Ordering Wine on New Year's Eve (Plus a great Hoppin' John Recipe!)

A year ago this weekend, I enjoyed my first New Year's Eve off from work in 25 years. There are many reasons for this. First and foremost, being in the restaurant business means working when most others do not. On the other hand, having the best dang staff in town did make it possible on the eve of 2010 for me to travel and spend some time with far-off friends.

As is the tradition, we raised a glass (yeah, OK, more than one) in salute to times gone by -- a.k.a. auld lang syne -- and talked of grand plans for the coming year: what resolutions we were going to break and whether or not the Hawkeyes could beat Georgia Tech. This year's conversations would be almost the same (insert OSU v. Arkansas here), but I'll be back at the helm at Devotay this time. Fortunately I love to do that, too!

Many of you will be out at restaurants this year as well, perusing wine lists looking for the best choice of wine with your dinner, and a sparkler with which to toast the New Year. Here are a few pointers to help you pick what's right for you.

1. If you've seen it on a TV commercial, skip it. This is not a hard-and-fast rule (there are no rules in the enjoyment of wine). However, if the winery spent all that money to get an ad during the Super Bowl or some such, then that is just so much money they could have put into improving the wine rather than trying to convince you that it's good. That said, it is likely to be inexpensive, and if you've had it before and liked it, then as they say in the land of Yellow Tail, "Good on ya."

2. Trust the sommelier. If the restaurant you're visiting has a sommelier, put your trust in him/her. Sommeliers are not sales people, they are resident experts, and their goal is to find a wine that suits your tastes, your menu selections and your pocketbook all at the same time. Many servers will do this as well. However, there are also those who simply want to raise their check averages. Bottom line: go with whom you know and trust.

3. The vocabulary match. Think of how you would describe the entrée you've ordered. Is it light and fresh? Rich and hearty? Seek a wine that would have the same description. A light and fresh piece of fish with a pico de gallo wants a light and fresh wine like an Albariño or Sauvignon Blanc, while a big steak slathered in mushroom demi glace would prefer a Tempranillo or an Australian Shiraz. Fun fact: This works in reverse, too.

4. Not all sparkling wine comes from Champagne. It's true that to properly be called "Champagne," it must be grown and produced within the officially designated boundaries of that northern French region, but they are far from the only folks to make darn tasty bubbly. For fresh new tastes (and bargains to boot), look to Cavas from Spain, Proseccos from Italy, and the recently very popular Gruet, a sparkling wine from -- wait for it -- New Mexico!

5. It doesn't have to be bubbly
. There is, without a doubt, a strong tradition behind toasting the new year with Champagne, but in all honesty one can toast with pretty much any beverage. It is, however, very bad form and in some circles very bad luck to toast with water. A good choice for those who wish to ring in the New Year well but keep costs and alcohol down is a Portuguese wine called Vinho Verde. It has about a third less alcohol than most table wine and usually costs about one three-hundredths what my favorite Champagne costs (for the record, that's Dom Ruinart).

So relax and enjoy, and here's a toast to you from me and my friend, T.S. Eliot: "For last year's words belong to last year's language. And next year's words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning."


Seems this is the season of requests for repeats, so here once again is my Hoppin' John recipe, with a promise for new stuff in the New Year. Make this your first bite to eat in the New Year to bring, according to Southern tradition, good luck throughout the year.

2½ cups black-eyed peas
4 tablespoons butter or peanut oil
2 each ham hocks
2 each onion, diced
8 cups water
1 teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon garlic
2 each bay leaf
salt and pepper, to taste

Soak the peas overnight in enough water to cover by half, then drain, rinse and proceed.

Brown the ham hocks over medium heat in the butter or oil in a large stock pot. Once browned on each side, add the onions and sauté until tender (5 to 8 minutes).

Add all the remaining ingredients and increase heat to bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let cook 60 to 90 minutes or until peas are tender. Taste to adjust salt and pepper, then serve over buttered white rice.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.