4 Tips for Finding Your New Favorite Holiday "House" Wines

Stock up for the season.

December 18, 2018
Photo by Rocky Luten

Stocking up on goes-with-everything red and white wines will save your sanity this month! We've partnered with Cakebread Cellars, a Napa Valley winery renowned for its elegant and food-friendly bottlings, to bring you strategies for selecting just the right bottles for the holiday season.

This time of year, many of us get so caught up with buying gifts that more important shopping—stocking our homes with food and beverages—sometimes becomes an afterthought. After years of fretting about sales, gift cards versus “real” presents, and gift wrapping, I’ve come to realize that the most thoughtful thing I can do for friends and family this season is to keep our home reasonably clean, and our doors open to receive them at a moment’s notice.

Maintaining a stash of “house” wines—the all-occasion wines that are versatile and food-friendly enough to hold their own next to whatever appetizer your guests might bring to share—is key to this plan, of course. For 11 months of the year my wine-buying advice is this: If you love it, buy a lot of it; you’ll save a few dollars in the long run. In December, however, there are other factors to consider: We want to buy wines that we really enjoy drinking, of course, but these wines must also pass muster with our guests (and sometimes do double duty as impromptu holiday gifts). That’s why my end-of-year wine purchases are guided by these important rules:

They shouldn’t make guests uncomfortable.

The Christmas neighborhood block party is not the time to lecture party guests on dry farming, Mexico’s burgeoning wine scene, or biodynamics. If a wine has to be explained or Googled to be appreciated, it’s not holiday house wine material. As good as Assyrtiko may be, I’ve found it’s best to save the unpronounceable, exotic bottlings for less hectic gatherings (unless you know your audience, and they’re into that kind of thing).

They should be wines that you can imagine on your holiday table.

Think for a moment about the signature dishes your family and party guests look forward to during the holidays—why wouldn’t your go-to wines be those that show Mom's favorite cocktail meatballs and your world-famous chicken skewers to their best advantage? Buy “house” wines that complement the foods that you know you’ll be serving this month. Love mushroom pinwheels and pork chops? Pinot Noir is a no-brainer for you. If you make killer mini crab cakes or brie en croute, have some Chardonnay at the ready. Hosts whose holiday gatherings double as celebrations of their family’s heritage should, by all means, choose wines that celebrate it too.

They should be versatile.

Bearing in mind that house wines often leave our homes this time of year (last-minute host gift or potluck contribution, anyone?) this point is especially important. As much as I love a geeky white with notes of petrol or red wines tinged with barnyard or garrigue, polarizing flavors like these may not inspire holiday cheer in others. Wines with “out there” flavors likely won’t work as well with a variety of foods, either. For that reason, you’ll also want to stay away from tannic or overly oaked reds (I’m looking at you Malbec and Nebbiolo) and too-sweet or spritzy whites (Vinho Verde and Moscato are no bueno as winter house white options).

Medium body, good acidity, and moderate oak treatment are characteristics to seek out in both winter reds and whites and luckily, this profile leaves wine shoppers with plenty of options. I usually go with Chardonnay for the white because, let’s be real, that’s the varietal that most white wine-drinking partygoers are going to ask for by name (and because a lush, full-bodied Chardonnay with stone-fruit and apple flavors is going to go well with cheese, shellfish, poultry and most other foods on your holiday buffet). Other good winter white pours include oak-aged Sauvignon Blancs, and Rhône varieties (Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne).

Pinot Noir is my go-to holiday-season house red for many of the same reasons: My friends love it, and “Do you have any Pinot?” is the first question out of their mouths when I offer them a glass of red wine. Most Pinots are elegant and have supple tannins; their cherry and mixed berry flavors complement wintry stews, black truffles, and game meats. Medium-bodied, food-friendly Grenache and Syrah are other good bets for house reds.

They should make life easier, not more complicated.

Though I have cabinets full of glassware that’s designed to contain specific varietal wines, I almost never use it. If a wine can’t be sipped from easy-to-wash, standard-issue stemless glasses—or even simple tumblers—it is not house wine material at our place. (Yes, you can serve your red and white wines from the same glasses.) You’ll save yourself so much trouble if your house pours don’t need to be decanted, aired, chilled in ice buckets, surgically freed of pretentious wax seals, served in flutes or other fancy glassware, or require any other special handling. The other beautiful thing about serving wines in “short” glasses is that you’ll drastically reduce the likelihood of breaking glasses, or wine stains on your rug.

Our partner Cakebread Cellars, a green-certified winery whose vineyards are farmed sustainably, has been producing wine in California’s Napa Valley since 1973. The family has always believed that wine and food elevate each other, and they make wines that belong at the table. Cakebread Cellars Two Creeks Vineyards Pinot Noir, for example, is juicy on the palate, with black cherry and graham cracker notes that would complement anything from wintry stews to game meats; Cakebread Cellars Napa Valley Chardonnay Reserve has citrus and mineral flavors, lively acidity, and a long, creamy finish; it's going to go well with cheese, shellfish, poultry, and most other foods on your holiday buffet. Both are versatile, crowd-pleasing choices perfect for any holiday celebration.

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Daryna Tobey

Written by: Daryna Tobey

Daryna Tobey lives in New York and has been writing about wine since 2001. She is a former senior editor of Wine Enthusiast Magazine.