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by Fred McMillin
for December 13, 2001


The Wines of Christmas


Ivan TamasHere are Christmas milestones and a wine to enjoy with each.

c.200 A.D.—First Celebration of Christ's Birthday
In Egypt, church historian Clement of Alexandria wrote what is probably the first description of the event that later became known as "Christmas." Monks were making wine, probably from man's oldest surviving wine grape, the Muscat of Alexandria. Modern versions are produced by Sutter Home, and in some years, Cline.

345 A.D.—Selelction of December 25
In Rome Bishop Tiberius established the date that has endured, the 25th of December. No doubt much of the wine was made from what Pliny the Elder called Trebulanum, which is today's Trebbiano (white). Try the Ivan Tamas, (pictured).

1038 A.D.—Origin of the Word "Christmas"
In England, the celebration of Christ's birthday was conducted at the church mass; thus, the name Christ's Mass which became Christmas. As to the wine, England's interest in Bordeaux wines was awakening, so try Yorkville Cellars Bordeaux-varietal blend, appropriately named Richard the Lion-Heart (1157-1199).

1050 A.D.—The First Christmas Carol
Just 12 years after the first use of "Christmas," the first Christmas carol was sung, not in England but in Germany. There, black-robed Benedictine monks were cultivating what would become Germany's only noble native grape, the Riesling. Current bottles... How fitting that a German Riesling whiz, Dr. Ernst Loosen, was brought to Washington State's Chateau Ste. Michelle to create "Eroica," one of the best dry Rieslings of the year. If you prefer a touch of sugar, try Firestone's off-dry Johannisberg Riesling.

c.1600 AD.—The First Christmas Tree
A cathedral in Strasbourg is said to have housed the first Christmas tree. The Gewürztraminer grape was developing just north of Strasbourg, and a Gewürz may have been sipped by some of those that saw the first Christmas tree. Recommendations: Frederick Wildman imports the landmark Hugel Gcwürz, which is dry. If you prefer a hint of sweetness (as do many of my tasters), then it's Alderbrook's very popular Sarelee's Vineyard Gewürz, with just under 1 % sugar.

1843 Dickens' Masterpiece
It's well known that Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol... but it's not well known that he was the first to write the word "tawny" (tan) to describe the older, brown type of Port wine. Top-scoring Ports in my classes include Graham's, Guenoc, Quady and Ken Deaver's Zinfandel Port.

c.1850—The Name "Santa Claus"
"St. Nicholas" was being replaced by the name "Santa Claus" just as Zinfandel was starting to replace the Mission as California's best wine grape. My panel's recent winners were produced by Rosenblum, Montevina, and Bogle, the latter two under $10.

1863—The First Drawing of Santa Claus
Cartoonist Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly created the image we know so well today, a kindly, bearded, well-fed Santa Claus. That same year Mrs. Abraham Lincoln startled her White House guests by serving wine made from native American grapes. The best native grape today is the Norton; try Missouri's St. James Winery Norton.

1896—First String of Christmas Tree Lights
The first string of small electric light bulbs is said to have been created by a telephone company employee in New England. There is only one wine for a toast to this unknown inventor. It's made by Handley in the Anderson Valley of northern California. There, less than a century ago the country folk looked down on the town with its newfangled electric light bulbs. They called the city slickers "brightlighters," and so does Winemaker Milla Handley call her Riesling-Gewürz blend that often wins Best Buy in my classes: Handley Cellars Brightlighter.

and finally,

Author with press used by Charles Krug.

"Your author with the press used by Charles Krug when making Napa's first commercial wine."

Napa's Milestone Christmas Wedding
Actually, it was the day after Christmas in 1860 when a German journalist married one Caroline Bale and soon converted 20 acres of her dowry into the Napa Valley's first commercial winery. His name was Charles Krug. My picky panel just gave a Krug a resounding ninety one rating. It was the 1996 Vintage Selection Napa Valley Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon, $47.

My consultant on this piece was the President of the North Pole Wine & Food Society, Mr. S. Claus. His favorite libation is, of course, Ice Wine (Try Inniskillin's.)


Postscript—This Just In!

My tasters just checked out a six-pack of new bottles, and here's how they ranked.

    6th—$9—Charles Mitchell's Rhone-Style Red: "Cotes du Cosumnes," Paso Robles, '97
    5th—$8—Delicato's Shiraz, California, 2000, Gold medal at big British competition.
    4th—$10—A new addition to the lineup for Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates Collection. Good value...Yangarra ("yan garra" means "earth"' in Aussie aboriginal lore) Park 100% Chardonnay, South Eastern Australia, 2000. If you drink $l0 Chards, be sure to try a bottle.
    3rd—$20—Washington State Cabs are coming. My panel liked this one... chocolate, coffee notes... Desert Wind Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, 1998.
    2nd—$8—Here's the Best Buy of the six... Salmon Harbor Chardonnay, 2000. Provides a rare opportunity to taste Chardonnay without any apple-lemon treat.
    1st—$25—A major-league organic red... Richard the Lion-Heart Meritage blend of Bordeaux varietals by gifted Ed Wallo, Yorkville Cellars. If you're seeking minimum sulfur dioxide, this is your wine.


The picky palates rating these wines belonged to Skip Hanson (bridge pro), David Jones (wine columnist), Edgar Vogt (wine teacher) and yours truly.


About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. For information about the wine courses he teaches every month at either San Francisco State University or San Francisco City College (Fort Mason Division), please fax him at (415) 567-4468.



This page created December 2001