Raise a Glass: Toasting 101

Everyone I know drank to someone’s health (or prosperity, or a new job, or world peace) in the last two weeks – but did we do it correctly?

Toast medium

[Photo, “Toast to 2012,” courtesy of Hakee Chang via Flickr]

We’ve been practicing long enough that we should be able to get it right by now. People toasted each other as early as the 1st century BCE, when Roman citizens were required to drink to the health of Emperor Augustus at every meal. In A Gentleman’s Guide to Toastingauthor David Fulmer writes that people continued toasting into the Middle Ages, but they weren’t exactly singing each others’ praises: back then, poison was a common means of getting rid of enemies, so people poured a bit of wine into their rivals’ glasses to prove the wine hadn’t been poisoned. Drinkers who trusted each other skipped the tasting part and just clinked glasses; some historians claim the clinking noise chased away evil spirits.

The word “toast” may have evolved from Elizabethan times, when ale houses placed a piece of spiced toast in glasses to flavor drinks. The toast also supposedly soaked up the dregs. By the early 1700s, a toast came to mean “a sentiment expressed just before drinking to someone.”

We all get pressed into toasting duty eventually. When your turn comes, drinking etiquette experts (yes, some people actually specialize in booze manners) offer these pointers:

  • Before you speak, get the group’s attention – don’t begin your toast while people are talking – and make sure everyone has a glass. Include teetotalers; they can toast with water or soda.
  • Raise your glass to eye level, make eye contact and begin your toast. Keep it to two or three sentences. Don’t wax on.
  • Your toast should be appropriate to the occasion. Don’t mention dead people at a festive celebration or be too casual at a formal or serious event.
  • Don’t begin your toast with a story about yourself. Sorry, but nobody cares.
  • Don’t use a script – surely you can remember three sentences.
  • Make it original. Resist the temptation to include clichés; they’re cop-outs.
  • And even if you’re the biggest potty-mouth in the room, don’t curse during a toast. Never, never, never.

Wine Lingo:  Punt = the indentation at the bottom of a bottle of sparkling wine. The punt has a practical purpose: during production, six “atmospheres” of pressure, or up to 90 pounds per square inch, build up inside the bottle. That’s more than twice the air pressure in a car tire, and the reason why you enjoy up to 100 million bubbles in each bottle. The punt helps to distribute that pressure. Other wine bottles sometimes feature punts as well.

Yarden Blanc de Blancs

Vino ‘View: I toasted a lot this season, and the best glass I raised was 2009 Yarden Blanc de Blancs (12 percent alcohol, $30.99). This Israeli sparkler from Galilee is produced by the traditional method and aged at least four years. The bubbles were fine and aggressive, just the way I like them. Yarden is known for its sparkling wines and this one delivers medium body with a surprising mix of crisp citrus and tropical tastes on top of homemade bread. Orange and honeydew melon were the prominent and lingering flavors, with a touch of grapefruit. This vintage will keep another two years; Yarden bubbly generally can age for a decade.

[The Yarden Blanc de Blancs was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

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Napa vs Sonoma – Which Sparkling Wine Shall We Pour Tonight?

If you’re a fan of fizzy wines, you already (probably) know that California is not a one-bubbly-fits-all state. If you didn’t know that, we won’t out you! Just get a few basics down and you’ll get more out of your sparklers.

Gloria Ferrer glass

[Photo by Sarah Stierch, “Sparkling Wine at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards, Sonoma, California” via Flickr.com]

The first sparkling wine in America was a sparkling Catawba, produced in Ohio (we Ohioans like to boast), downstate near Cincinnati, by Nicholas Longworth in the 1830s. It only took another 30 years for Jacob Schram to purchase his vineyard property in Napa Valley and start producing California’s first quality sparkling wines. By 1870, Schram had planted 30,000 vines and was aging his earliest vintages in cool caves.

Napa is a warm, narrow valley, protected from the cold air of the Pacific Ocean by low mountain ranges but still cooled by the waters of San Pablo Bay. Growers there enjoy calcium-rich soil and a Mediterranean climate with a warm, sunny growing season – ideal for growing Chardonnay, one of the prime grapes used in making their sparkling wines. The southern part of Napa, nearer to the bay, is cooler than the rest of the valley.

Schram’s little enterprise didn’t make it past Prohibition, but new owners resurrected Schramsberg Vineyards  in 1965 and still use those caves to store their wines, considered some of the finest in California.

About 20 years later, the Ferrer family from Barcelona discovered the Mediterranean climate and terroir of Sonoma County. Just west of Napa and more diverse in terms of soil and plantings (think: redwood forests), Sonoma has cooler nights, thanks to 60 miles of Pacific coastline and an ocean cool-down. The region reminded José Ferrer of his family home in Catalonia, especially good for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so it was there he built Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards and named the new winery after his wife.

Only the practiced palate would discern real differences between Schramsberg and Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines. Schramsberg’s might taste a little stonier, slightly bready and creamy, with clear tropical fruit notes. Gloria Ferrer’s sparklers might be fruitier with a little more cinnamon coming through.

But when you’re staring at that confusing wall of bottles in the store, maybe it’s most important to remember that both wineries produce their sparkling wines using the Methode Champenoise, or “Classic (Traditional) Method.” We’ll save the long version for another day; suffice it to say that sparkling wines displaying any of those phrases on the label, and “Fermented in This Bottle,” have undergone the hands-on, multiple steps necessary to create the finest sparkling wines. It’s the same technique used to produce Champagne (which comes from the Champagne region of France, but you knew that, right?). It will cost a little more than sparkling wine whose label says it was fermented inside the bottle (rather than this), or using the Charmat or “outside the bottle” (i.e., in a tank) method, but it’s worth paying extra for the classic-method wine. That’s a difference you will taste.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Mayacamas and Vaca MountainsWhen you’re looking at wines from regions as popular as Napa Valley and Sonoma County, it helps to orient yourself geographically. Any serious discussion of Napa and Sonoma is likely to mention these important mountain ranges because they affect the grapes and, ultimately, the wine: the Mayacamas Mountains run along the western edge of Napa, protecting it from the cooler Sonoma air, and the Vaca Range forms Napa’s eastern boundary. If you’re contemplating any form of wine certification, memorize these two names – you’ll see them on just about every exam.

Patrick bubbly

Vino ‘View:  With the onset of summer, we wanted a couple of cool sparklers to sip on the porch. We chose two delicious, affordable California bottles: Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Blancs and Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Noirs (both Methode Champenoise, both 12.5 percent alcohol, both $22). The 100-percent Pinot Noir has a rosy tinge and gave us tiny, assertive bubbles. The aroma was lemon at first, then it melted into a rich pear that changed to apple in our mouths. The all-Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs was a melon-and-banana delight, a super-tropical feel and perfect for our warm-weather neighbor-watching. That handsome fellow in the photo is my nephew, Patrick Straffen – we were celebrating because he and my niece, Emily Straffen, had just passed their Level 2 WSET exams! You go, guys!

Cheers,

Mary