In this episode of the Wine Enthusiast Podcast, we sit down with head buyer for NYC’s Eastside Cellars wine shop, Jenny Hong, and WE’s food editor, Nils Bernstein, to talk about holiday must-have wine and food pairings, how to please diverse palates, plus personal stories of wine triumphs and challenges at their holiday dinner table. We also share cool, unique holiday traditions from around the world.
Read the full transcript of Wine & Food Holiday Traditions:
Jameson Fink: Hi, I’m Jameson Fink, I’m the senior digital editor for Wine Enthusiast.
Jenny Hong: My name is Jenny Hong, and I am the head buyer for a retail store in the upper east side called Eastside Cellars.
JF: Today we’re talking about holiday wine and food pairings, stories, and hi-jinx. Triumphs and hopefully no tragedies. Jenny, yesterday we were at [Bra 00:00:48] Wines, beautiful Brooklyn day, and we were talking about holiday wine and bringing wine to a friend’s house, or family’s house, or your significant other’s house, or all of the above. You had a really great story about your experience bringing wine to your boyfriend’s family. I wondered if you could share that with us.
JH: Usually I’m not a really big celebration kind of person for holidays, but my boyfriend’s family really is into the idea that I’m really … or my profession is in wine so every time I come over to their house to eat or to do some kind of holiday events, they always put me in charge of beverages. There’s a lot of pressure riding on me to pick some things that I can also drink, that is also appealing to their palates. They’re the kinds of people who love ordering pre-made dishes from Williams Sonoma, or following Bon Appetit recipes for holiday. I understood that they were looking for something very classic, and so I love California wines, I think a lot of things have changed since I’ve started in the business and I wanted to showcase wines from the States that were doing something very different than what they probably know of. So I some of the things I brought over, I brought over three different bottles from California. One was a Farmers Jane, which was a Grenache-Carignan blend from one of the projects from Angela, who does[inaudible 00:02:27].
One of them was the [La Cumo Sera 00:02:32] from La Clarine Farm and lastly, the Sluice Box White Blend from Donkey and Goat. These are not really any grapes that my boyfriend’s family … They know nothing about. It’s not a cab or a Merlot or sauvignon blanc or chardonnay, so I wanted to open their palates and their minds to what is out there beyond what they’re comfortable with as well. I thought it was really cool to bring some things that they were not comfortable with, they really enjoyed all of it and I was really excited to open their minds to what’s out-
JF: That’s really cool because I think we both feel … It’s funny, being in the business that we’re in, I think it’s self-imposed pressure that we put on ourselves. Like, oh God, I’m the wine person, I’m the wine expert. I work in the wine business, I better hit a home run or everyone’s going to be like “Jameson the wine guy, you just picked that, some lame wine”. What kind of reactions did you get from your trio of California wines?
JH: I was looking for something that was low alcohol to go with such rich foods because I think the holidays are really much about extravagance. You can see that in the way they prepare foods in general beyond my boyfriend’s family’s table. I wanted to highlight the nuance flavors that they wouldn’t necessarily think to pick out. I went for the traditional red wine with the turkey, or any of the meat dishes, but I also wanted to bring something that was unusual like, it was a rich white from the Sluice Box, which is I believe a Rhone style blend from Donkey and Goat, and it went really well with the butternut squash soup that they prepared and it went with the stuffing and usually I think because they had the … I think the stuffing they made was meat based so they were really hesitant to drink white wine with meat because I think we’ve generally been taught as a general public that usually red wine goes with meat and white wine goes with fish and vegetables. I wanted to shake things up a bit and introduce different pairings that they might have not thought to try.
They responded well to my choices, I’m not sure if because they didn’t want to say anything bad about the wines that I brought because they were afraid that “If Jenny doesn’t think that I like this will she stop bringing wine to the table?” I think that generally my boyfriend’s dad is a really big wine drinker and he is the hardest palate to please and he really enjoyed all of it and I think it spoke volumes about the wines brought because he actually drank all of the La Clarine Farm, which can be a hit or miss sometimes just because of the slight funkiness that has its appeal to a lot of different people.
JF: That’s great because I think it’s when you mention white wine and meat, I think that’s something that’s still ingrained in people’s mind. Even whenever you have a standing rib roast, or mushrooms or a turkey or whatever you might have at your holiday table, people still think that meat equals red wine. With a rich white wine, there’s also the refreshment factor too. It’s something that, you’re eating all this heavy food it’s nice to have something like a white with a little weight that can stand up to it, but still offers refreshment.
Think about the wines that you picked out, do you have general guidelines for people, when they come into your shop and they’re going to a holiday party, and who knows what … There could be crudites, finger foods and things like that. What are some of your versatile go-to, kind of Swiss army knives that can kind of do a little bit of everything that you can bring to a party.
JH: Beyond what I said about not bringing European made wines, or outside of the States for the holiday parties, I think go with what’s tried and true. For the holidays, especially Thanksgiving, I think Beaujolais works really well, not just Beaujolais Nouveau, but the actual Beaujolais Gamay from the Cru villages from France I think work really wonderfully across the board whether it’s with roasted vegetables, to turkey, to stuffing. Because it has a lot of this bright acidity and bright fruit, but this underlying core minerality that comes through. I also think that because there’s a lot of heavy dishes, go with high acid wines.
People tend to shy away from Riesling as a food pairing because they think it might be too sweet, but I think that’s why it makes such a good food pairing. It shouldn’t be a wine that’s enjoyed by itself, although we may drink it by itself because it’s so pleasurable, but with so many high fat and rich dishes, something that has a little sweetness or vibrancy to it, I think works really well. Not just Riesling, but maybe an off-dry chenin blanc cause it also has a lot of that richness, but a lot of the floral elements that compliment some of the herbal elements of the dishes that people prepare in the holiday time.
I am very … Growing up I never really celebrated any of the holidays so I had to make my own holiday traditions and one of the things that I do is I love to go watch a movie during the holiday season and go out either for, now that I live in New York I have the great opportunity to go to Katz Deli to eat their really awesome pastrami and corned beef. I love going for a sandwich there and they’re open 24 hours which is fantastic. I also like to do the Chinese food during the holidays because they are easily … you can rely on them to be open during odd hours or odd days that you don’t necessarily know what’s open or not. I usually like to go do things that’s very low key because work tends to be very hectic during this season.
JF: It’s OND, it’s like the busiest time of the year for a retail line.
JH: Yes OND is great, it allows me … People tend to have a more open mind during the holiday season so I like to use this time for not only education, but also try to get them to drink a little better, things that they are still comfortable with, but just outside of the boundaries of that they know. They can start to bring something that’s cool or unusual or a little esoteric to the parties or even to their own dining table if they choose to.
JF: One final question, when you get that sandwich at Katz, or that Chinese food and you take it home, or you’re at a place that’s BYOB, what wines would you ideally want to have with you?
JH: I think with Chinese food I’m a huge proponent of either pet-nat, which are sparkling wines that only go through their first primary fermentation in the bottle, so they tend to be a little bit more funky, and a little more sometimes off-dry and I think they’re a perfect pairing just because I love spicy Chinese food, especially Szechuan style so they tend to have a lot of peppers and a lot of spice in their dishes and what’s Chinese food without pork, so pet-nats generally tend to go really well with that just because of the earthiness enhances the fried rice dishes that you’re going to be eating. I also think Riesling goes really well, anything that has a little … I love high acid and a little bit of sweetness in my wines, so it reflects really well with the sweetness of the Chinese food that restaurants may be doing.
For Katz’, I would say that because it’s so salty and rich, maybe, I think Champagne would do really well. If not Champagne, I don’t feel like splurging although there are really good values on the market, just a good cava I think would work really well in that aspect.
JF: Awesome, well Jenny thanks for joining me today and I think you’ve given us some great advice, you can go go-go Gamay, you can do off-dry chenin, you can do sparkling, and also, just don’t be afraid to gently challenge what you think people might want to drink and get them outside of their boundaries and exploring and discovering new things as long as they have great guides like you there to hold their hands through the world of natural wines and pet-nats and high acid, low alcohol, really refreshing food wines. So thanks for being on the show today Jenny.
Woman: Fun fact: although Chile is better know for its pisco sour, Christmas means enjoying a glass of cola de mono, or monkey’s tail. Using a style of South American liquor.
Man: On Christmas day in South Africa, locals eat deep fried caterpillars of the emperor moth.
Chris Horn: I’m Chris Horn, wine director for the Heavy Restaurant Group and co-author of Cook & Cork.
Harry Mills: I’m Harry Mills, I’m the executive chef of Purple Café in downtown Seattle and co-author of Cook & Cork. A book that explores the concept of the mind-mouth. Everybody has a mind map we employ every time we think about food. When we think about making the recipe or when we’re reading a menu at a restaurant, we are employing our mind-mouth, we are tasting things in our brains and if we take that idea and practice it with wine as well, we can all start to think about the interaction between food and wine and put them together before we actually put them together in our mouths.
Part of it comes from thinking of your mouth as a beautiful instrument and then understanding that information that comes from that instrument and categorizing it and collating it. It’s something we’ve done since birth. Every time we eat a burger, you are opening that drawer in your mind and you’re tasting all the other burgers that you’ve had in your life and you’re stacking that burger in your hand against all the burgers that came before it and it’s something we as humans do all the time. We talk about food all the time. It’s just basically accessing our mind map.
To practice your mind-mouth work, when you have a recipe, either something online or in a cookbook, maybe write in the margins of the cookbook what wines you can think about going with that food, and then when you amass the ingredients, you grab a couple different bottles of wine. Then, when you’re making the food you open those wines and discover how well your mind-mouth is working. It’s working out a muscle that we all have but we don’t think about very often. Once you start using your mind-mouth, it’s sort of natural. It’s like when you have chocolate chip cookies, you don’t think about anything else besides a nice cold glass of milk.
CH: I think that is a great illustration of how to practice anywhere, anytime with your mind-mouth. We all know what grilled cheese and tomato soup tastes like in our mind, and that familiarity can begin to extend to other things as we learn to think of what Chardonnay tastes like in our mind and then combining that with food. If your holiday dinner is anything like mine, it’s sort of, maybe, not boring but traditional. Where you have a variety of foods that seemingly don’t belong on the same table together. What I like to do, is take the occasion of a holiday dinner as an excuse to open a bunch of stuff.
At the very least, you have the sparkling wine, the Champagne, the cremant, whatever it is, because it’s a celebration and also there’s a lot of foods there that maybe are a little salty or maybe a little bit rich and you can have those bubbles to help erase all that. Then you have, I like to get something like a big fat Chardonnay that’s oaky and buttery because you have a lot of food that are slathered in butter. That sort of flavor bridge works out really well. Then whether it be the ham or the turkey or whatever your protein is going on there, that sort of dictates the third bottle. If you’re having turkey I always head towards Gamay Noir, Pinot Noir. If you’re having that ham, I kind of like Gewurztraminer with ham. If you think about the flavors in Gewurztraminer and the flavors on ham, those-
HM: Skip the pineapple and just Gewurztraminer with it.
CH: Well I say use the holidays as an excuse to open all that wine that you were saving for a special occasion. There’s no better occasion than drinking wine with people you love and the wine’s going to taste better if you’re drinking it with people you love.
HM: I very much agree with that. I also think that there’s not, like Chris was talking about earlier, there’s not a lot of meals that you would break out your big, tannic, Cabernet Sauvignon for, but prime rib certainly is one of those if you’re doing that. Those big, hedonistic Chardonnays are not the most food friendly wines on the planet, but they sure do go with those mashed potatoes. I think those are great excuses, certainly for guys like us who are always thinking of food wines, and some of those can be tough to pair. It’s a fun excuse to get out those big, bombastic wines and have fun with them with relatively simple cuisine.
You can get our book at cookandcorkbook.com. It’s just our own simple website with a way to buy the book online.
CH: You can also check us out on Instagram @cook.and.cork.book.
HM: Yeah I came up with that terrible Instagram handle. Everybody’s mad. Too many periods.
Woman: Fun fact: in Iceland, children leave a shoe out on their windowsill. Magical Yule Lads climb down from the mountains to leave them gifts.
Good to know: sorrel punch is a Jamaican Christmas drink featuring roselle, a species of hibiscus.
Nils Bernstein: I’m Nils Bernstein, the food editor of wine enthusiast. So what are we listening to right now by the way in the background?
Jameson Fink: It’s a little generic tropicalia, kind of Brazilian compilation.
You’re clearly a gourmet gourmand, a great cook, you know a lot about food, but I’m always curious, what are some of your tips if you’re someone like me who really likes too cook, but the idea of hosting a holiday party, whether it’s three or four friends, or 10 or 15. What are some of your go-tos or things that would make that kind of cooking and entertaining less stressful, but still really unique.
NB: I think the error people make is trying to do something impressive and ambitious, and I think something more … Roast chicken and potatoes, that’s executed brilliantly is always going to be better than something experimental that you kind of half-ass. I find that, obviously depending on how many people you’re cooking for, but something that’s a big centerpiece, not just a big, standing rib roast, a crown roast of pork, a whole poached salmon, steaks. You could also do casseroles, a Greek spanakopita can be great. A eastern European cabbage strudel in a big beautiful casserole dish can be amazing. Beautiful stews.
Duck in Riesling is something I fall back on a lot, it’s kind of a different take on coq au vin that goes over great and is really easy and you can prepare it ahead. I think the whole thing with holiday entertaining is you want to give yourself a break and be able to interact with people and it’s really mostly about advance preparation and picking things that don’t involve a lot of stress just before the people come over.
JF: What about more of a cocktail party. I’d be like “I’m going to go to Costco and get a crudites platter and some frozen dumplings and stuff.” Not that those things can’t be good, but what are some cocktail party foods you like to make that are unique and tasty and aren’t going to keep you in the kitchen all day.
NB: I think a lot of that stuff is, again, I think even with that an error that people make is by buying too much, or trying to cover too much ground. I think one really beautiful cheese is better than a cheese plate with five different cheeses on it. One really interesting piece of charcuterie is going to be more interesting than just a random cold-cut or charcuterie plate. So I think in that case it’s about finding the best quality items you can and maybe it is just all pre-made things. It’s cheese, it’s charcuterie, it’s nuts, it’s dried fruit. Just finding the best, not overdoing it and presenting it in a really nice way.
JF: What is your ideal holiday meal for if you’re having six of your closest friends over? What would you want to cook?
NB: I like doing a standing rib roast or a leg of lamb with a really herby, relishy, gremolata pesto. Something like that so it’s a little bracing, something that’s not super starch heavy. Then maybe a gigantic super messy green salad with some nuts and cheese and grains. Then a six layer chocolate cake for desert.
JF: That sounds amazing. What also, entertaining wise, what wines do you like to have on hand. What are your go-tos and what you find just works good with a crowd?
NB: I think a lot of times around this time of year, the inclination is to go with bigger, richer wines, maybe wines that reflect what you’re thinking of culinarily for the holidays. It’s big, jammy wines that taste of dried fruit and baking spices. I think I find I tend to like, because the food can have so much sweetness and richness and a little heft to it, I like wines that balance that. I like really crisp, higher acid Italian reds. I like what I call winter whites, whites with a little creaminess and richness. A [sauvigniere 00:21:46], what would be some pinot gris, some gaudios that have a kind of weight that can stand up to some of the sweeter spices and root vegetables and things like that around the holidays. I really like serving dessert wines around the holidays. I think a little bit timed well and served with the right foods can be really eye opening for a lot of people who don’t think they like them.
JF: I just snooped in your fridge while you were opening it and I saw a couple 375s, a couple half bottles of Sauternes in there.
NB: You can’t go wrong with a great vintage, a Sauternes with some age on it from a great year, just get a half bottle, you could put a straw in it and just down it with some fried chicken, but you could also, you know that could go six ways. People again that think that they’re not partial to that kind of flavor will … you can convert them.
JF: What I’m thinking, as someone who’s terrified of having people over to my house, or my place of residence. I really like the idea of you don’t have to have a cheese plate with ten cheeses, or eight different kinds of charcuterie. You just need to … I have one great cheese, one great accouterments, some kind of fig paste or something, some good bread. Great wine, and look you’ve got great music and people. Just don’t freak out about it, just chill. Well thanks for chatting with me about holiday meals and travails and trials in food and wine. Now let’s enjoy some music and pinot noir.
NB: All right, I’m always here to talk about travails, thanks for having me.
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Last Updated: June 5, 2023