Good food, fine wine, great friends – tying it all together for a “Gusto” experience.

I couldn't help but display my Chanukah cookies instead of photos of wine...they came out so nicely!

Combining family, food and festivities, Hanukkah is truly a holiday experienced through the senses. Add some wine to the mix with these tailored tips, and you’ll up the simcha factor faster than a spinning dreidel.

With wine, it is important to relax and ultimately drink what you enjoy. Hanukkah’s treats and wintry backdrop provide just the occasion to experiment with food pairings. The first four tips offer advice on tasting and pairing.

1. Discover the new kosher wines. Gone are the days of kosher wines being synonymous with thick, syrupy concoctions (though these can get quite tasty during a four-cup seder). Today’s kosher wines, from Israel to the U.S. and even Australia, have begun garnering serious awards, and are redefining our concept of Jewish wines for the chagim.

2. Hanukkat Bayit. In Hebrew, Hanukkah means “rededication,” and what better way to celebrate this cozy festival of lights than to host a Hanukkah wine tasting with good friends, featuring – symbolically – eight wines for the group to try.

3. The new pairing theory. Did you know that the old “red wine with red meat, white wines with white meat” adage was born post-World War II, as an attempt by European wine promoters to target the steak-happy U.S. market? Some exceptions apply to that rule, such as the classic pairing of Pinot Noir and salmon, so modern wine specialists recommend pairing foods and wines that share equal heft or intensity of flavor, so as not to overwhelm one of the components. For example, chicken with herbs may be delicate enough for a white Chenin Blanc, but with a dark mushroom sauce, the chicken may be better suited to a red Beaujolais or Burgundy.

4. Wine’s yin and yang. Another simple pairing strategy is to take shared elements found in a food and a wine, and pair them in a complementary manner. Think of a crispy, fried latke and a buttery, oaked Chardonnay, both sharing a heavy richness on the tongue. An equally intriguing palate pleaser results from contrasting two elements – such as that hot, oily latke with a sip of crisp, clean Sauvignon Blanc, a delicate wine whose citruslike acidity cuts through the oil and cleanses the palate.

While the true essence of Hanukkah hardly emphasizes presents, it helps to have a plan for purchasing wines for a special friend, colleague or hostess. These next four strategies will keep your gift in their hearts long after the eighth candle has waned.

5. Pick a relevant region. Today, all 50 states make wine. If you have a loved one who will be visiting from New York, for example, why not give them a bottle of fine, red Meritage from the North Fork of Long Island?

6. Mark a meaningful year. Perhaps your niece got engaged in 2003. Why not track down a case or a magnum (large-format bottle) of a rich Cabernet Sauvignon from that vintage year?

7. Hone in on a hobby. With an abundance of clever winery names and creative labels available, this is one time when judging a book by its cover is encouraged. There are wine labels with favorite animals, tongue-in-cheek humor or even a sultry bottle of Marilyn Merlot for the fans.

8. Bundle wines from Israel and the Diaspora. Give a multiple gift by selecting the recipient’s favorite type of wine and gathering an Israeli version along with one from the U.S., Australia or Europe. Call this the “Nes Gadol Haya Po v’Sham” gift: A great miracle happened here and there!

Spanning the globe and various budgets, here are three kosher wines that pair smartly with Hanukkah fare.

Sauvignon Blanc: Goose Bay Sauvignon Blanc

The signature citrus and gooseberry flavor combination put Marlborough, New Zealand, on the world map for notable Sauvignon Blanc production, and this example is just that – and perfect as a crisp contrast to hot latkes.
(White wine from New Zealand. Kashrut index: Mevushal, OU. Approximately $16/bottle)

Chardonnay: Altoona Hills Chardonnay

The full-bodied fruit and creamy oak essence lend a vibrant touch to this classic white sipper. With an exceptionally rich structure, this Australian landmark wine can easily complement any oil-laden Hanukkah treats.
(White wine from Australia. Kashrut index: Mevushal, OU. Approximately $8/bottle)

Pinot Noir: Galil Pinot Noir

This Israeli gem demonstrates the fruit-forward New World style of Pinot Noir, featuring tangy, earthy notes that showcase signature sour cherries and berries. Food-friendly and versatile, it is equally at home with schnitzel, mushroom-based dishes or grilled salmon. (Red wine from Israel. Kashrut index: Non-mevushal, OK. Approximately $19/bottle)

Gilat Ben-Dor, MBA, CSW is a wine educator and sommelier. She is the director of Renaissance Wine Academy™ in Scottsdale, Arizona, which offers wine education, keynote speaking, and consulting for corporate and private clients. Visit RenaissanceWineAcademy.com for more details.

© Gilat Ben-Dor, 2008-2010.


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Classic Raffaellesco pattern on Deruta majolica plate

This lively, stylized dragon is a signature mark on the classic Raffaellesco pattern used on many Deruta majolica pieces. Pictured here is a plate from my personal collection.

Who am I to judge those who obsess over the dining chairs of an obscure designer, or those deranged fans of discontinued lipstick shades, hunting down the last remaining world supply with cold-sweat fervor? Not I. I will readily own up to my own unique brand of fascination: Italian majolica (pronounced “maYOLica”, and sometimes spelled maiolica). Majolica is pottery painted in a protected Renaissance tradition in the town of Deruta, in the region of Umbria. For those cooking-lesson villa renters out there, and fans of “Under the Tuscan Sun,” you may know Umbria as the region just southeast of Tuscany.

But Deruta pottery is so much more than some hand-painted flourishes scrawled on a fruit bowl. Deruta pottery comes in a variety of historic designs, which I will point out shortly. But aside from the rich tradition surrounding Deruta wares, I make the audacious claim that a Deruta dinner plate changed my life.

A dinner plate?

Yes – and from an early age, too. As a child, I used to play at the home of our family friends where I discovered an untapped passion. This couple has led tours to Italy for many years, particularly based around the Renaissance capital of Florence. In their home, I grew up gazing at the large, glamorous photos of them standing proudly in front of medieval architecture, and with wind-blown smiles atop city panoramas. Dressed in stylish gear, gelato in hand, they posed on gondolas and beside clock towers. I loved being in their home, surrounded by volumes of glossy art books, and the cozy luxury of rugs and artwork in every cranny.

But perhaps most of all, it was their elegant, stylish dinner parties (viewed from my vantage point at the “kids’ table”) that intrigued me the most. This is where I witnessed their never-ending parade of Deruta pottery: ceramic candlesticks whose colorful designs glowed amid the din of group laughter; platters sturdy enough to hold plump piles of veal piccata and hearty helpings of pesto linguine, and yet charming and poised enough to grace a table fit for Company.

Damn the kids’ table, I thought, as I gazed at my hot dogs n’ beans.

It was during one of these entertaining affairs that I first saw it: Raffaellesco, the pattern of my dreams.

Lively, stylized dragons with tapering tails in rich shades of golden maize, accented with cobalt, brown and teal. More ornamentation than a Bach fugue, but it all worked cleanly against the crisp, white background. This is truly the spirit of the Renaissance, captured perfectly! I remember thinking, as I reached the flashpoint of my lifelong love of the Italian Renaissance.

The Raffaellesco pattern offers an experience both visually and energetically. It is regal and stately, yet fun and dynamic – a satisfying combination for those with modern formal tastes.

Hand-painted detail showing the Raffaellesco dragon

In this detail from an authentic Deruta plate, you can see the brushstrokes indicating true, hand-painted workmanship.

The name Raffaellesco is attributed to the Renaissance artist Raphael, who was thought to have painted a benevolent sea god meant to protect seafaring merchants on their journeys. The design stuck, as it is one of Deruta’s most famed and popular designs. Other classic Deruta designs include the colorful Ricco Deruta, considered the oldest and most traditional pattern in the Deruta tradition; Orvieto, a nod to rustic living with its cheerful, green roosters;  Siena, an elegant, black-bordered collection featuring medieval-style flora and fauna; and the lively Arrabesco pattern, featuring birds and freeform decorations that evoke a more contemporary sensibility.

The town of Deruta takes its pottery traditions very seriously. The city houses what is widely considered the world’s foremost authority for the teaching of the Deruta majolica technique, the International School of Ceramic Art “Romero Ranieri.” All authentically created, local majolica pieces contain a special “Deruta” signature on their underside, usually hand-painted rather than stamped. The producers must follow strict design guidelines if they are to label their majolica pieces in the classic series.  This handiwork does not come cheap, and even within the regulated producers, there is a spectrum of quality and refinement. For the real deal, expect to pay at least $100 for a dinner plate (yes, one dinner plate).

Recently, after a two year investigation, the Italian police uncovered a Deruta fraud ring. According to a March 10, 2010 article published at ThatsArte.com’s blog by Tiziana, “last February…Italian police charged the owners of three companies located in Assisi and Deruta with fraud and other administrative crimes. They manufactured fake Raffaellesco and Ricco Deruta pottery that was then partly sold to bus loads of unaware tourists visiting Assisi, partly exported to Europe, Japan and to the US at competitive prices.” The police seized over 2000 pieces that bore the coveted “Handpainted in Deruta” signature but which were actually decal transfer work.

The dramatic world of art fraud is far-reaching, I’m afraid. I have encountered several knock-offs in some of my own local home furnishing stores. It is easy to spot these knock-offs if you look closely. You will be able to see a tiny “dot matrix” printing texture instead of a smooth series of brushstrokes. To this, they will often hand-paint the rim of the plate which may add more of an authentic look to the unsuspecting eye. Sure, these are priced quite inexpensively, but like first-class air travel, once you’ve experienced the real deal, it’s hard to go back.

Deruta authentic signature

This hand-signed mark on the underside of a Deruta majolica piece indicates authenticity.

Not surprisingly, I ended up spending a blissful semester in Florence during my college days. I was thrilled when I found an affordable Deruta (or was I duped into buying “Deruta style”?) vendor stand in one of the piazzas. I bought a small Raffaellesco plate, but it then broke in transit back to the States. Since then, I have thirsted for more Deruta to ease that early disappointment. But a funny thing happens with these types of pursuits. Suddenly, one piece is no longer enough. The most insidious part of a “Deruta-ddiction” is that these beautiful pieces are also functional. The rationalizations can get out of hand. I mean, who couldn’t use a mezzaluna (crescent-shaped) cookie dish around the house, or a hand-painted biscotti jar to catch someone’s hands in?

Come on, you know you want a rooster-shaped pitcher.

To purchase Italian majolica in the U.S., visit the website of Biordi in San Francisco, California. There are many other purveyors of Italian majolica in the U.S., but Biordi carries some of the finest examples of majolica from Deruta and other regions. Their inventory spans from classic to more contemporary styles, and many items beyond tableware. You can even commission your own designs through them.

© Gilat Ben-Dor, 2010. All rights reserved.


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Pair hot dogs and mustard with a mildly sweet wine like Riesling or Gewürtztraminer for a sweet-and-spicy contrast.

Pair hot dogs and mustard with a mildly sweet version of Riesling or Gewürtztraminer for a sweet-and-spicy contrast.

The first thing I’d like to get off of my chest is that, no, not all Rieslings are cloyingly sweet, and no, “Gewürtztraminer” is not what we say when someone sneezes. Close, but not quite.

Having said that, there is a phenomenon in which sweet wines tend to calm down spicy foods (this works great with Asian cuisine hot with chili flakes, paired with a well-chilled Riesling). In fact, it is fun to test out this tried-and-true principle in our own backyards, pairing spicy brats, Italian sausages, or hot dogs (the milder cousin, but flavorfully salty) along with some off-dry (and yes, some moderately sweet versions of) Riesling and Gewürtztraminer.

I recently paired these not in a grassy suburban backyard, but in a television studio during my appearance on the morning TV segment of “The Pat McMahon Show” (AZTV). One way to build an even stronger contrast of the hot versus sweet is to up the ante on both ends: if you start with regular hot dogs, add some heat to them with different types of spicy mustards. If you are like me, you relate to the foodie’s dream pantry of having 23 different types of mustards (“No two are the same!” we’d argue, as we pondered over a jar of whole-seed or garlic-herb Dijon). The spicier the mustard, the sweeter you can go (to a point—but try and try again. This is not such terrible work).

The Riesling can come from Old World sources (i.e., European), especially Germany, in which the sweetness levels are officially classified, and acidity is known to balance sweetness and help avert a syrupy fate; or New World sources, like Australia and California, in which you will find drier versions much more commonly.  Older Rieslings are known to have a slight yet distinct petrol aroma (not kidding) but this will likely not come into play if you purchase New World brands geared towards the more ready-to-drink market.

Gewürtztraminer, which is (not surprisingly) thought to hail from the town of Traminer (in Northern Italy, near Alto Adige), is often associated with Riesling if only for their common propensity for sweetness and heady aromas. However, Gewürtztraminer does not typically reach the acidity levels of Riesling and is well-known for its signature notes of lychee fruit.

The Asian cuisine and Riesling phenomenon is a fun one to try, but today, let’s break out the buns, dogs, and mustard, and have an Oktoberfest in our mouths with our guests of honor: Riesling and Gewürtztraminer.

This post is part of a series on summer wine pairings. To see the starting post, click here.

Good examples: Chateau St. Michelle Columbia Valley Riesling 2008 (Washington, approx. $9); Fetzer Gewürtztraminer Valley Oaks 2007 (California, $7); Mirassou Monterey Riesling 2007 (California, $9).

Even sweeter picks: The spicier the food, the sweeter the wine to complement it. For traditionally sweet Rieslings, try one of these age-worthy gems from the German “doctors”: Dr. Loosen “Dr. L” Riesling 2008 (Germany, $10); Dr. Pauly Noble House Riesling 2005 (Germany, $11); Dr. Thanisch Bernkasteler Lay Auslese 2005 (Germany, $37).

© Gilat Ben-Dor.


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Get out of auto-pilot mode and reach for a non-Cabernet with your burger.

Get out of auto-pilot mode and reach for a non-Cabernet with your burger.

There is something primal and so satisfying about the classic, hearty combination of “reds with reds.” And for summer, this hot match can still sizzle: imagine a meaty, iron-rich burger in one hand, with juices dripping down your wrist, and in the other hand, perfectly poised, a glass of robust red wine to match. Just when you thought things could not get better—oh yes, they can.

When beef comes to mind, the first red wine that is often on our lips (oh no, more puns!) is a hearty Cabernet Sauvignon. Nothing wrong with that. However, with summer here, I suspect that even those who love wool suits in the winter don a different outfit when the mercury rises into sweaty territory. Well, our palates are no less seasonal. How about lightening things up in the red wine department, and getting out of auto-pilot selections, for a change?

Those juicy burgers on the grill would sure love to have a summer fling with some Southern Rhône wines, such as those from Chateauneuf-du-Pape, made from up to 13 different types of grapes (though usually a primary blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, and sometimes Syrah). Northern Rhone rules the roost when it comes to Syrah, such as wines from the well-regarded Cotes-Rotie (“Roasted Coast”) and Hermitage; these are Syrah wines made in the elegant “Old World” style. However, bold, drippy burgers are often most at home with equally spunky wines, and in this case, I would recommend a high-energy Shiraz from Australia. (That is NOT to say that all Australian Shirazes are the same, either, though that is for another day’s discussion…). Of course, Cotes-du-Rhône spans a bit of the region and you can find some great values from there (see examples below).

Speaking of toppings for burgers, what’s a great cheeseburger wine? A great red sipper – big enough to stand up to a bulky cheeseburger, but smooth enough to sip solo while waiting for the food to be ready – is a jammy Malbec; serious plum and blackberry but without as much tannic gravel going on as the biggest of reds. Envision the curvy silhouette of a lima-bean shaped pool instead of a hard-edged Olympic-sized square – the former is more rounded, but a real pool nonetheless.

Merlot, particularly when blended (with Malbec, even), can offer background structure but enough softness to highlight interesting toppings on the burgers without competing for primary flavor status; finally, it is always fun to open up a bottle of Beaujolais, such as Beaujolais-Villages (not to be confused with the annual Beaujolais Nouveau, which comes out in November, and would be quite the anachronism here). While designed not to be a big, over-the-top wine, Beaujolais wines are made of the Gamay grape and are often crafted in a manner that guides and slides the wine into our glass and into our throats without too much fuss. And that, my friends, is what summer is all about, is it not?

This post is part of a series of “Picnic Pairings” for summer food and wine.  Check out the first series post here.

Good examples: Jaboulet Cotes-du-Rhône Parallelle 45 2007 (Rhône, France, $12); Layer Cake Shiraz 2008 (Barossa Valley, Australia, $17); Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages 2007 (Beaujolais (multi-village), France, $14).

Extreme value pick: Panilonco Merlot-Malbec (Colchagua, Chile, $4).

© Gilat Ben-Dor.


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Branch out into colorful rosé territory with a match of salmon and grilled veggies.

Branch out into colorful rosé territory with a match of salmon and grilled veggies.

The belief that fish can only pair with white wines is not always the case. The main factor to consider is how tannic (or how heavy and mouth-drying) your red wine is, as well as the weight and texture of the fish. There are many fish in the sea, and thus, all fish were not created equal. Lucky for us, salmon is a hearty fish, both in flavor and texture, and can withstand some heftier wines within the “light” category. A classic pairing of salmon is, in fact, Pinot Noir – the finicky, lighter-bodied red wine made famous in the movie Sideways. Somewhere in between sippy-sip white wine land and big-bad-Barolo land lies rosé wine. Yes, it’s the pink wine – though to be fair, rosés can range in hue from the faintest blush to a deep, peach-like salmon color (pun intended).

Rosés can be made from various grape varietals and the winemaking style contributes much to the final sweetness level of the wine. Unlike the well-known “sweet pink wine” that is white zinfandel (nothing wrong with it, but it spawned a widespread misconception that all pink wines are sweet), only a fraction of  rosé wines are actually downright sweet. Go ahead and give the drier varieties, especially from Bandol, Provence and Rhône, a try with your next meal of grilled salmon. The fruitiness in the rosé will not be cloying, but will provide a lift to each substantial morsel of salmon. This will work nicely with herbs grilled with the salmon, as well.

Rosés are versatile enough to also accompany that beautiful platter of grilled or roasted vegetables you’ve laid out on a pretty platter. Pairing rosé with colorful foods results in quite a feast for the eyes as well as the palate, and is yet another fun way to branch out over the summer.

This post is part of a series about summer food and wine. See the first post in this series.

Good examples: Try French Rosés from Bandol, Tavel, Gigondas or Cotes de Provence (i.e., Chateau du Rouet, Cotes de Provence; $15), or Francis Coppola, Sofia Rosé 2008 (California, $18). Value pick: La Ferme Julien Cotes du Ventoux Rosé 2007 (France, $5).

© Gilat Ben-Dor.


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This corn is not anemic – it is white corn, so fresh and sweet, you may forego dessert!

This corn is not anemic – it is white corn, so fresh and sweet, you may forego dessert!

Happy 4th of July! For your next backyard picnic, let’s put together a classic complementary pairing: Chardonnay and, yes, corn on the cob (don’t forget the butter). It’s not that the corn and the Chardonnay themselves are a classic pair, specifically, but the idea that a moderately or highly oaked Chardonnay is paired with a buttery dish makes for a harmonious match in the mouth. The sweetness and butter of the corn targets the toasty, buttery, sometimes vanilla-like that oak aging often lends to Chardonnay – the wine “chameleon” – so that similar elements in the food and wine are keenly matched, like a frilly bedroom set. Try this with buttered popcorn, too, and you’ll see this principle once more.

This post is part of a “Picnic Pairings” series, which starts here.

Good examples: Matchbook Chardonnay 2007 (California, $18); A to Z Chardonnay (Oregon, $17); Value pick: Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay 2007 (Australia, $9).

© Gilat Ben-Dor.


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Yin and Yang in the mouth: the Colonel would be proud.

Yin and Yang in the mouth: the Colonel would be proud.

This is the first installment of five food and wine “picnic pairings” in a series, spawned by my latest appearance on Arizona’s “The Pat McMahon Show” (AZTV) earlier this week. I set up a spread of classic picnic fare and paired wines with them that will make both food and drink POP.

Today, let’s take a look at the first pairing: Sauvignon Blanc and mmm-mmm-good friiiiiied chicken! Fitness trainers be darned, I just love this sinful version of crispy, fatty goodness, a burst of seasonings enveloping juicy poultry (if done right). The light-bodied, crisp Sauvignon Blanc has long garnered its own series of classic pairings – mild seafood dishes, lemony vinaigrettes and, a real classic, goat cheese. Those would all be considered to be complementary pairings, as they emphasize a “like-with-like” combination of playful tartness. But here, in the realm of the down-home and juicy, I like to employ a contrasting approach: by sipping the Sauvignon Blanc alongside the heavier, oily fried chicken (or any fried food, for that matter), the wine’s piercing acidity will cut through the grease and impart a zingy, refreshing taste – like a yin-yang experience in your mouth. Try this with some creamy picnic favorites, like potato salad and macaroni salad, for more of that zesty contrast.

Good examples: St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc 2008 (Napa Valley, approx. $22), Sauvignon Blanc from the Sancerre region (Loire Valley, France, prices vary); Value Pick: Falling Star Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon 2008 (Mendoza, Argentina, $6).

The full “Picnic Pairings” set-up from my 6/29/09 live taping of “The Pat McMahon Show” (AZTV7).

The full “Picnic Pairings” set-up from my 6/29/09 live taping of “The Pat McMahon Show” (AZTV7).

To commemorate the 4th of July, I was recently called in to re-appear on the Arizona-based morning show, “The Pat McMahon Show” (AZTV). For this segment, I prepared a bountiful spread of classic cook-out fare, along with a line-up of my recommended wine pairings. As I set up a plate of fried chicken here, a slab of grilled salmon there, and some extra-creamy potato salad, it occurred to me that on the actual 4th of July, back in 1776, the last thing on peoples’ minds would have been grilling techniques or chilling some Pinot Grigio before company arrives. Still, things have somehow morphed into this great grilling tradition now, celebrating good times, great friends, and fantastic wine pairings that go nicely with the full line-up of barbecue bites. I have laid out five great food and wine matches, in the form of a series, which can be enjoyed well into the summer. Follow along in the days ahead!


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