.

“My push is to make changes,” he says, in a distinctly rich Italian accent.  “If we stay comfortable, there can be problems.”

The marinara sauce Chef Fossati learned from Grandma makes a great bread dipper
To that end, his push for change is ongoing, driven as much by the seasons as Chef Fossati’s own imagination.  “If I get an idea, I’ll put it on the menu right away as a daily special,” he says.  If feedback from both his staff and clientele is positive, the item may well become a regular selection.  “The menu builds itself and is open to evolution at all time,” he says, adding that guests can expect to see three to five items rotated on and off the menu each month.  That’s how Bella Vista diners recently found a new offering –a handmade tagliatelle pasta tossed with a charcuterie-inspired sauce of salami, coppa and bresaola, served with a poached egg and pecorino cheese.  Fifteen orders sold on its introductory night, making it a menu item the next day.  And when diners raved about a bass “crudo” special – a locally sourced tartare topped with a salad of fennel and blood orange and served with a savory cream of russet potato, kefir and lemongrass – it was printed on the appetizer menu soon after.

Chef Fossati finishing off his Ravioli del Plin
Bella Vista, the hotel’s al fresco waterfront restaurant, remains a major focus for Chef Fossati, who’s planning a more substantial overhaul after the holiday season.  But he’s already taken several changes for a test drive, even during the property’s landmark brunch.  Like a build-your-own breakfast bowl, avocado toast (45 sold in the first two days) and a revamped Eggs Benedict.  “When hotels have it out, it’s a disgrace – the egg gets old and dry and the bread gets soggy,” he says.  Instead, he’s fashioned several Eggs Benedict preparations served to order directly from the kitchen.

Local fish, salads and paninis feature prominently on the lunch menu now.  And dinner features California- and Italy-inspired pastas and pizzas, as well as several meat, poultry and seafood preparations.  A new favorite is “Ravioli del Plin.”  Plush pasta pockets are stuffed with certified black Angus short rib that’s cooked for 17 hours in its own juices, ground, then seasoned with marjoram and salt; its served with spinach, sage, brown butter and aged pecorino cheese.

Ravioli del Plin
Charcuterie features more prominently now, driven by the fact that Bella Vista is one of only 12 restaurants in California – and the only one in Santa Barbara – licensed to cure its own meats.  And that slow-cooked, naturally sweet, naturally thick childhood marinara sauce – the one a young Marco learned from Grandma – is showing up in everything from pasta and cioppino specials to roasted bread dippers.

In the Ty Lounge, a cocktail haven just off the resort’s lobby, Chef Fossati is aiming to attract the millennial crowd with a focus on tapas-style plates meant for sharing.  Charcuterie features prominently here, too, and menu items – like empanadas de carne and smaller-portion paellas – showcase a Spanish and Moroccan slant.  The all-new Mussel Madness menu is offered Tuesdays and Wednesdays and offers six preparations, each served in cast iron bowls and with grilled country bread.  In The Belgium, for example, mussels are steamed in Belgian ale, Dijon mustard, shallots and herbs.  The menu will end when mussel season ends, around March or April.

At the Coral Casino, Tydes Restaurant and the Coral Café & Bar are open exclusively to members and overnight guests of the resort.  Chef Fossati is focusing on fresh Mediterranean flavors and locally-sourced ingredients here: Pacific Gold Oysters, Scallop & Foie Gras, Spot Prawns, Lamb Loin, Wagyu Tenderloin.  The popular Halibut and Squid Ink Pasta Carbonara features Santa Barbara uni.

Chef Marco and sou chef Chris Shertzer are expanding the resort's charcuterie program
For Chef Fossati, catering to four restaurants is a source for inspiration all its own.  For example, “We’ll soon be making four different burgers – one for each restaurant and each one with different pairings,” he says.  “That way they can compete against each other and we can see which one our guests like best.”

The Santa Barbara sea bass "Crudo"
The “we” he’s referring to is his staff of 80 cooks.  It’s a culinary team that “I don’t want to micromanage,” Chef says.  “But I do like to challenge people to see their capabilities.”  It’s one of the reasons for having menus that are dynamic, menus that evolve with what’s regionally and seasonally available.  “It gives guests incentive to keep coming back but it also keeps the staff learning and expanding their knowledge,” Chef Fossati says.

On a recent Saturday morning, Chef Fossati took several members of his kitchen crew to the Saturday Fisherman’s Market, where local boats sell fresh catches of the day right off their decks.  When they got their hands on a limited batch of black bass, Chef Fossati created a special on the spot and took to social media.  “Just enough for 15 portions,” he tweeted, along with pictures.   That night, in a unique learning lesson for guests and cooks alike, they sold out.

“We all have to be swimming in the same direction,” says Chef Fossati, “so that we can all grow together.”

For more information or to make reservations, visit fourseasons.com/santabarbara or call 805-969-2261.
  

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No Wrong Answer: Tips for Bringing Wine to a Holiday Party


by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo 
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/8/16

‘Tis the season for holiday parties.  And while picking out just the right ugly sweater to wear is important, for many, what bottle of wine to bring is even more so.  People float a lot of etiquette rules.  But as with any rule, they’re meant to be broken, especially since wine, and the experience around wine, is so personal.  So here are some rules of thumb I’ve developed over the years, in the event they help you this holiday season.  And if they don’t, hey – it’s wine.  Just drink it.

What to Bring
Holiday parties and holiday dinner tables are defined by their eclecticism – there’s a lot going on.  Lots of flavors, lots of textures, lots of colors.  So I say go with bubbles.  Sparkling wine is safe because it’s what you open to get a party started, but great bubbles can also flow easily throughout a meal and well into the night.  Sparklers also denote revelry, which is what this time of year is all about: we should all hope that the effervescence in the glass spills into the lives of all around us!  That said, you can make an argument for red, since a pinot or a merlot or a zinfandel matches the hues all around.  And you can make an argument for white, especially if you know that’s what your hostess prefers.  What’s more, don’t we all dream of a white Christmas?  So the short answer: there’s no wrong answer.

How Many to Bring
Any other time of year, my wife Renee and I feel totally comfortable showing up with just one bottle.  When we’re talking holiday parties, though, we like to up that to two.  One white and one red is a nice way to mix things up, though it’s less about colors and more about making sure there’s enough to go around.  It’s amazing how quickly wine can flow during a feast (and how wide smiles get when they see you walk in the door double-fisted)!  That said, no one is going to show you the door if you bring just one bottle of your favorite cabernet, nor if it’s a six-pack.  So, again, the short answer: there’s no wrong answer.

How Much to Spend
My wife’s favorite wine these days is a Santa Barbara County pinot noir that I’ve been finding on sale lately for under $15.  Thank you, God!  But an etiquette rule stickler once told me I should spend between $30 and $40 on a bottle to bring to a Christmas fete.  Pshaw!  Sure, that’s a very dependable sweet spot – you can find a ton of great wines, especially local ones, in that price range.  But why would I not share with my friends that great, delicious $15 bottle that happens to be a bargain?  More than price tag, focus on the story: tell your host about who made it, about the time you first sipped it, about how it (just like the invitation to this party) always brings a smile to your face.  Even better: track down the winemaker (easier to do than you’d think in a small, informal wine region like Santa Barbara) and have them sign the bottle.  That turns a $15 gift into a valuable and memorable gesture.  Of course, you’re always welcome to bring that winemaker's more limited-production $60 bottle.  SO, once more, the short answer: there’s no wrong answer.

To Open or Not to Open
Etiquette experts will tell you never to expect your host to open the bottle of wine you bring.  It’s a gift, that’s it.  Fie, I say. I will admit that I’m expecting my wine contribution to be opened.  A little has to do with me wanting to ensure that there will be at least one wine at this party I’ll enjoy drinking.  But much more has to do with the notion of sharing, a very holiday season-friendly notion, no?  If the wine is meant to be a special gift, meant to be stored away for a later special occasion, meant for that trip I know you’re taking next month, well then I’ll say so.  Otherwise, imagine a shiny new corkscrew hanging around the bottle I’ve brought.  Indelicate?  Yes, for some.  But I’ll remind you of my favorite short answer: there’s no wrong answer.

To Regift or Not to Regift
When a winemaker gifts me a bottle he’s made, I never regift.  When anyone gifts me a bottle that comes with a sentimental meaning, or a special story, I never regift.  When I’m gifted a bottle that’s got my name written right on it with ink I can’t erase, I never regift.  Otherwise, the beauty of wine is that it’s the gift that keeps on giving.  Even if you brought it over because you were running late and it was the closest thing to the door as you rushed out, I’m going to be happy with it.  I will enjoy it with a smile.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll regift it, too.  Doesn’t matter.  It’s no coincidence, after all, that a bottle of wine fits almost perfectly into a stocking.

If you disagree, of course, I fall back on what a wise man once said: there’s no wrong answer.  Because, like I said at the beginning: hey – it’s wine.  Just drink it.

Merry Christmas!

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