While experimentation is nice and all, during the holidays, folks cling to the classics. Deciding what you imbibe is just as important as what you bring to the cookie swap or calling your mom for her mashed potato tips for the tenth time. Drinking traditions during the winter holidays have the ability to warm you from the inside out, and the nostalgia they evoke adds some more sparkle and sweetness to the season.
Wine Spectator asked 11 sommeliers—known for their normally discerning tastes—what holiday drinking traditions they keep coming back to, from Irish coffee on slow mornings to pampering themselves with a special bottle of bubbly.
Wine Spectator: What’s your favorite wine or other beverage to drink as part of a holiday tradition?
Jodi Bronchtein, wine director at Best Award of Excellence winner Audrey and June in Nashville, Tenn.
Mulled wine, hands down. Reminds me of winter trips to Europe. It is the best warming, welcoming, fragrant choice for gatherings and gets better as it sits. It fills the home with amazing scents and always leads to everyone else's “this reminds me of that winter trip to ____” stories. Two bonuses: You can use whatever wine you have around and repurpose the same spice mix to make mulled apple cider for a zero-proof/kid-friendly version. My mom would set a big pot of this on the stove when it was snowing out for my brother and I to have when we came home from school and whenever I make it, I feel her there as well.
Jen Reyneri, co-owner of Award of Excellence winner The Grove Cucina and Wine in Hobe Sound, Fla.
Every holiday season, when the weather is a perfect Florida afternoon, we host a sidewalk tasting and sale for our staff, guests and wine club members to introduce them to fun and festive wines [that are] great values for the holidays. It’s become a tradition that not only do [my husband Luis] and I saber a bottle of Champagne and serve a glass for a toast to each guest to get in the festive spirit, but we teach one (or more) of our guests to saber a bottle as well! It becomes quite the talk of our little sleepy beach town. We’re looking forward to our fourth annual sidewalk event on December 10.
At Cote NYC and Miami, we always pour a HUGE bottle of Champagne—usually a salmanazar or methuselah—for New Year’s Eve that I somehow manage to hold (I seriously have no upper-body strength) and pour into a six-story Champagne tower at midnight. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, we pull a special large-format bottle from the cellar and pour it almost at cost for our guests as a nice little holiday treat.
Damien Graef, sommelier at Award of Excellence winner Jean-Georges, Philadelphia
I love Thanksgiving. I’m a cook—I go crazy, I do too much. All of our restaurant friends would come to our house in Brooklyn, and we would host Thanksgiving almost every year. Since we’ve moved [to Philly], and since I have a backyard now, I like to cook the turkey outside because I'm a maniac. We drink magnums and go crazy with it; it's nice to have a big group to help taste through a bunch of different things, so Thanksgiving is for magnums of all shapes and colors.
A new-ish tradition for me and my wife: New Year's Day is Champagne and caviar by noon. By midday, we open some Champagne, we buy too much caviar and we put out a spread of all sorts of snacks and just kind of graze on it throughout the afternoon, and then we take a nap and eat a salad for dinner.
Robert Stelmachuk, wine director at Best Award of Excellence winner Mott 32 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
I am proudly Ukrainian—ice-cold vodka and dill pickles. It’s a very crazy combination, but it's always been embedded into me. Christmas morning was always Bailey's and coffee while we're opening gifts. It was very seldom that we’d have wine on the table.
Mike Lee, wine director at Grand Award winner La Toque, in Napa, Calif.
I’m not much for holiday traditions, but something I do every year between Christmas and New Year's Eve is seek out a rare vintage Champagne to drink as a positive beginning to a new chapter. It’s a rare splurge I do for myself, and it’s fun for whomever I’m sharing the wine with!
Julian Simard-Gillis, head sommelier at Grand Award winner Post Hotel Dining Room, in Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada.
My favorite tradition is a potluck dinner with friends. It’s that time of the year where everyone brings their most special dishes and wines to the table. Being in Lake Louise, we are all very far away from our families, so the wines and foods that we bring are always very sentimental. For me, it's tourtière [a French-Canadian meat pie] and Barolo!
We do like to do specific wine holiday events and wine dinners. They're not super extravagant: They're mainly for customers to be able to try the wines in a restaurant setting, and then they can buy them at a discounted price at a liquor store to have them for the holidays. The food's random, the wines are random. There's not really a theme to them besides that they're just wines that we feel will pair well with a variety of foods, like high-acid reds and rosés—nothing over the top, just well-balanced wines.
Yannick Benjamin, co-owner and wine director at Contento in New York City
One of my favorite holiday drinking traditions is treating myself to a great glass of Palo Cortado Sherry to begin with and following that up with an aged Nebbiolo from Barolo. These are two very special wine regions that produce some of the most unique wines in the world.
Charlie Broder, owner and wine director at Best Award of Excellence winner Terzo in Minneapolis
My family has always had deep traditions, especially during the holidays. One of our most cherished is working through a long and very busy Christmas Eve service together at our deli, Broders’ Cucina Italiana, and retreating to our family’s home, a few blocks away to enjoy tortières (a French-Canadian tradition) and drink great Burgundy and Champagne. It's a great change of pace from the generally all-Italian focus of our wine programs and family meals.
While I’m a year-round advocate for Champagne, the holidays offer great opportunities to open some special bottles. Vintage Champagne or some bottles with age, are generally on the list for our family. I think this year will be some Eric Rodez Blanc de Blancs as well as some Larmandier-Bernier Vieille Vigne du Lavant.
Alisha Blackwell-Calvert, wine director at Award of Excellence winner Cinder House, St. Louis, Mo.
One of my favorite holiday wine traditions is bringing a bottle of Champagne. I do love sparkling wine from around the globe, but there’s something about the Champagne region specifically that adds a little luxury to the occasion. A bottle of Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve or Champagne Jacquesson are mainstays around my holiday table. Family dinner at my mother’s house requires a crowd pleaser like Brachetto d’Acqui or Bugey Cerdon [a low-alcohol sparkling rosé from France’s Jura region]. The juicy cranberry and raspberry notes from wines of those two regions are perfect accompaniments to holiday turkey and ham.