Hatfield's general manager Peter Birmingham typically throws at least one small dinner party with friends this time of year. Often his guests include other restaurant orphans who can't break away from the service floor for a prolonged home visit.
Traditionally he starts such parties with bubbles, although this year will be a variation on the theme: a classic Spritz, a Venetian cocktail made with Prosecco, blood orange juice, and a splash of Aperol, the orange-scented Italian aperitif. Times being what they are, his wine selections will be a bit modest this year, but no less satisfying for it. He'll pour two crowd-pleasing French wines: a traditional Beaujolais by Domaine du Vissoux (about $17) from the superb 2009 vintage; and a Pinot Auxerrois from Alsatian producer Albert Mann (about $18). Auxerrois is a fairly obscure white varietal grown almost exclusively in Alsace, with fresh, mineral Pinot Gris-like flavors.
Both wines, Birmingham points out, are biodynamic, which to his mind brings out an added liveliness. "The fruit is so vibrant in both of these wines," he says. "They really have the power to lift the conversation — it's like dosing everybody with low levels of giddiness."
To a disproportionate degree, sommeliers are invited to potluck dinners, for the obvious reason that they can be relied on to contribute something really good to drink. Jason Hardy, GM at the Lazy Ox Canteen, is an old hand at the practice. "I like to do things in little waves," he says, "and a lot of my friends are in the business, so each wave has to be pretty special." This year that means starting with a round of beer, the Single Hop Centennial IPA from the Danish artisanal brewer Mikkeller (about $6 a bottle). Malty and honeyed, this limited selection bears a festive, seasonally apt topnote of nutmeg and pine needles.
As for the wines, Hardy loves to bring bottles that tell a story, such as the Cantina Valle Isarco Kerner (about $20) from Italy's Alto Adige, a racy white varietal hybrid of Riesling and Trollinger that gets its name from a poet revered in Germany for his drinking songs. For the red, Hardy plans to bring a Plavac Mali from the Dingac estate (about $12), a meaty ringer for zinfandel grown on the Dalmatian coast, in an estate vineyard so rocky and treacherous that all work is done with donkeys. "That's a story worth telling at the table," he says.
If the party goes long into the evening, it just may have to conclude with cigars. "A friend of mine is in charge of the smokes," says Hardy, "but I bring the bourbon." His current favorite: the small batch Tuthilltown Hudson Baby Bourbon (about $50), made from New York cornmash with a smooth and subtle frame of vanillin that can seduce even bourbon beginners.
Dana Farner, the sommelier at Cut, and her wife, Melissa Denton, are both Midwesterners — Farner is from North Dakota, Denton from South Dakota. Both were raised with staunchly held beliefs on the importance of Christmas cookies. "Not just some cookies," says Farner. "You had to have towers of Tupperware full of cookies, or it wasn't really Christmas."
Last year, when Farner and Denton decided to throw their first holiday cookie party, 60 friends showed up — apparently L.A. is full of expat Midwesterners yearning to fill a similar void. Each brought two-dozen cookies — that's approaching 1,500, if you're keeping track.
For the party Farner decided on punch, something cheery and simple — and red. After some research in old cocktail books she came up with a variation of the Chicago Fizz that she dubbed "The Holiday Cheer," a blend of white rum, lemon juice, to which she added ruby Port (which turned it a brilliant crimson), and a portion of simple syrup infused with cardamom — all poured over seltzer. It had the sweetness to pair with cookies, says Farner, and plenty of Christmas cheer. "The cardamom gives it a Christmas-ey spice," she says, "and works so well with the gingerbread."
This New Year's Eve will be Matthew Kaner's first at Covell, the new-ish wine bar he manages in Los Feliz. He'll pour his share of bubbles as the clock wends its way to midnight, but on New Year's Day he plans to reopen the bar just for himself and a few friends for a party of his own. Bubbles plainly are a weakness for him. "I can't help myself," he says. "One day when I'm old and rich, I swear to you I'm going to hole up and just get fat on Champagne." For New Year's Day he's laying out a three-country stash, from magnums where he can find them.
From Italy, he'll pour an extra-dry Prosecco from Sorelle Bronca, named for sisters Antonella and Ersiliano, who are making some of the freshest, most driven sparklers from that region (about $35 for a magnum). From Spain, Kaner will pour a vintage Cava, the 2006 Recaredo, a Xarel-lo-heavy sparkler with toasty, lifted flavors — "and it's a natural wine," says Kaner, "from start to finish" (about $35).
From France, he'll pour a Loire Valley Saumur rosé petillant from Louis de Grenelle (about $17), a non-vintage brut rosé made with Cabernet Franc with a brilliant color and fruit, says Kaner, "like a raspberry crème truffle, with a fresh, mineral note." Of course, Kaner will have several Champagnes on hand, but one of his favorites at the moment is the Avise Grand Cru non-vintage blanc des blancs from Franck Bonville, which, at about $30, is a steal for a Grand Cru, one he's likely to enjoy for many New Year's to come — and well into his dotage, evidently.
When Spago sommelier Christopher Miller makes it back to New Orleans for the holidays, he'll look forward to Christmas afternoon most of all, about when most festivities have wound down. The cooking at his grandmother's house has all been done the day before — for good reason, since most Creole dishes, the gumbos, the jambalayas, the red beans and rice, are much better the next day.
Creole food isn't the only thing that needs a day to meld. Miller loves to drink Krug Champagne during the holidays, preferring the Grande Cuvee on day two, once it's gone a little flat. "It's odd to say this," he says, "but the bubbles can get in the way of the fact that it's wine." It's a trick he learned from Olivier and Rémi Krug themselves, having served them several times over the years. "They prefer to drink it out of regular wine glasses," he says. "And I decant the bottle for them."
For his extended family Miller tailors his choices based on who they are and what they love. Aunt Sherry, whose tastes run to sweet-ish wines, gets a slightly floral, exquisitely balanced halbtrocken Estate Riesling from the Nahe (Germany) producer Hermann Donnhoff (about $20). For his father, lover of big Napa reds, he's snagged a bottle of David Abreu's Cappella (about $320), a single vineyard blend so newly minted and rare that the winery website claims no such wine has been released.
And for any wine geek friends who are likely to pop over, Miller plans to serve the Leon Barral "Cuvee Valinières" Faugeres (about $40) from the Languedoc in southern France. This biodynamically farmed blend of Mourvedre and Syrah is dark and spicy, with a texture that's weighty and satisfying. "I bring it," he says, "because I know every single person who tries it will be happy drinking it." And that, after all, is what a sommelier lives for, and what the holidays are all about.
Here's where to find some of the wines mentioned in this story: