Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Wine Tasting Party (Invite the Kids)

The Inspiration
In a tiny fourteenth century apartment in Florence, Steve and I decided to try for a second child. Sydney, our first, was eleven months old, we were broke, and I had a book coming out that would need all of my promotional attention; as my mom would say, we needed another baby like we needed a hole in our collective heads. Still, somehow being in Tuscany convinced us to go against our more rational natures. The Italians, at least in our limited, and probably romantic observations, believed that children, like wine and good food, were meant to be enjoyed within the context of a rich and fully integrated life. In our working class neighborhood, on the wrong side of the Arno, we would hear the chatter of families eating and drinking late into the evenings. When we visited a posh seaside resort, it was the same thing; whole families out eating pizza in the large squares and strolling the streets until midnight. I never got the sense of the rampant consumerist kid culture that exists here, where children have their own TV shows, clothing, bath towels, magazines and restaurants. Instead I witnessed children and parents, aunts and uncles, friends and relatives spending time together, enjoying the simple pleasures of food and wine with other families.

Besides the gift of my second son Sebastien, born nine months after we returned, Italy left me with a desire to resist seeing and relating to my children as completely separate and in need of their own distinct culture. Instead Steve and I attempt to share our passions with the kids and have from a very young age, as they contribute to us. That means we spend a lot of time at the table, they accompany me to the farmer’s market and help prepare food; while we watch “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” with them and take an active interest in their interests.

Because of this belief, we spend much of our free time with friends and other families, eating, drinking, talking, picnicking in the park. Sometimes the kids eat with us, sometimes separately. Sometimes they watch a movie in the other room—but more to the point, we are all together, the get a real sense of community and no one has to pay for a babysitter.

A Wine Tasting

Case in point, last Friday, I hosted a wine tasting for my Steve, Kimberly and Ward and Sue, plus kids (5 in all).

Ward and Sue brought dried soppresatta and this incredible Roomano from Murray’s Cheeses and an olive loaf from Amy’s Breads. Kimberly made a smooth guacamole, with lime, onions and chopped cilantro. I put outside some pita and hummus and a few cheeses I had in the fridge. A simple meal of grazing. A frozen pizza from Fresh Direct was heated up later in the evening for the children and bowls of fresh pineapple sufficed for their dessert.

The Wines
I bought the following white wines, all which were under $20, because quite frankly, it’s all I could afford. Each one demonstrated the very different styles of Chardonnay.

Rully, Sebastien Rous 2007

This French Chardonnay is judiciously, lightly, subtly aged in oak. The result is a very well balanced wine with good acidity. Partial to wines with a French sensibility, with character and personality—a sense of terroir if you will, Steve loved this wine.

Bourgogne Blanc, Clotilde Davenne - 2007

This French Chardonnay from Burgundy is not aged in oak but steel; nothing at all like the rich, buttery California Chardonnays. And yet, it still has a softness and warmth to it. It was Kimberly’s favorite.

Bianco, Cantina Zaccagnini – 2007
OK, so I cheated a little bit here with this white wine blend from central Italy's Abruzzo region. It actually contains Chardonnay, Riesling and Trebbiano grapes, so it’s not a pure varietal, but it is unoaked. With notes of juicy nectarines, yellow plums and honey it’s an enjoyable glass to have on its own or with chicken or fish. I am a huge fan of this wine—it’s complexity belies its 14.99 price tag.

Chardonnay, Wyatt – 2007
A remarkably well-balanced California Chardonnay—particularly at this price-point (I got my bottle from Astor Wines for $11.99), with some oak, but not too much. Notes of tropical fruit dominate. I was surprised at how much I liked this wine.

The Verdict
The evening went by smoothly, without any drama from the kids and the grown-ups had a merry old time (the wine didn’t hurt). I really do believe children benefit from celebrating with adults around the simple pleasures of the table--and that when you do this, the kids feel connected to their community in a deep and meaningful way. Whether it’s on a picturesque 14th century Florentine terrace or in a 1970’s modernist tower in the middle of New York City, the ancient ritual of breaking bread together still matters.

A Few Ideas for Organizing Your Own Wine Tasting

1. Start early, say 5:30, to allow everyone ample time to eat, taste and converse—and still get the kids home at a reasonable hour. Limit the number of invites to five adults and five children. Any more and you might need more than a glass of wine to make it through the evening.

2. Choose one varietal wine to focus on. Chardonnay, Merlot or Pinot Noir are all good choices, but even lesser known grapes could work. Select three to four bottles of your grape, spanning across two or three different countries. I would also go for wines that are similar in price, so that the differences you taste are real—not just a matter of quality.

3. Brush up on some basic facts about the grape and place the wine comes from. Even if you can’t find info on your particular bottle, books like The Wine Bible offers great insight into wine-producing regions all over the world. Have a little something to say on each wine and invite your guests to add their own thoughts.

4. Serve both adult-friendly and kid-friendly food. Even if your own children are adventurous, the other kids might not be. Carrot sticks, chicken fingers, bread and cheese are easy options. For the adults, cheeses, crudite and other finger foods can be prepped ahead of time, leaving you free to do the pouring.

5. Have a few activities for the kids to do that don’t require adult supervision—coloring books and some packets of crayons should suffice, or a special DVD that they could watch together in the next room could work.

6. Wait to start the tasting until the children have settled in, so you have a good thirty minutes to focus on the wine.

7. Print out a list of the wines you are serving to guests, along with a pencil or pen so that they can take notes.

8. Introduce each wine in a simple fashion ie, “This Merlot is from Chile, which is known for producing red wine at a great price,” and allow everyone to taste and comment.


  1. I really love your approach to food, family and life. And thanks for the great wine recommendations! I'm having friends over tomorrow night, and you've given me some inspiration!

  2. Ah, without even having a great knowledge of wine your tips for How To Do a Wine Tasting make it sound possible for even me... I'll have to try it sometime now that I've seen it in action. Perhaps a nice red to go with the first fall leaves??
    -- Sue