A Wine-Tasting Celebration

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When I recently found myself sitting down to dinner with a dozen friends and clients in San Francisco, a town known for its wine sophistication, I found myself facing a common challenge among avid wine drinkers. While I knew my dining companions well, I had little idea of their wine tastes and -- just as importantly -- their appreciation for wine.

When you are the host, that can be intimidating. While many would simply pick a bottle of red and a bottle of white and let the corks fall where they may, I was very focused on the setting, the mood and the enjoyment of guests. And, knowing how wine brings me pleasure, I wanted to extend that enjoyment to my other pals at the table.

So I decided to turn dinner into a wine tasting, an opportunity to sample a number of different wines with different foods. And what better way to make the wine a part of the dinner conversation and give my friends a chance to discover a wine they liked.

Knowing that one couple had just returned from one of their first trips to the Northern California wine country, I also hoped that our wine sipping would provide an opportunity for them to share their impressions and experiences of that part of the country.

The plan worked beautifully. In all, we shared eight bottles of wine over the course of a three-hour meal. Not everyone fell in love with all of my selections, but the discussion at the table was surprisingly robust -- from talk of vintages and varietals to more sophisticated 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 make recommendations. A nice, medium-bodied Chardonnay for a white and a pinot noir or merlot for a red are always good starters. Watch how people react to those wines and ask what people think. My crowd was very open about likes and dislikes. And, more importantly, they were very open-minded about trying new wines and experiences.

Second, study the restaurant's wine list. The more you know ahead of time, the better. In a setting like this, I like to find wines I know for a couple of reasons. Ordering wines I know gives me an idea of what I'm getting. Moreover, a familiar vineyard gives me plenty to talk about -- my experiences at the vineyard, what I know about the winemaker, why I like it, what other wines come from the vineyard and the like. Those stories led to stories from others about experiences at similar vineyards and wines, many of which are now on my list to try.

Third, involve others. While you may not want your guests to pick directly from the list if you are concerned about price, I decided to ask the couple who just returned from Napa to talk about their experiences and their favorite vineyard from the recent trip. One of their favorites was Nickel & Nickel, so we sampled one of their wines at our dinner.

Finally, enjoy the wine and dinner. I was amazed at how engaged everyone became in the discussion about the wine. Moreover, I was incredibly pleased that every guest seemed to enjoy the impromptu wine seminar throughout the meal. In fact, one guest said dinner was more 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 this evening than on whites. But we did start the night with a very tasty chardonnay.

The Plumpjack Chardonnay Napa Valley Reserve 2000 is a simple yet buttery white wine that has just enough hint of fruit to make it fun to drink. It should sell for around $35 a bottle in your local wine shop.

We tasted four reds this evening, all of which I knew well, which helped me pitch the wines to my dining companions. We began the evening with the Dominus Estate Napa Valley 1998. A cabernet sauvignon blend, with a bit of merlot, petite verdot and cabernet franc, the wine is an often overlooked vintage as it is sandwiched between two great years, 1997 and 1999. However, it is a solid blend that, while not as bold as earlier vintages, is very smooth and quite approachable. It's available 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 cabernet with just a touch of merlot for blend, this wine is a solid drinking wine, very smooth to the palate. Very dark in color and, after 15 minutes in a decanter, this Spring Mountain offering is indicative of this vineyard's ability to produce wines with long shelf lives. The wine was very approachable, with good fruit flavor and a hint of oak. Interestingly, this wine was the first production for what was a new vineyard planting for the winery. With its age, it's a difficult wine to find, but should be about $70 if you can track it down.

Our third wine was the Nickel & Nickel Cabernet Rock Cairn Vineyard 2000. The single vineyard offering from the founders of Far Niente is a more earthy Cabernet that pairs well with beef. Earthy and full-bodied, the wine is best when paired with food. Overall, Nickel & Nickel is one of the most unique vineyards in the Napa Valley and should be visited by any wine enthusiast that wants to learn more about the subtleties of wine making. You can expect to pay about $70 for this bottle at most retailers.

We finished the evening with one my favorites, Merryvale's Profile 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 petit verdot, cabernet franc and merlot blend isn't meant to be cellared much longer. You should be able to find this in most retail stores and some discount stores for around $60 a bottle.

Now, it's your turn. I want to hear about your wine experiences and interests. As I continue to write about wine, let me know what's on your mind. I'd very much like to make this column as much an exchange of ideas as a one-sided conversation. After all, wine is a lot more enjoyable if you have someone to enjoy with.

Please, send me an email with your wine questions, stories, experiences or anything else that seems relevant to this magical beverage. I'll use your ideas as the foundation for future columns as well as answer your questions as best I can.

Cheers!

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