By Tom Bender

No other holiday signals overindulgence more than our usual Christmas and New Year’s activities. It is a time when we enjoy holiday food traditions and recipes with connection to family heritage. We are blessed to live in Northern California where we can find a multitude of fresh seasonal products helping to build these traditional or historic holiday dishes that might have their origin in the “old country.”

And let’s not leave out our regional wines when we create some of this holiday fare.

Whether it is a local Viognier or Roussanne served with southern France recipes or a Sangiovese or Barbera connecting with Italian holiday food favorites, we do not have to go far to highlight wines with a global connection.

As a child, I spent Christmas Eve gathering with family, which included four aunts with deep Italian roots building a meatless meal focusing on their old country recipes. I remember the nasty smell of stewed dry salted cod filling the house and, for me, as a young boy, it was worse when it arrived to the table in a thin tomato sauce. It was decades later that I found myself in Italy tasting and enjoying Baccala, the same dried cod and tomato dish with a nice glass of Italian wine. It brought back memories of those Christmas Eves and gave me a new appreciation of what those recipes and that evening meant to my aunts.

With some success I have attempted to recreate this family dish along with a pasta dish which they tossed with bread crumbs, raisins, and anchovies; a fish I have come to enjoy but was totally grossed out by in those early Christmas preparations. And I would serve them with Italian grape types such as locally made School Street Dolcetto, La Folia Sangiovese or Vina Moda Barbera.

I asked Lori Gianelli of Gianelli Vineyards about what was a common appearance on her Italian family’s Christmas Eve menu, and she shared a delightful story about her father-in-law “Nino.”

Born in Liguria, a Northern Italy region famous for pesto, Nino came to California in 1920 as a child, served in World War II, and eventually started a carnation nursery in the San Francisco East Bay.

“Nino loved preparing pasta with pesto or raviolis with red sauce all year long, and they always found their way into our holiday menu. But he never trusted anyone else with making the pesto dish,” Lori said. “The sweet man retired in 1987 and made one last trip to see our new vineyard in 2008, and I had one more chance to properly prepare pasta with fresh pesto. After touring and sharing his opinions on the winery construction project I served him his favorite dish for the last time. After a few bites he looked at me, smiled and said ‘You did it good!’ I finally made the grade.”

In memory of Nino, the Gianellis have made a red wine blend from their vineyard called “Nino” and the label shows him in his WW2 uniform.

A holiday shellfish favorite

Another Christmas Eve favorite in northern California includes fresh dungeness crab and including it in cioppino, a classic San Francisco dish. There are various avenues to take when preparing this shellfish stew, and that holds true when selecting a wine to serve with it. Some think it has a southern Italian heritage and calls for a red. But it is OK to have it with a number of full flavored white wines too. A lightly chilled Roussanne from Broll Mountain Winery or the Rhone style “Cote d Or” white blend from Mineral Winery gives the hearty dish a regional touch.

Going Iberian
on Christmas Eve

For over 20 years, the foothills have been a leader in growing and producing wines from grape types found in the Iberian countries of Spain and Portugal. Chuck Hovey was an early pioneer of Tempranillo in Calaveras County with plantings near Stevenot Winery, while Gay Callan of Chatom Vineyards focused on planting several Portuguese red types such as Touriga. More recently, Spanish and Portuguese white varietals such as Albarino, Verdelho and Verdejo have sparked interest in our region with limited but promising vineyard plantings.

Similar in names but very different in origin and flavors, Verdelho most likely had its start in Portugal and its island of Madeira, while the Verdejo grape hails from Rueda, a famous region in Northern Spain where it is made into a crisp dry white. Verdelho has also had success as a dry aromatic white wine in the Duoro region of northern Portugal. Here in the foothills, both examples have generated growing success with distinctive characteristics unique to each grape.

Inner Sanctum Wines in Jamestown has been sourcing its Verdejo from nearby Zuni Vineyards for several years. Dry but with its touch of stone fruit and richness, it pairs ideally with a number of traditional dishes including holiday Mexican tamales and pozole. A big bowl of warm pozole makes this hearty broth and pork dish an ideal meal on a cold night between the holidays.

Blends making a statement

A skyrocketing number of wine blends have hit our local wine-tasting rooms and wine shop shelves. Blending was most likely an opportunity for wineries to make use of excess wines and create proprietary names and labels. And it is not always reds that make up the blends and score points in food matches.

At a recent holiday party, a wine and food pairing that caught my attention was something as simple as a butternut squash soup paired with a white wine blend from Murphys. The event was the annual holiday Tuolumne Wine Association Christmas party that took place at Mountain Springs Golf Course near Sonora. As you can imagine, there were a number of terrific wines and foods featured that night with a nicely prepared menu, but one combination that stood out for me was the Hovey Winery C2 white blend tasted with a butternut squash soup prepared by Melodie Ferguson, chef and operator of the restaurant. Her presentation of the soup in miniature soup mugs as an appetizer was a nice touch too.

Chuck Hovey’s C2 white is a blend of 50 percent Albarino, 25 percent Viognier and 25 percent Verdelho and matched extremely well with the richness in the soup. It was one of those “try this wine with this food” moments that you find yourself wanting to share with other enthusiasts around you.

And speaking of blends, I cannot miss mentioning one of the most interesting local holiday wine gift packs, which might speak to a number of us. Winemaker Scott Klan, owner of Newsome Harlow Wines in Murphys, has assembled a trio of wines he calls Dysfunctional Family 3 Pack. The boxed trio consists of three of his red blends; Drama Queen, Train Wreck and The Deviant. These are popular blends from Scott, and the pack is available at its tasting room on Main Street in Murphys. It only seems right to pour these wines at a family function where the hors d’oeuvres platter could consist of three dysfunctional bites, Cheese whiz on Doritos, kale quinoa balls, and tuna carpaccio with caviar.

Have a flavorful holiday!

Sonora-area resident Tom Bender has taught classes on wine in Columbia College’s Culinary Arts program since 1979. He managed the Columbia City Hotel, and its award-winning wine cellar, for many years and now manages a wine bar at a Modesto specialty market. He is also a wine maker. Contact him at .