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Plan Your Own Christmas Wine Dinner

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My favorite holiday tradition has become my annual Christmas wine tasting dinner.

Jenny & Jill - 2010

What better way to usher in the season than an early December feast to celebrate the subtleties of wine, the bounty of delicious food, the camaraderie of dear friends, and the blessings of this past year? My husband and I provide the 7 course meal, and we assign our friends to bring a wine varietal to accompany each course. It's a fabulous formal evening enjoyed by all.

With a fair amount of planning and some creative enthusiasm, you too can create an intimate, memorable gathering among your own circle. Outlined below are a few tips for designing your own formal Christmas wine tasting dinner.

Jill's Dinner in 2008 2008 Table Setting Extended Table in 2008

Designate a date at least 6 weeks ahead of time.
I choose the first or second Friday in December. It seems to be best for booking my friends as holiday schedules fill up quickly and Saturdays seem to be the most popular.

Choose 10-16 guests to keep your table intimate. I have several groups of friends that I spend time with, but this dinner is tradition with one particular sect. But just because you invited someone the year before doesn't mean you have to again. Your gathering should consist of people that you see often and also enjoy wine. Select your guests and confirm them for your date via email. You will need a head count before sending out the final invitation with wine assignments.

Pick a color theme for the year. I revel in varying the colors and I change out my decorations to match. Everything must follow this theme: Invitations, Menus, Wine Assignment Cards, Tablecloths, Napkins, Lighting, Chair Covers. Budget tip: choose one color scheme that you can freshen every year for a slightly different look.

Choose 8 wines for the 7-course meal.
1st course - Standing - Meet & Greet Hour - Sparkling Wine and cheeses
2nd course - Seated - 1st appetizer - Red Wine of Your Choice and a small serving to complement it
3rd course - Seated - 2nd appetizer - White Wine of Your Choice and a small serving to complement it
4th course - Seated - 3rd appetizer - Red Wine of Your Choice and a small serving to complement it
5th course - Seated - Salad or Soup - White Wine of Your Choice and a small serving to complement it
6th course - Seated - Main Course - Red & White wine to complement the main course
7th course - Seated - Dessert - Dessert wine or sparkling of your choice and dessert

Nick & Jill - 2009 Table Setting 2009 Extended Table 2009

Assign a proper wine amount.
My friends and I certainly know how to empty some bottles, so I would allow at least 1 bottle per person. But in my group, I usually assign 3 or 4 bottles per couple. There will most likely be wine left over that you can divvy up at the end of the night. It's always best to have too much rather than too little.

Set a price guide for wine bottles. You don't want wine that will make your teeth fall out, but nor do you want your guests to feel they have to go overboard. For my age range, I choose bottles valued between $10-$18.

Choose a charity to benefit from your night. I always go with Toys for Tots, because it's a reputable organization and it's easy to assign what to bring (one new toy for a child up to age 13, with a minimum $10 retail value, in its original packaging and unwrapped.). It also is convenient that a drop-off point is 10 minutes from my house. Of course, choose a charity that is close to your own heart.

Create your invitation and an enclosed card detailing wine assignments and charity details. Mail the invitation 3-4 weeks ahead of time. Alert your guests that each couple will be expected to make 3 "speeches": one is a reading of their bottle's label, one is the reading of a card I prepare that describes why the wine complements the course, and lastly, they need to give a toast or blessing. The toast is always a special time, as we each get to share what we're thankful for or something we pray for in the future.

Jill's Designs from 2008 Jill's Designs for 2009 Jill's Designs for 2010 Jill's Designs for 2011
Jill's Wine Menu Designs for 2012 Jill's Wine Menu Designs for 2013

Choose something in your meal to be a tradition year after year and vary everything else.
For example, I always serve Beef Wellington as my main course. It's fancy and rarely eaten throughout the year. Plus the richness lends itself to different wine pairings.

Shape your menu for that year to reflect some of your travels. One year I made chocolate torte for dessert after eating Sacher torte in Vienna, and another year we went to Chianti, so we used Chianti for the main course, and so on. It's a great opportunity to let your guests travel vicariously through you and reflect on stories from the year.

Allow plenty of time for research on what foods go with which wines. Don't worry about being perfect, you're not a sommelier after all, but try to discover why a food might highlight a particular flavor in a wine. Some great resources are Food & Wine and Cellar Notes. Many of my recipes are derived from my favorite Food Network star, Giada de Laurentiis, and then altered to suit my own style and dietary restrictions (I am insulin-intolerant).

Arrange accommodations or transportation for your guests. It's important to be responsible when hosting a wine party. Arrange ahead of time which guests will stay the night at your place, or have cabs available at the end of the night.

Create wine pairing cards to be read before each course describing the food and why it brings out certain flavors in the wine.

Create menus that detail the courses for the evening that can be tucked into napkins or displayed on the plates. Always include the date as these become great keepsakes year after year.

Plan a seating arrangement that keeps in mind conversation flow and where the cook needs to be able to get up and down easily. Create name cards and arrange them accordingly. Switch it up each year so you can be seated near different friends each time. And don't play by the rules...forget about putting the hosts at the heads of the table. I find it too constraining.

Choose a small ornament that matches your theme to use as guest favors. They make great plate decorations and your guests will have fun collecting them year after year.

Clean your whole house one week before. Allow 3 days before to begin prep work, touch up cleaning, and table setting.

Create your own fancy table and chairs. Even if you don't have a beautiful dining room table quite large enough to seat 15, you can mix and match other tables and chairs and just unify them in their decorations. My mixture of wooden chairs, wrought-iron chairs and folding chairs looked fabulous since they all have a chair covering on them. You can make your own chair coverings cheaply by allotting 1 yard of fabric, 1 yard of wire ribbon, and 2 safety pins for each chair. Take the yard of fabric and center it on the chair back, half of it hanging in front, half in back, and equally hanging on the sides. Pull the sides and out and bring them towards the back, to create a v look, and secure with a safety pin. Tie the tails with the ribbon and make a nice bow. Use the other safety pin to secure any loose areas. Don't worry about rough or unhemmed edges as low lighting covers a multitude of sins. In 2012, I moved from our condo to a house with a dining room in which I specifically had a table made to seat up to 16 guests and I obtained 16 matching chairs that don't necessarily require covers. Of course, this isn't necessary as you can see from years 2008-2011.

Use your fancy china and crystal!!! It's one of the few times of the year you actually can. In order to reduce the amount of glasses on the table, I just provide one glass for white wine and one for red wine, and another for ice water. Make sure there is a fancy bucket for dumping (or a spittoon like I use now), and several pitchers of water to refill water glasses and also to use for rinsing out wine glasses between varietals.

Get in the Christmas spirit with some stellar tunes. Create a perfect playlist that will last the duration of your party. I created a list of jazzy old-fashioned Christmas songs that I use every year. I have it timed to play throughout dinner, and then it progressively gets a little faster and morphs into fun dance music. I'm not kidding...my friends and I usually have a dance party until 2 in the morning.

Set the mood with lighting. Christmas lights and rheostats work wonders, and you can never underestimate the power of candles. Even if you're short on cash and can't afford the fanciest appetizers or detailed table settings, always invest in a good quantity of candles. Candlelight is the most magical decoration you can utilize, and it seems to warm the hearts of all who gather together. Always keep open flames a safe distance away from flammable items, including your guests' hair!

Create a timeline for yourself for the entire day of the party to ensure you can complete each task and not stress yourself out on the day of the party (for example, put the Beef Wellington in the oven at 9:15, bring the butter to room temperature 1 hour before the main course, etc.).  Don't forget to allow time to clean yourself up and get dressed for the evening. Also, give yourself 30 minutes of cushion space that is unplanned in several spots throughout the day, so if you get behind on one item, you have a little wiggle room. Don't forget that much of the food prep can be completed 2-3 days before. I often make the soup 3 days ahead of time as soup just gets better with time and then reheat it in the crockpot to save stovetop space. I often chop the mushrooms for beef wellington the night before the party. Anything that can be completed ahead of time without compromising the quality is a must.

Push play on the iPod and light candles 15 minutes before guests arrive, even if your cooking isn't finished or you feel somewhat rushed.

When guests enter your home, welcome them warmly, take their coats, and arrange their charity presents under the tree. Pop the bubbly and let the party commence!

Encourage your guests to fill up on water!!! You have a long night of wine ahead of you and hydration is important.

Be a perfect host, but don't sweat the small stuff. Although it's a formal dinner, it's more about spending time with friends. Don't worry if your sweet potato gnocchi turn to mush, or if you slightly overcooked the crostini. Things won't go 100% right, so expect the mishaps. And make your friends feel comfortable. Always ensure they have drinks in their glasses and that they are content.

You'll love creating a Christmas tradition of which you can be proud.
For questions about planning your own wine party, feel free to contact me.

Jill in 2010 Place Setting for 2010 Green Ambient Lighting 2010

Jenny and Jill Christmas Wine 2011 Jill's Table Scape 2011 Place Setting 2011

Sample wine menus from the last 3 years of my own dinners:

Cheese Tasting
• Assorted Cheeses, Nuts, and Parmesan-Thyme Crackers, Paired with Portuguese Vinho Verde
Wine Tasting
• Sweet Corn Cakes with Avocado and Chipotle Sauce, Paired with Sauvignon Blanc
• Savory Fontina, Tomato, and Onion Pastries, Paired with Merlot
• Pancetta, Leek, and Mascarpone Tartlets, Paired with Chardonnay
• Arugula and Prosciutto with Parmesan and Citronette, Paired with Shiraz
Main Course
• Traditional Beef Wellington, Garlic Parmesan Mashed Potatoes, Sautéed Asparagus Spears and Carrots
• Eggnog Bread Pudding with Vanilla Anglaise Reduction

Cheese Tasting
• Assorted Cheeses, Rosemary Marcona Almonds, Sesame Crackers, Paired with Sparkling Wine
Wine Tasting
• Roasted Chicken, Pesto, Dried Cranberries on Polenta Tartlets, Paired with Chardonnay
• Crostini with Fig Jam, Goat Cheese and Walnuts, Paired with Sauvignon Blanc
• Sweet Potato Gnocchi Tossed in Sage Butter, Paired with Shiraz
• Salad of Arugula, Fennel, Mint, Prosciutto, Pomegranate Seeds, Tossed in Balsamic Vinaigrette, Paired with Merlot
Main Course
• Individual Beef Wellington featuring Pate and Duxelles, Parmesan Risotto with Chives and Truffle Oil,
Sauteed Asparagus Spears and Young Carrots, Paired with Pinot Noir or Pinot Grigio
• Molten Chocolate Cake, Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, Berries

Cheese Tasting
• Gruyere, Gouda, and Brie Cheeses, Paired with Spanish Cava
Wine Tasting
• Beef Carpaccio, Watercress, Parmesan, Balsamic Reduction, Paired with Red Bordeaux
• Pesto, Chévre, Artichokes, Pine Nuts on Crostini, Paired with Sauvignon Blanc
• Smoked Mozzarella, Prosciutto, Sundried Tomato Cigars, Paired with Malbec
• Butternut Squash Soup with Sage and Fontina Croutons, Paired with Chardonnay
Main Course
• Individual Beef Wellington featuring Pâté and Duxelles, Parmesan Risotto with Chives and Truffle Oil,
Sautéed Asparagus Spears and Young Carrots, Paired with Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Grigio
• Chocolate Chambord Torte, Raspberry Syrup, Whipped Cream

Cheese Tasting
• Assorted Cheeses Paired with Prosecco
Wine Tasting
• Canapé of Chèvre and Pancetta,Caramelized Onion and Apple Relish Paired with Pinot Noir
• Brie, Chocolate and Basil Panini Paired with Sauvignon Blanc
• Chaud Saucisse - Sausage, Bechamel, Emmenthal Paired with Malbec
• Silky Celery Root, Leek and Chestnut Soup,Parmesan Crisps Paired with Chardonnay
Main Course
• Individual Beef Wellington featuring Pâté and Duxelles, Parmesan Risotto with Chives and Truffle Oil, 
Sautéed Asparagus Spears and Young Carrots Paired with Cabernet Sauvignon or Pouilly-Fuissé 
• Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée, Berries, Nutella Drizzle Paired with Brut Rosé

Cheese Tasting
• Assorted Cheeses Paired with Cava
Wine Tasting
• Duck Confit, Red Onion Jam on Crostini Paired with Malbec
• Baked Butternut Squash Ravioli,Brown Butter and Crispy Sage Leaf Paired with Chardonnay
• Curried Pumpkin and Sweet Potato Soup Paired with Lucca
• Phyllo-Wrapped Goat Cheese,Blackberry and Honey Gastrique over Greens Paired with Vinho Verde
Main Course
• Individual Beef Wellington featuring Pâté and Duxelles, Parmesan Risotto, Chives, Truffle Oil, Sautéed Asparagus Spears and Young Carrots Paired with Pinot Noir
• Cheesecake with Hazelnut Chocolate Crust, Nutella Mousse, Chocolate Ganache Paired with Riesling

Cheese Tasting
Assorted Cheeses Paired with Taittinger Brut Champagne, Reims, France
Small Pairings
Amuse-Bouche of Truffle-Infused Custard, Crispy Prosciutto Paired with Chardonnay
• Braised Beef Short Rib Crostini, Caramelized Onion, Gruyere Paired with a Zinfandel Blend
• Goat Cheese Ravioli, Candied Walnuts, Orange, Fennel, Butter Paired with Torrontes
• Portobello Mushroom Soup, Sherry, Crème Fraîche Paired with Pinot Noir Main Course Dual Pairing
Individual Beef Wellington featuring Pâté and Duxelles, Truffle Oil Risotto with Chives and Parmesan, Sauteed Young Carrots and Asparagus Paired with Malbec and Chardonnay
Dessert Pairing
S’mores Chocolate Pots de Crème, Seared Marshmallow Fluff,  Graham Cracker Tuile Paired with Port

© 2013 Jaunting Sisters.
Written on Tuesday, 15 November 2011 21:06 by Jill Kerr Tepe

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