Taking the full measure of life

For the Love of Wine & Friends

July 9th, 2008 · 17 Comments

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Despite the lack of energy that surgery brings, extrovert that I am, I knew I would be seriously jonesing for some company by two weeks after the date, so we planned our fifth monthly wine-tasting party for July 6th.  Every month, I mean for us to take extensive photos of the food and wine so that I can write about it on here, and every month, we get caught up in what is going on and forget to take notes or photos so that I can write it all up.  This month, we remembered—at least somewhat.  We didn’t get all the food shots I wanted, but we did get some coverage.

Because I planned the wine tasting for the July 4th weekend, we were missing some of the people who would’ve otherwise come, and we had a party of 10. Ten is actually a good number, one that approaches the limit of a focused kind of party, at least in our small apartment; with everyone seated, that number of people just about fills up our living room semi-comfortably, and it allows for one or two main conversations in the room at any time.

The basics: everyone who attends one of our wine parties contributes $9 to the cost of food and drink, which has tended to cover about half of the party costs. (We serve largely local or regional, organic food at the parties, so that bumps the cost up some.)  When I first conceived the idea of holding these parties, I didn’t want to ask people to contribute, but I’ve found that people seem happy to do so and that if we did not do so, we couldn’t afford to hold the parties as often. (And truly, for the cost of one decent glass of wine at an Atlanta restaurant, you get quite an experience at the parties.)

We have served between 5 and 8 bottles of wine at each party, though with over 6 offerings, we have discovered, people start to forget which wine they liked and which they didn’t, so now we focus on 6 or fewer offerings.  (We do give paper and pen to each person for note-taking.  Um, and that said, we do intend to hold an 08/08/08 party next month with eight bottles to try.) Each of our parties focuses on various price points and origins (between $3 and $35, usually) of a single varietal.  We serve 4-5 foods that are supposed to complement the wine varietal; that spread usually includes one meat dish, at least one cheese left plain, and some form of dessert.  Though we aren’t technically serving a meal, I don’t eat dinner the night of the parties, and I always end up satisfied. (If anything, I don’t eat much that night because I’m busy being social.) I never serve foods I can’t eat, partly because I want to feel unencumbered in my own house and partly because I don’t want cross-contamination to ruin the occasion for me.  Holding the party this way has meant that people get exposed to a variety of foods they wouldn’t otherwise necessarily eat, and it’s demonstrated to people that creating a variety of tasty foods is possible even with food restrictions.  Several of the party attendees have told me that they’ve described the meals to others they know who’ve learned they have to go on a gluten-free or allergen-free diet because they feel the foods are inspiring.

This month’s focus was on Malbecs.  Malbecs are generally a ‘big red’ kind of grape that create hearty wines.  Malbecs originated in France but are now grown largely in Argentina, though Chile also produces a few.  Malbecs are generally supposed to pair well with rich, hearty, or spicy foods:  grilled or roasted meats, aged cheeses, Mexican dishes, roasted vegetables, etc.  After doing some research on the web, I intended to serve one Chilean Malbec, one French Malbec, and four Argentine Malbecs, but what we found at the store was Argentine, Argentine, Argentine—plus one Georgia Malbec.  Georgia? Yes, as in the state where I live, not the country. Of course we had to give that one a try.

These are the wines (with price points) that we ended up serving, along with my notes on a few of the comments the tasters had:

A. Alcion 2006 Malbec–averaged 3.5 out of 5 with tasters; good with BBQ, pizza, and cookies, not great with cheese; $6.99/bottle.
B. Tiger Mountain 2006 Malbec–the Georgia Malbec, which was (unfortunately) universally hated; averaged 1-2 out of 5 with tasters; “like a bowl of raspberries that need a little sugar”; $19.99/bottle.
C. Don David Reserva 2005 Malbec–the favorite of the night; averaged 4 out of 5 ; particularly good with chocolate; “richly scented”; $16.99/bottle.
D. Catena 2006 Malbec–averaged 2 out of 5 by itself, but 4-4.5 with food; “a magnifying glass for whatever food is eaten with it”; $19.99/bottle.
E. Crios de Susana Balbo 2007 Malbec–averaged 3.5 out of 5 by itself, worse with food; one taster liked it particularly with the cheese and cookies, while another did not at all; “innocuous,” “good but not terribly remarkable”; $16.99/bottle.
F. Mendoza Altos Los Hormigas 2006 Malbec–averaged 2.5 out of 5, worse with food; “tastes of a Marks-A-Lot” (that had us all laughing), “tastes like balsamic vinegar”; interesting dislike of this bottle, since it’s highly rated by  $11/bottle.

We usually offer a couple more lower-priced wines and one more expensive wine than we offered at this party, but the Malbec prices fell where they did, and there were certain brands and vintages I was excited to try, so we went with what worked out.

We hold our tastings blind; that is to say, we cover the entire label of each bottle we’re serving with brown paper and label it only with a letter.  If I can find them online or if they are included on the bottle, I have tasting/smelling notes from each wine that I read while we pour that wine for each participant.  We use a wine aerator when we pour the wine to flesh out the scents and flavors, especially with the reds.  Then we see what scents and tastes our party attendees get from each wine, which foods they think the wine pairs with well or poorly, and what each person at the party would rate the wine from 1-5 (5 being the best rating).  I love hearing people’s opinions of the various wines, and the people who have attended the most often tend to be very free with their pronouncements of their opinions.  It’s really a fascinating process to watch unfold—and a lot of fun to boot.  We offer a dump bucket for when people do not prefer to finish drinking a given wine.

One additional thing that has been interesting is watching people who are not generally fans of alcohol come to the parties.  Sometimes we have people come and just partake in conversation and good food but no wine (I always make or purchase a special drink for anyone who doesn’t want wine), and other times, we have people come and have their first tastes of wine or, at least, their first critical tastes of wine.  In an environment where we are without pretense but are really enjoying the wines we are trying, it’s very pleasant to see someone move away from the idea that all anyone wants from alcohol is to get drunk. (Not that I haven’t done that before, but it really is not the purpose of a wine party!)  Most of the time, we each end up drinking the equivalent of about two glasses of wine total, which leaves many of us temporarily tipsy, a bit relaxed—nothing that an extra hour of conversation and cleaning up afterward don’t cure before the various drives home. (Some friends also bring DDs, and some live close enough to walk over here.)

I usually aim to make most of the foods at our wine party from scratch or nearly from scratch.  Since I was recovering during the prep time for this party, I wisely decided to go a little easier on myself with some help from prepackaged foods. Here’s what I served at this tasting:

Well-aged artisan pecorino (a sheep’s milk cheese that is similar to Parmesan)
Fresh, organic cherries
Millet herbed flatbread (bread from DeLand, which I know some gluten-free folks swear by and some swear is tainted, but I’ve never had a bad reaction from it) pizza with tomato-herb sauce, goat mozzarella, caramelized local, organic fennel, and organic Italian-style chicken sausage
Chopped pork BBQ made in the slow cooker (love my slow cooker for party prep!) from Riverview Farms’s excellent pastured heirloom pork with coleslaw. People had the option of eating the barbecue and coleslaw in ramekins or spooning it onto split, toasted DeLand millet dinner rolls
Chocolate-orange cookies with cocoa nibs, made from The Cravings Place‘s excellent double chocolate cookie mix
Agave-sweetened tea with fresh mint

At the end of the tasting, we choose a wine that is the general favorite of the group.  Then we reveal the labels and price points of the wines we tasted.  It’s great fun seeing if people preferred the least expensive, mid-range, or most expensive bottle that we offered. (We’ve had all three happen at various tastings!)

Best of all, the tastings give me a monthly but fairly informal opportunity to have over some of my nearest and dearest whom I don’t get to see as often as I wish I did.  I love making food for everyone, catching up with them, and sharing a fairly unique experience with all of them. Oh, and trying six kinds of wine in one night, of course.

Malbec-Matching BBQ Sauce with Slow-Cooked Pork BBQ

Adapted from Paula Deen’s BBQ sauce recipe (the original recipe is not gluten-free or soy-free)

We’ve had this with both pork bbq and beef short ribs now. It’s a basic and very tasty tomato-and-vinegar barbecue sauce, so I imagine it would also pair well with chicken or seitan.

2 T oil or bacon fat
1 Boston butt/pork shoulder roast (Mine was 2.5 pounds)

1/3 cup minced onions
1/2 cup ketchup (I used Annie’s Organic Ketchup)
1/4 cup water
1 T balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or orange juice (or 1 extra T balsamic vinegar)
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 T molasses

Heat the oil in a large pan over med.-high heat.  When the oil is very hot, put the pork in the pan.  Brown on each side for ~4 minutes.  Meanwhile, mince the onion.  When the pork is browned on each side, remove the pork from the heat into the crock pot bowl, and add the minced onion.  Cook the onion until lightly browned, about 4-5 minutes.

Meanwhile, measure and mix the other sauce ingredients in a small bowl or a 2-c. measuring cup.  When the onions are finished cooking, use a slotted spoon to remove them from the oil, and stir them into the sauce.  Pour the sauce over the pork roast.

Cook in the crockpot on high for one hour; then switch the temperature to low and cook for a minimum of 6 additional hours or a maximum of 9 hours.  Pork is ready to turn into BBQ when it shreds easily.

Shred the pork with a fork, removing any large chunks of fat and any bone.  Serve with coleslaw on sandwich buns.

Dairy-Free, Egg-Free, Soy-Free, Sugar-Free Coleslaw

Altered from a recipe at Go Dairy Free

No mayonnaise, and it’s still really tasty! I won’t lie to you: this is a lot prettier if you take the time to chop everything by hand, but I just throw the vegetables into the shredder on the food processor to cut the prep time down to nearly nothing.

5 to 6 cups chopped cabbage
1 red or green bell pepper, diced or thinly sliced
1 Vidalia or red onion, thinly sliced
2-4 carrots, shredded
1/2 cup vegetable or olive oil
11/4 to 11/2 teaspoons celery salt
1 to 11/2 teaspoons cracked pepper
1/4 c. agave syrup
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon dry mustard

Place all the vegetables in a large 1- or 2-gallon plastic bag. Combine the remaining ingredients, and pour over the vegetables. Toss to make sure vegetables are coated. Let sit at least six hours in the refrigerator. (This really does matter.) Turn it a few times while it sits.

Easy-Peasy Double-Chocolate/Orange Cookies

As I’ve mentioned, I’m usually a fan of making things from scratch.  But when you are new to gluten-free or allergen-free baking, or when you’re in a pinch, a good mix has to suffice sometimes.  I love The Cravings Place’s cookie mixes because they are good bases for easy experimentation.  I’ve added a whole range of the things to the mixes, and the results have always come out tasty.

1 package of The Cravings Place double chocolate cookie mix
3/4 c. ghee or coconut oil
1 organic orange and/or 1/2 c. OJ plus 1 T. orange marmalade (better with a fresh orange due to the rind)
orange liqueur such as Grand Marnier (optional)
1/2 c. cocoa nibs or 1/2 c. chopped, toasted almonds

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Following package directions, beat the ghee or coconut oil until it is soft. Stir in the packet of dough mix. Grate the rind of the orange, and add it to the mix. Squeeze the juice from the orange into a measuring cup. If you do not get 1/2 c. of juice from the orange, add Gran Marnier and/or water to reach 1/2 c. (You may still add a couple of tablespoons of Gran Marnier if you desire. Or substitute OJ and marmalade at this point.) Stir until well-mixed—I usually either use a fat wooden spoon or my hands for this part. Stir in cocoa nibs or almonds for some crunch and interest. Drop by tablespoonfuls onto an ungreased cookie sheet or two. (I try to make mine 2-bite cookies; they do not spread or rise much.) Bake about 15 minutes, until cookies are set.  Let cool one minute on the pan, and then remove the cookies to a baker’s rack to finish cooling.  Eat warm, room temperature, or frozen. (Even frozen, they are edible straight away.)

Tags: allergen-free recipes · dessert · locavore · meal planning · summer

17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ricki // Jul 9, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    That just sounds like SO MUCH fun. I love the idea of covering the labels completely and then seeing which you all liked best! These days almost none of my friends is really drinking alcohol any more–can’t imagine getting 10 people together for this (six, maybe!) but it’s great that you’re all getting such a wine education. (Oh, and you look great–obviously feeling better!)

  • 2 margaret // Jul 9, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    how did you do the pizza? that sounds easy and really good.

  • 3 Sally Parrott Ashbrook // Jul 9, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    I peeled and finely chopped the fennel bases, reserving a bit of the fronds for topping. I cooked the fennel on medium heat with some olive oil for a few minutes; then I put the lid on it and turned it down to low to cook for about 15 minutes more.

    Meanwhile, I combined tomato sauce (the canned kind), Mrs. Dash garlic-and-herbs seasoning, fresh rosemary, a bit of balsamic vinegar, and about a teaspoon of sugar in a pot and heated it on low until the fennel was ready.

    I spread the tomato sauce on the flat bread, sprinkled the caramelized fennel on, added cheese, and laid out sliced sausage on that. I baked it in a 450 oven for about 12 minutes.

    Voila. 🙂

  • 4 Jenn // Jul 9, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    That sounds so fun! This post makes me wish you. . . I wish we lived closer!

  • 5 Jenn // Jul 9, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    Umm. . . that first “wish” was supposed to be “miss.” Apparently I need to head to bed very soon. 🙂

  • 6 Kimberly // Jul 10, 2008 at 6:05 am

    This sounds so fun! What a neat way to get together with friends on a regular basis. That is something this busy world lacks sometimes–time to enjoy friends:)

  • 7 K Renee // Jul 10, 2008 at 6:57 am

    What fun! I wish I lived in Atlanta! Your wall color looks similar to what we just used for our dining and living room. Good choice.

  • 8 jodi // Jul 10, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    thank you for the comment and i love your blog! i plan on reading much more when i have some spare time – so great to find someone new! yay! :o)

  • 9 Kim // Jul 10, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    What an awesome time! I love that you’re up and on your feet and having so much fun!

    I left you a note on another blog (maybe the other Kim) asking if you knew a place in town to pick berries like all these Northerners keep blogging about. Any ideas?

    P.S. You’ll love Jodi’s blog! She’s one of my faves. I’m glad y’all have found each other.

  • 10 Katie // Jul 10, 2008 at 9:05 pm

    That sounds like a lot of fun! I’ve “sampled” a couple of red wines before (I’m underage.) I have found the few I’ve tried to be bitter and harsh in the throat. Is white wine really different than red?

  • 11 Patty // Jul 10, 2008 at 10:12 pm

    Hi Sally,
    Thx for stopping by my blog. …I read a few of your past posts about cancer and your surgery and glad you are doing ok.
    I like your writing style and your post about gratitute…..you are really a deep thinker and I live that! That sounds corny now that I’ve read this again….I’m always talking 1/2 the time of trivial stuff between the serious stuff.

  • 12 Patty // Jul 10, 2008 at 10:12 pm

    I meant I like that!!!! I really need to spell check.

  • 13 Karen // Jul 11, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    I keep meaning to do a wine-tasting, and now I really want to after reading about yours. It sounds like a wonderful way to go about it. I hope you don’t mind if I steal some of your ideas! 😉

  • 14 Michelle // Jul 11, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    What a truly wonderful idea, Sally! It sounds like so much fun! I would love to do something like this once we find some friends here – or better still it could be a great way to make friends! I’m so happy to hear that you’re doing better and you’re up and around and being your vibrant self – I’m only sorry I didn’t know sooner what you were going through. Hugs from Hawaii for you!

  • 15 John's Weight Loss Blog // Jul 11, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    That sounds like so much fun! But, do you need to know anything about wine to do it? I don’t know a Siraz from a Pinot but I like drinking wine and have gatherings of friends, and I could see how this would be great!

  • 16 sally // Jul 12, 2008 at 5:56 pm

    Kim–I sent you an email. We should go berry-picking together.

    Katie–I think a lot of people have gateway wines that get them into wine-drinking, and those tend to be the sweeter, milder versions of wine. I’m fine admitting that the first wines I loved were really cheap, really sweet wines that, interestingly, don’t tend to appeal to me nearly as much now. 🙂 Those of us who grow up in the US (and similar countries) are used to drinks being sweet (soda et al), neutral (water), or sweet/sour (limeade et al). The enjoyment of wine is definitely an acquired taste for those of us who don’t do it from childhood forward, because it adds other elements of taste to the drink experience than those we are used to. White wines can be acidic or syrupy sweet, harsh or mild, etc., just as reds can. I think developing a palate for the enjoyment of wines is really fun, but it’s not something many of us jump straight into if we’re being honest.

    Karen–Steal away. 🙂 I think it’s a blast holding these, obviously. Let me know what happens if you go for it.

    John–I think all you need to hold a wine tasting is basic Google skills and an open mind. At each wine tasting, if we don’t have an idea of what to cover next, we ask if anyone in the group wants to suggest the next wine for us to try. (We alternate between whites and reds.) When we’ve decided on a wine, I google, for example, “Malbec food pairings” or “Malbec tasting foods” and see what I come up with so that I can see what foods are supposed to pair well. (Foodandwine.com can also be a big help.) I sometimes pick out a few wines from online guides to try to find in local stores, but I also let the suggestions at local stores be my guides for what to buy (either by reading stores’ written suggestions posted with the wines or by asking the stores’ wine buyers’ advice—they love that!). There will be wines people like and wines they don’t like, and that’s part of the fun. If you hold a wine-tasting party, do report back on how it goes!

  • 17 Julie // Jul 15, 2008 at 8:09 am

    This is wonderful! Thank you for the detailed information you gave. As I was reading about the different wines you served, I wondered: “what kind of food should be served?” …only to find the answer in the next paragraph !

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