From a seat on the plane headed to a funeral, it might seem a challenge to write about appropriate New Year’s festivities.
But my aunt had seen the value of a party (her little sister passed that along to me as well, I believe), and I find surprisingly little contradiction in celebrating and mourning at the same time.
It’s what a proper funeral ought to be.
At a minimum, both my mom and my late aunt seemed to love the sound of laughter — their own or others’ — and Aunt Eileen could exhibit a wicked sense of humor, sometimes as barbed as it was sharp.
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My aunt passed during the holidays, as did my father. For my dad, the timing was likely linked to his sense of responsibility — the holidays are the one time of year most everyone is in town. Inevitably, he passed a few hours after the last folks arrived in town.
Heading to California to see the relatives this time of year also seems right, too, even if the occasion is wrong. The holidays were the time of year that my family and I always visited my aunt, uncles, the grandparents, the cousins; everybody lived in the Bay Area. We were the black sheep grazing out in the Midwest.
In those days, plane and even train travel was out of the question; driving took longer, but it was a lot cheaper. We slept on people’s floors and partied like happy families do. It was at one of those dinners when I tried my very first wine, a wine that changed my life. It was Louis Martini’s Special Selection Pinot Noir 1968, but that wine is a story for another day. Thanks, Uncle Gene.
Drinking wasn’t the biggest feature at these family gatherings; jokes, stories, good-natured ribbing and even snark was. I’m sure the adults drank more than I noticed (much of the family was Italian, after all) but it was the talk I remember most. And if that Pinot Noir was my first wine, it was an auspicious step up from the swill one of my dad’s uncles made in the basement. No matter, people drank what they had and they were happy.
We should do the same. Sure it would be great to have Champagne; it’s the wine we think we’re supposed to have this time of year. Bubblies like Caposaldo Prosecco, Domaine Ste. Michelle, Mionetto Prosecco and Spanish Cava, like Can Feixes or Poema, are a lot cheaper and nearly as much fun.
But California is willing to give us top-of-the-line (and pricier) sparkling wine, too. Chandon, Domaine Carneros, Gloria Ferrer, Iron Horse, J Vineyards, Roederer Estate and Schramsberg all produce wines that can stand alongside true Champagne.
If you favor that French stuff, you might consider Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger, Feuillatte, Gimonnet, Jean Milan, Krug, Moët et Chandon, Philipponnat, Pierre Peters, Pol Roger, Roederer, Taittinger or many others,
When I’m looking for interesting red, white and rosé wines that won’t set me back too much, I often look for names like Bonny Doon, Brian Carter, Carol Shelton, Colby Red (this is a great charity, too), Dry Creek Vineyards, Eberle, Estancia, Hess Selection, Michael David, Pedroncelli, Rodney Strong, Walla Walla Vintners and Wente.
If you need to impress the clan, consider getting a bottle of Cain Cellars, DeLille, Goldschmidt, Hartford, Hirsch, L’Ecole No. 41, Lang & Reed, Peay, Siduri, Tablas Creek, Trefethen, Trione or Woodward Canyon.
Oregon’s lovely Pinot Noir producers include many you can find in the area: Adelsheim, Argyle, Ayres (a hometown boy), Beaux Freres, Bethel Heights, Brick House, Brittan Vineyards, Brooks, Chehalem, Cristom, Domaine Drouhin, Elk Cove, Evesham Wood, Eyrie, Gran Moraine, Kelley Fox, King Estate, Nicolas Jay, Owen Roe, Penner Ash, Ponzi, Resonance, Roco, Torii Mor and Walter Scott.
And that’s leaving out another two or three dozen worthy types. It’s not an exhaustive shopping list, but it should do for now.
To be honest, I won’t worry too much about whatever is in my glass this New Year’s Eve, as I toast a year I’d like to forget, a year to come that may be more shattering and an old, quaint aunt who, I promise, won’t be soon be forgotten.
Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant. He is one of only four people in the world to have earned the titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes wine column for The Star’s Chow Town section and the Chow Town blog.