Food, Wine, Good (and Evil) Spirits

proseccoThere is no better way to celebrate a special event than with a glass of sparkling wine. All across the world people turn to sparkling wine in moments of great celebration, be it holidays, birthdays, or any momentous occasion. The French have Champagne, which is named after the region in which it is made. The Spanish have cava, which is named after the natural caves in which the wine ferments. Anywhere else we call wine that bubbles sparkling wine. Italy's version is Prosecco or what I like to call the wine of sheer joy.

Prosecco is a white wine made from grapes of the same name. It is one of the most armoatic wines that you will ever try. And its taste and finish are crisp, clean, and refreshing. This year I'm drinking Prosecco for New Year's Eve and I have many reasons why. It is affordable, extremely flavorful, very elegant, and it's easily a crowd-pleasing drink. Prosecco is a wine that not everyone is familiar with, but it is a wine that is easy to adore.

Prosecco is produced in the Veneto region of Italy, of which Venice is the capital. It originally was produced as a still wine, but somewhere along the way fermentation was introduced into the process, and a sparkling wine was created. Today we would not recognize the original Prosecco as a sparkling wine, because the bubbles were very soft and delicate. Many Prosecco wines produced today have vigorous bubbles. The lightly sparkling version is called frizzante and the fully sparkling version is called spumante. Either is very nice. It's personal preference that dictates which you choose.

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sangriaWhen summer temperatures go up, my appetite goes down. I want less to eat and more to drink. Homemade lemonade with mint is a great favorite. Iced tea in a tall glass filled with cracked ice is a great way to cool down. On a recent trip to Spain, I rediscovered sangria, which might be the best remedy for double and triple digit heat waves.

In the summer, the Iberia Peninsula bakes under an unforgiving sun. Spaniards long ago learned that the best way to beat back the effects of hot weather is to eat small plates ("tapas") and drink wine flavored with fresh fruit.

When I was served a glass of sangria in a bar in San Sebastián, a small resort town on the coast of Northern Spain, I loved the way fresh fruit added flavor to the wine. Fortified with brandy and sugar, sangria goes well with small sandwiches, salads and snacks.

Visit Spain and you'll see sangria pitchers. Wide at the base, the large pitchers have a spout narrowed at the end. When the pitcher is made, the potter gently pinches the spout to narrow the opening, allowing the wine but not the fruit to enter the glass.

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pinot_gris.jpgI had to laugh the other night while having dinner in a local restaurant. The patrons next to us ordered a bottle of wine, confidently requesting "Pinot Grisss", with lots of heavy emphasis on the "isssss", as their wine of choice for the evening.

I shouldn't have laughed. Really I shouldn't have. But I'm horrible like that. Don't worry... they didn't hear me. I wanted the waitress to correct them though, "You mean PEE-noh Gree?" but she didn't. Maybe she was worried about her tip or was trying hard not to laugh herself.

I think the intimidation for ordering wine is even greater at fine dining establishments employing a sommelier (sum-muhl-YAY). The sommelier is there to help guide restaurant guests in the best wine choice possible in terms of their meal, palate and pocketbook. It can be intimidating to speak up and request something from somewhere like Chateauneauf-du-Pape (shah-toh-nuhf-doo-PAHP), if you have absolutely NO IDEA how to pronounce the words.

I should be more forgiving. I know for a fact, as many have confessed to me, some people shy away from ordering particular wines simply because they are afraid of making a pronunciation mistake in front of friends and clients.

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paso102007a.jpg People are always asking me what I'm going to do with my wine education. Most of them assume I'm going to become a sommelier or a winemaker because those are the most well-known choices. In reality, neither is an option because both require more time and hard work than I'm willing to give to indulge my love of wine. I'd rather drink wine than serve it and with so many other people taking the trouble to make it, there's no reason I have to.

That being said, learning about the process, in limited doses, is quite fascinating to me. To that end, the founding members of the Studio City branch of the Friends of Cass Winery (an unofficial, nascent organization made up of me, my husband and our friend Sam) volunteered to help bottle their upcoming 2006 releases of Grenache and Mourvedre in the ever-growing Paso Robles area. We weren't sure what we were in for, except we knew it would be a bit of work and probably quite fun given the natures of the winery's owners. 

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Herradura-Scotch-Bonnet-Mango-MargaritaAs a margarita fanatic (dare I say connoisseur?), I feel like I have a certain responsibility to find the best margaritas wherever I go—dive bars, hotels, even the Greek Theatre (theirs is surprisingly worth $18, by the way). There’s only one rule: they need to be crafted with fresh juice and premium tequila. No artificial sour mix that looks like antifreeze or tequila that comes in a plastic bottle!

I love the simple, like “The Boss” at Valley institution Casa Vega and a traditional Cadillac at Hillstone. They house-make the best sour mix: freshly-squeezed lime, lemon, and orange juice and a splash of simple syrup. The complex cocktails intrigue me, too.

The best I’ve had is the Market Margarita at Rick Bayless’ Red O. It’s a fusion of tequila, muddled fresh cucumber and honeydew melon and homemade limonada.

Naturally, I’m always looking for the latest trend to spice up my love affair with the Latin libation. Pepper-infused concoctions have been popping up on specialty cocktail menus everywhere (jalapeno martinis, Tabasco gin and tonics, sriracha everything), and now it’s the margarita’s turn.

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