The fashion, the faux pas, the gushing and the guffawing – blend it all with some great wine, creative nibbles and clever company and you have yourself one award-winning party.
My friends Rita and Khawar went all out this year at their Oscar night. Each plate came with a movie label: Mango UnChained, Treats from the Southern Wild, Lincoln Drinkin’ some Wine and Eatin’ some Cheese, Life of Chocolate Pi, Argonado Dip – very creative.
While we sharpened our tongues on the fashion misses, we sipped two delicious Italians and one Californian (that almost sounds a little sleazy). Rita and Khawar picked a Bolgheri blend, a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Rutherford Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 for the evening. Each had a style that deserved to be on the Red Carpet.
The Bogheri is one of my favourite regions of Tuscany. It is almost impossible to go wrong with a wine from here.. This Bolgheri Rosso 2009 by Michele Satta was no exception. It is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sangiovese with a touch of Teroldego (one of the many I have never heard of) – fruity, herbal and chocolatey. $19.95.
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is typically a wine that gives you good value and good taste. This Gentile Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Vigne di Ofena was even better. I would buy it again if I could find it! The grape is often mistakenly thought to be the grape of Vino Nobile de Montepulciano. Sometimes that’s a mistake that can end up in your favour with a big bold fruity delicious wine. These are found in the Other Italian Regions section.
The third was from the Rutherford Ranch in the Napa Valley, a big bold Cabernet Sauvignon from 2010 that, had I not been driving, I could have sipped all night. As it was, Rita needed the extra boost as she experienced a life-altering Oscar shock. Her husband Khawar, who is more familiar with the bottom end of the Oscar pool score sheet, cleaned her clock – ok he tied for first place with Franca – another movie buff who filled in her sheet just after she got there.
Rita’s reaction was the equivalent of a series of Botox treatments – her words, not mine. While Khawar’s…somewhere between the happy dance I would do if I won a wine trip around the world and Sylvestre Stallone at the end of Rocky.
It was a sight to behold. No worries, Rita, there is always next year – in the meantime Khawar – start doing your research. I will help…over a glass or two of wine.
Wine and music. I can’t imagine life without them. Of course my family and friends push them out of first and second place – but really they’re so much a part of my greatest memories: Sunday dinner, Lucia party (A Swedish Christmas celebration), graduations, birthdays, travels or a gathering of great friends.
I’ll create a playlist for most special occasions, whether it’s a trip, a workout, music to cook by, laid-back tunes and most recently wine-tasting and wine-studying. My husband is my fiercest critic and greatest fan. He loves telling people my playlists degenerate towards the end – but he always downloads them to his iPod, so they can’t be all that bad.
Every once in a while on a Friday or Saturday night, I will pick a few bottles and wrap them up in a paper bag after they’re opened. All I need is a few minutes to forget which is which – but if you want to be sure, get someone else to mix up the order. I started by trying three wines, each from a different country and each a different kind of grape. A Rioja from Spain, a Cabernet Sauvignon from California and a Chianti. If you have never done it before, get a few details about each wine and see what you can pick out from the appearance, aroma and taste. If you know you’ve practiced, challenge yourself and get three California Cabs or three Australian Chardonnays from different regions.There are lots of great web sites to give you the ABC’s of Wine Tasting from Wine Spectator, bottle notes, or the Wine Doctor. IYellow Wine Club founder Angela Aiello sums it up for first timers with 5 easy steps:
If you do it with friends and each brings a bottle – then you can afford better wine. Experimenting is a lot of fun definitely worthy of a playlist or two. Building your own is also one of the great pleasures of life so give it a try. Here is mine:
Lis’ Wine-Tasting Playlist
Your Body Is a Wonderland – John Mayer (as is the body of a great Cab)
Your Song – Elton John (great swirling music)
You Really got a Hold on Me – Smoky Robinson and the Miracles (tried a great Barolo lately?)
You Can’t Make it Love – Michael MacDonald ( who has a voice like the deepest Shiraz)
You Are so Beautiful – Joe Cocker (frightening, but I have thought that about a great glass of wine)
Humble Me – Norah Jones (I could be thinking about the great winemakers Antinori and Gaja – more or likely their wine)
How Deep is Your Love – Bee Gees (or how deep is the colour in your glass)
How Do You Keep the Music Playing -Tony Bennett and George Michael
So Right – Paul Simon
Sara Smile – Hall and Oates
This Guy’s In Love With You – B.J.Thomas
Up on the Roof – James Taylor and Carole King (because they go together in perfect harmony like wine and music)
Into the Mystic – Van Morrison
Sitting on the Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding (because it may be one of the most perfect songs ever written)
Landslide – Fleetwood Mac version
Drive All Night – Bruce Springsteen ( because anyone who would drive all night to buy his woman some shoes deserves toasting)
Heart of Mine. – Boz Scaggs
Through the Fire – Chaka Khan (because I can hit the high notes in my dreams. Or in my car. Only if I am alone..I promise)
Tiny Dancer – Elton John ( because you might have had enough wine to sing along – though watch the wax if you hold up a candle instead of a lighter- concert style) Also a favourite of my blogging partner whose name is Tina Daenzer and back when well-known sportscaster Rod Black hosted Canada AM he would sing to Tiny Daenzer when she arrived at the studio (minus the wine in the mornings of course)
Still Crazy After all These Years – Paul Simon (because Paul Simon is such a genius)
Thunder Road (the acoustic version or any version for that matter) – Bruce Springsteen ( because he could be the greatest songwriter of our time. This is his greatest song and this is such a powerful version that it can pair with a wine that’s rough around the edges or smooth as silk).
And if you are exploring Italian – throw in a little Andrea Bocelli, Chris Botti’s Italia CD is divine, and Chiara Civello, the best Italian-English singer you have never heard of will keep you coming back for more.
Whatever you choose to add to your playlist, whatever memory it brings back, whatever wine you pour in your glass, so long as company is selected with care, you will have the perfect blend.
Take twelve people. Most of them strangers to one another. Entice them with the promise of winning wines, primo pastas and the other tantalizing tastes of Tuscany.
What do you get?
The Big Chill: Italian-style
When I turned 50, instead of shrinking from the F-word, my 50th year would be nothing short of F-F-Fabulous. I pitched a dazzling dozen of dynamic wine drinkers a villa vacation – and it proved to be an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Google tuscan villas and you hit about 1.5 million matches – everything from luxury villa retreats to castle apartments. My group of seasoned travelers included hostel hoppers, cottage couples and travelling teens – old friends and new. Most had never been to Italy.
I gathered their preferences and narrowed it down to three properties: one about 20 minutes of Cortona, the stunning hill town made famous by Frances Mayer’s Under the Tuscan Sun, the second near Siena and the other in Chianti – the heart of Tuscan wine country. The group voted and committed with cash.
I will admit to moments of trepidation. What if it was a scam? What if the pictures were of another villa surrounded by landfill? Or maybe there was no villa at all? How could I be sure?
Even worse, what if the villa was perfect and everyone didn’t get along?
We planned to meet in a parking lot outside Cortona. One thing you realize quickly – even when you speak Italian, getting directions is not easy. It’s more of a state of mind – like getting a recipe from my mother – a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Invest in a GPS. In this case. no one had to pave paradise , you were surrounded by it.
Andrea, son of the villa owner, and most gracious host – met us and accompanied us to the villa. We never would have found it ourselves. The address was something like turn right after the bus stop at marker 232 and continue along the third dirt path until you are absolutely sure an axe murderer will pop out of the bushes and there’s no one to ask for help just chestnut trees and the odd family of wild boar.
But when we turned the final corner, it was obvious, the pictures on the web site didn’t come close.
Our villa turned out to be a 13th century treasure. Six bedrooms, each with its own separate bathroom over three floors, a huge dining room table where we ate every night and a living room with overstuffed couches in front of the fireplace, with enough space to dance up a storm.
The main kitchen was big enough that the wannabe Italian cooks never had to compete for space. Then there was the pool, the view and the price. $2500 for the week or about $500 per couple.
My wonderful band of strangers bonded on the first night over the freshest salami, ripest tomatoes, most fragrant cheeses washed down by local wine. We brought our own music and danced until 3am. Nice start to wash away any worries.
But renting a villa with a group of people forces you to make all kinds of decisions.
Take a wine tour or a cooking class, a bike trip or feign jet lag and relax, visit places with names that you’ve probably read on wine bottles. Montepulciano, Montalcino, Chianti, Orvieto.
We took the slow option and hung around the pool most of the first day.
Blame Marcella – mother of our host Andrea. She arrived with her cheerful assistant Valentina to cook us a five-course dinner. And we didn’t want to miss a second. I was the only one who could speak passable Italian, but where there is a will there is a way. Johanne and Lynn watched as the kitchen was transformed into a haven of heavenly smells. Marcella and Valentina whipped up three kinds of appetizers, spinach pie, two kinds of homemade pasta – yes made right then and there – one with fresh mushrooms, the other with fresh tomatoes and a chicken roasted with something delectable, all topped off with a fruit flan of some sort. Did I mention it cost 30 euros a person WITH wine?
There are moments in life when it feels like you are being rewarded for any good deed you have ever done in your life. That’s exactly how I felt. Graced with my daughter and her best friend who is like a daughter to me, my best friends who have been through the best and worst of times, and new friends who have become such an important part of my landscape – we all sat together around a table as families do. How could I be so lucky?
I knew I had nothing to worry about when Johanne one of my oldest and wisest friends said after the first night – there will be tears when we say goodbye.
The rest of the week just kept getting better. Picture the Big Chill – Italian style. The kitchen became the hub. A few of us, standing around the centre island, one whipping up a salad, another a plate of antipasto – with the freshest ingredients bought that afternoon, another trying out a favourite pasta recipe as familiar to them as breathing.
We walked, we talked, we wine toured and talked more. We solved the problems of the world. Any problem we had a world away.
And on the very last day – we had lunch outside the villa Under the Tuscan Sun – we drank too much – danced on tables and threw rose petals at the wind. But most important we got to experience that something special with people and a place that you will never forget.
If you are going:
6 months before departure date – confirm with potential housemates. You will find everyone wants to go, but when it comes time to commit, the group shrinks.
Get the group to rate their priorities: price, ensuite bathroom, close to town or in the country
Holding your friends close can be tough to do in these busy times. Not enough time for visits, calls or catch-ups.
For the past 22 years, I’ve been so lucky to be able to spend this calendar week with a stellar and eclectic group of people in the state of Maine. And during the week I would hold them very very close because that week (which eventually became two) would last me the whole year.
We refer to each other as the Maine friends, not because the friendship exists only on our sandy beach, (and none us of actually comes from there), but because the Maine friends believe there is no better place to spend this week each year.
Yes, the water turns your lips blue, the traffic on transit day means the drive from Montreal could take you 5 or 10 hours and the weekly fee for the cottage keeps creeping up steadily. There were years of the 60 cent dollar that left you wondering if there was a point where it didn’t make sense (or cents) anymore. After all, PEI is beautiful.
When we moved to Toronto eight years ago, the driving time doubled, but who cares? This was OUR week, on OUR beach so OUR kids could grow up with blue lips, powerful waves and a beach that stretched for miles.
I always loved the fact the kids would pick up where they left off. The blue-lipped gang would explore the rocks, spend hours body surfing and run at the sound of the ice cream truck. Of course there were also the dramas. We even used to bet how long before the first kiddie meltdown. But the dramas never lasted long. It was Maine. And Maine never lasted long enough.
Two years ago, my girls, now in their twenties, carted down a load of books, a bottle of sunscreen and counted their blessings because they love it every bit as much as they did when they played in the tidal pools.
Other beach regulars would call us The Canadians. They watched our kids grow. That’s what the woman from Connecticut told me every year when we exchanged reading suggestions. She also loved watching the compound grow. There were always the drop-ins, those invited guests who easily slipped into the relaxed pace of the week. It took at least three summers before they could be called regulars proving they were more entranced by our beach Big Chill than scared off by the big chill of the water. Then they had to take the Pledge not to reveal more about the location other than it was near Old Orchard.
This is the first time in 22 years my husband and I can’t be there. No illness or depressing reason other than being kept home by a work thing that couldn’t be changed (try explaining to the IOC that you would really appreciate it if they held the Olympics a couple of weeks later). I am handling it like an adult. It’s been put in perspective, and my often Pollyanna-like optimism reminds me that “I’ve been so lucky to have been able to go for 22 years and we will definitely be back next year”.
Time flies and I’m sure by Monday, I’ll stop thinking about what I would be doing this very minute on my beach – whether I would be helping to take orders for Goldthwaites for “arrival night” dinner on the beach or arguing what Billy Jo Macallister really threw off the Talahatchee bridge. I would have mused at least a dozen times that it doesn’t get better than this.
I would have already unpacked my 24 interesting bottles of wines picked up in tax-free New Hampshire and my dozen books for beach reading plus the selections I’d have picked for others because after 22 years you get to know the reading preferences. I would have made the bed with my sheets ridiculously-ironed and spritzed so when I crawl into them and look out window at the ocean and hear the sound of the waves, I would sigh. Because this is my happy place. It’s the place where I am most true to myself. It’s the place where my children will take their children, and it’s the place where I can hold my dearest Maine friends oh so very close.