Rummaging through the freezer today, I saw a container of raspberry buttercream leftover from a cake I had made for an old friend. He’s a pastry chef, and seeing the frosting reminded me of the first time he tasted something I had baked. Cy and I were at a pot-luck hosted by a mutual friend and I brought a cake. When I saw the pastry chef (who I didn’t know well then) I blurted out “If I knew you were coming I wouldn’t have baked!”
In my defense, I’d probably had too much wine by that point. But I was also a little intimidated offering my baking up to an expert. I shouldn’t have been, though. He handled it with grace, asking me where I’d gotten the recipe, which we then discussed. I figured he’d be polite, but as we talked I realized that since he loves to bake he’s always up for trying things other people make, and hearing what they like in baked goods. And as someone who bakes for a living, he’s definitely happy to eat things he didn’t have to make himself.
After being in the wine business for more than six years, I often find myself on the other end of this situation. Over the past week, Cy and I hosted old friends at our house and got gifts of wine and flowers. The beautiful flowers were accompanied by “well, we couldn’t bring wine, it’s like bringing coals to Newcastle,” and the lovely bottle of wine came with a very nervous-sounding hope that we’d enjoy it.
First, let me say that I’m thrilled that anyone wants to bring us anything, anytime. But I know I can express opinions a little emphatically at times, and I hope that doesn’t make anyone nervous about offering a wine gift. Because the longer I’m in the business, the more I appreciate it when people bring us wine. (And yes, we adore getting flowers too, and always have!) I enjoy trying things that other people like and drinking wines that are different from the ones we sell. Dare, Cy, and I drink a lot of First Vine wines because we need to remind ourselves what they taste like and see how they’re aging — not because they’re the only wines we like to drink.
Our wine aficionado friends have brought us some wonderful bottles of their favorites. But some of the most memorable wines we’ve received as gifts have come from people who aren’t in the wine business and definitely wouldn’t consider themselves even moderately expert in wine. Who wouldn’t be charmed by a guest offering you a bottle and hearing that he or she loves it with summer foods, or with barbecue, or for any reason? Or that it was recommended by a friend? Or that the label was so enticing that he or she just had to buy it?
What really warms my heart, though, are the stories like the one from our guest this past weekend. After I thanked her (sincerely), she visibly relaxed and mentioned that the bottle came from her favorite wine shop. She’d talked to the owner about First Vine and wanted something that would be different from what we sell. Since she always likes the wines the shop staff help her select, she figured we would too.
What’s not to love about that? It was thoughtful, of course, but as a wine importer and retailer, I really appreciate that (a) she has a favorite wine shop; (b) she feels comfortable asking questions about wine; and (c) she has developed a relationship with the people who work in that shop and doesn’t hesitate to take their suggestions even if she’s never heard of those wines before. This is every wine retailer’s dream.
So anytime you’re intimidated at the idea of bringing wine as a gift, well, don’t be. If your hosts love wine, they’ll be happy with whatever you bring them. If they’re in the business, even more so, because you’re sharing in their passion and offering them the thrill of discovery. And discovering new and interesting wines is something we can never get enough of!
When our friends visited, I made Ina Garten’s Savory Palmiers as a snack to serve with wine. Palmiers refer to the shape since they look like unfurling palm leaves, and they’re usually for dessert. Ina’s aren’t sweet, and she spreads the puff pastry with pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese, and pine nuts before shaping, cutting, and baking. I bought little jars of pesto and finely-chopped sun-dried tomatoes to make the palmiers, and had lots of the two ingredients left over. So I used them as the basis of a quick marinade for fish that turned into a delicious sauce after baking. I’d serve it again anytime, especially for a quick weeknight meal for guests.
I know I say my recipes are easy and you all roll your eyes when you read it, but this really couldn’t be simpler. Spoon from the jars, mix, add pepper, and spread on the fish that you’ve lightly salted. Let it sit for a few minutes. Bake for a half hour, part of the time covered. Take the fish from the pan, pour the juices from the pan into a small pot, add a splash of white wine, and cook for a minute. Pour the sauce over the fish and serve. That’s it.
Use a thick, firm-fleshed fish like monkfish or swordfish. And serve it with a light- to medium-bodied red wine, like Château de Clapier Calligrappe Rouge ($12). It’s 75% Grenache, 25% Syrah, and perfect with flavorful fish, not to mention all the sauce ingredients. I decided to call it Pesce al Forno con Sugo di Avanzi because the ingredients are all Italian-based. It’s a nicer-sounding name than “Baked Fish with Leftovers Sauce,” and your guests deserve it for their thoughtful wine gift!
4 Monkfish or Swordfish fillets, one inch thick, each about six ounces
1/4 cup prepared pesto (right from the jar)
1/4 cup finely-chopped sun-dried tomatoes in oil (right from the jar)
Salt and freshly-ground pepper
2 tablespoons dry white wine
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. While the oven is warming, mix the pesto and sun-dried tomatoes with a little pepper. Dry the fish fillets with paper towels and lightly salt them, then spread the pesto/tomato mixture on both sides of the fillets. Place them in a non-reactive ovenproof dish that’s deeper than the fillets. Cover the dish with a sheet of foil (not touching the fish) and set aside until the oven is ready. Bake for 20 minutes, covered, then uncover and bake for 10 more minutes (save the foil).
Remove the fish and let the fillets sit on a plate covered loosely with the foil you took off earlier. Pour the liquid in the baking dish into a small saucepan and add the white wine. Boil for a minute or two until the sauce is reduced slightly, then pour over the fish and serve immediately.