Lunar New Year Traditions

Although the Western calendar has been adopted by most Asian cultures, Lunar New Year (also called the Spring Festival) remains a holiday of great cultural and historical meaning going back at least 2000 years! Like Thanksgiving in the United States, travelling home for a family reunion dinner is an imperative for people who celebrate. In fact, in China Lunar New Year counts as the biggest annual migration of people on Earth (even larger than the number of Muslims who visit Mecca every year), with just shy of 400 million expected to take to the railways to travel to their hometowns for the holiday this year. And in New York City, public schools are closed on the first day of the New Year holiday.

The Lunar New Year varies by date year-to-year. It occurs on the second New Moon after the December solstice. This year, the Lunar New Year begins on Friday, February 16th, although the New Year’s eve family dinner on the night of the 15th is the true beginning of the holiday. It lasts 15 days, and culminates this year on Saturday, March 3rd with the Lantern Festival: lanterns are lit at night and then let go into the sky en masse with wishes for prosperity and good luck in the coming year. It is truly magical to behold.

Lunar New Year is not just a holiday celebrated in Asian countries. With our sizable population of Asian immigrants, Lunar New Year and Lantern Festivals are celebrated in many towns and cities across the United States. Here in New York City, the Chinese New Year’s Day parade is a popular multi-cultural event. This is a fun, happy and lively holiday, vivid with colors, music, noise and special foods.

Origins of the Lunar New Year Holiday

Lunar New Year began in China with the fable of a horrible monster named “Nian”. The story roughly goes that Nian liked to eat people and it would come into the villages on New Year’s Day and gobble up the villagers, finding children a particular delicacy. The people of the village would flee from their homes every year before Nian was due to arrive. But one year, and old man stayed to try to fight the beast. The old man draped red papers all over the town and set off firecrackers all night long. Nian did not come and the village came to believe that Nian was afraid of the bright color red and the loud noises of the firecrackers.

This is why red is such a significant color for this holiday. Red repels bad luck and thus allows good fortune the opportunity to reign. People dress in red, decorate their homes in red, and give money in red envelopes. In Lunar New Year parades, Nian is depicted as the familiar dragon that winds his way through the streets and people on the sidelines set off firecrackers and use noisemakers to frighten the monster away and keep them safe.

Preparations for the Lunar New Year Celebration

People spend a lot of time preparing for the Lunar New Year. They clean their houses not just to be ready for family and guests at the New Year’s Eve dinner, but also because it symbolizes the washing away of any bad luck left over from the preceding year and allows room for the good luck in the new year to accumulate. Once the cleaning is done, the brooms and dust pans are put away so that any good luck that comes cannot be “swept away”. Homes are decorated in red paper and some people actually paint doors and window sills with a fresh coat of red paint. Some homes are also decorated with paper cutouts of Chinese phases that will bring good luck. People buy new clothes, often in red or other bright colors, again as a symbol of a new beginning. This is similar to what we see in the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, where people wear new articles of clothing to signify a fresh start with the New Year.

Also analogous to the traditions of Rosh Hashanah is the attention paid to homonyms: words that are spelled alike or pronounced similarly even if they have a different meaning. Auspicious words that mean good fortune, wealth, health and prosperity are emphasized as are foods and other items and activities that sound like auspicious words when they are spoken. For example, the word “hair” in Chinese sounds like the word for “prosperity”. So if you need a “hair cut”, you are wise to get it done before the Lunar New Year otherwise you may “cut your prospects for wealth”. Similarly, you would wash your hair in preparation for the New Year, so as not to “wash away” your chances for good fortune. More on other superstitions under “Taboos” below.

In Asian cultures, business and personal debts, whether of money or of gratitude, are expected to be paid up before the New Year and this is not dissimilar to the thanks and apologies and amends made in Jewish cultures on Rosh Hashanah.

Lunar New Year’s Eve Dinner

Family members will travel far and wide to return home for the traditional annual reunion dinner on Lunar New Year’s Eve. It is customary for guests to bring gifts. If you are invited to such a dinner this week, you can bring or send ahead our “good fortune” gift basket of lucky fruit and Year of the Dog hand-iced cookies in the propitious colors of red and gold!

People will spend days preparing all the special foods customarily found in the Lunar New Year’s Eve meal, not unlike many cross-cultural holidays. Similar to the Jewish New Year, foods that are eaten on the Lunar New Year are homophones for words that convey good luck and prosperity.

Not only do the dishes themselves matter, but the way they are prepared, the way they are served and how and when they are eaten are also significant and will vary depending on local customs and individual family traditions. But a Chinese New Year meal almost always includes the 7 lucky foods: whole fish, dumplings, spring rolls, a rice-based cake called niangao, longevity noodles, certain fresh fruits, and sweet rice balls called tangyuan.

WHOLE FISH:

Certain fish when pronounced out loud sound like auspicious words and so these fish are usually served as the main dish at a Lunar New Year’s Eve dinner party. For example, carp (jee-yoo) sounds quite similar to the Chinese word for “good luck” (jee), and catfish (nyen-yoo) sounds almost exactly like the Chinese word for “year surplus”. And if you eat two fish, it means “surplus year after year”! So the belief is that if you eat these fish you will also literally absorb these good wishes and have much abundance in the New Year.

The fish is usually placed in the center of the table with the head facing the eldest or most important member of the dinner party. This positioning connotes respect to the chosen person, and he or she is to eat the fish first. Fish is generally the last dish eaten. Some fish is always left over to be eaten the next day in the New Year so that the “surplus” can be continued.

DUMPLINGS:

The making and eating of dumplings is also a traditional family activity at the Lunar New Year, especially in Northern China, where they are made after dinner and eaten around midnight at the very start of the New Year. Dumplings are boat-shaped like ancient coins of silver or gold, and thus they represent wealth. Eating lots of dumplings means making lots of money in New Year!

The most lucky dumplings are the ones that are made with many pleats, and some people conceal a white thread or a copper coin inside one of the dumplings: whoever bites into that one will get the gift of long life or wealth, respectively.

SPRING ROLLS:

Named because they are eaten at the Spring Festival, these treats are little dough rectangles filled with vegetables or meat, rolled into bars, and deep fried. The golden color and the shape make them look like “gold bars” and hence they symbolize wealth. Spring rolls are especially popular in Eastern China.

NIANGAO:

Niango (also called Eight Treasures Rice) is a special cake or pudding made primarily of a sticky, glutinous rice and sugar, layered in patterns with a mixture of nuts, dried fruit, seeds such as lotus and gingko, berries, and sometimes red bean paste. The literal translation of niango means “New Year cake” and when spoken sounds like “increasing prosperity year after year” or “getting higher and higher”. The suggestion is that you will gain a better position in your business and your bank account when you eat this traditional treat. In Southern China, niangao is given as gifts to family and friends through-out the 15 day New Year celebration.

LONGEVITY NOODLES:

Noodles are often a part of the Lunar New Year’s Eve meal. They are made especially long (up to 2 feet in length!) and are uncut to symbolize a long and healthy life. Longevity noodles can be prepared in numerous ways, and traditions will vary with the local cuisine.

FRESH FRUIT:

Citrus fruit are especially coveted on the Lunar New Year. The round shape is a symbol of fullness and the yellow, golden color denotes wealth. In keeping with the purpose of many other foods at the reunion dinner, the names of certain citrus are homophones for good luck. That’s why we include only the best citrus fruits in our Lunar New Year gift basket.

TANGYUAN:

These sweet rice balls are featured prominently during the Lantern Festival at the end of the 15 day Lunar New Year celebration, and in Southern China are eaten throughout the holiday. Again, the round shape signifies fullness and the sound tangyuan makes sounds similar to gathering together, like the family reunion dinner on Lunar New Year’s Eve.

Lunar New Year’s  Day Celebrations

After staying up all night, or at least until after midnight to greet the New Year, daytime celebrations may be quieter, although in New York City, the annual “Chinese New Year parade” that snakes around Chinatown and little Italy is a lively and festive New Year’s Day celebration. Firecrackers and fireworks are set off to ward of evil in order to allow in all the good fortune. Giving gifts of money in brightly colored red envelopes is another holiday tradition and most people will receive a red envelope from someone. People will dress in new clothes, often red (the luckiest color) or other brightly hued colors to reflect their wishes for a good year and their happy mood.

Lunar New Year Taboos

The traditions of many cultural holidays arise from ancient myths and fables that are passed down over generations and while they may become diluted, they often persist and Lunar New Year is no exception. There are many superstitions surrounding this holiday in Asian cultures.  Following are some interesting examples of beliefs and taboos for the first day of the Lunar New Year:

  1. Don’t take medicine or you will be sick for the entire year.
  2. Don’t go to the hospital or you will bring sickness on yourself for the entire year…. unless it’s an emergency!!
  3. Don’t take out the garbage or you will be dumping out all the good luck that has accumulated in the house.
  4. Don’t use knives, scissors, needles or other sharp objects that you could hurt yourself on. Any accidental injury can bring bad luck and loss of security.
  5. Don’t break tools or equipment as it can cause a loss of wealth in the New Year.
  6. Don’t eat porridge for breakfast because it is what poor people generally have for breakfast and the New Year doesn’t want to start off “poor”.
  7. Don’t let children cry because it will bring bad luck to the family.
  8. Don’t wear white or black clothes because these colors are associated with death and mourning and you don’t want to bring that into your house.
  9. Don’t allow anyone to steal from you, especially don’t be pick-pocketed because it means that your entire accumulated wealth for the year will be stolen.
  10. Don’t owe any money lest your wealth will go to others.

Next year will be the Year of the Pig, representing the 12th and final cycle in the 12 year lunar calendar. Until then, wishing everyone a very lucky and prosperous Lunar New Year!

Valentine’s Day Gift Basket Ideas

As January progresses past New Year’s and the month of February approaches, our attention begins to turn to the next holiday: Valentine’s Day! Most people associate the spirit of the day with romantic and sexual love, so when we think about giving gifts on Valentine’s Day, we have a tendency to focus on things that are associated with passion and indulgence. And that’s what I’m going to spotlight today when I share with you my classic “themes of love” Valentine’s Day gift basket ideas.

Sensual Fruits

Fruits embody sensuality. First, fruits are actually “ovaries” that develop around fertilized seeds after the reproductive process of pollination. Second, think about the words we use to describe fruit: sweet, fleshy, juicy, succulent, luscious, ripe, and tender to name a few. Third, the way we eat fruit can be pretty sensuous to experience and to observe. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the sexiness in all that!

Finally, certain fruits are believed to possess properties of an aphrodisiac. For example, the apple is a notorious symbol of temptation since Biblical times, and in Greek mythology, the lure of eating pomegranate seeds was too much for poor Persephone to deny and thus she sealed her own fate to live below the earth’s surface in Hades.

To learn more about other “fruits of love”, refer to our popular blog from February 2014 written with knowledge and affection by our own Matthew J!

Roses

The red rose is a classic symbol of love. When you send red roses, the meaning of your missive is unambiguous! Many of our Valentine’s Day gift baskets are paired with red roses for that very reason. A fresh fruit basket or a box of chocolates suddenly takes on a whole new implication once we add red roses to the gift.

We order well over a thousand long stemmed red roses for Valentine’s Day every year! We actually start looking at the roses much earlier, around the middle of January. We purchase several varieties from different farms and we experiment with them to find the best performer. We want to learn how fast they bloom, how big they open, and how long they last. We want the roses you send to open in a wildly flirtatious way and look good even as they are fading! This year, we have selected a red rose called “Freedom”. If you are looking for Valentine’s Day gift basket ideas that include red roses, ours will be available on February 12th, the Monday before the holiday.

Chocolates

Chocolates have also become rather de rigueur in Valentine’s Day gift baskets for him or for her. Chocolates and their creamy sweetness represent indulgence and Valentine’s Day is a perfect time to pamper your sweetheart with treats of all kinds. Chocolate-covered strawberries are ubiquitous this time of year. For the best options, look for smaller strawberries as they are the tastiest. Some even come with their green tops still on for extra charm. Harder to find is a strawberry dipped in real, premium chocolate, like Valhrona. Most “chocolate” that is used is completely fake, and although it may look like chocolate, it doesn’t taste like chocolate.

Not sure whether to send fresh fruit, roses or chocolates? Why choose? We can solve that dilemma by offering Valentine’s Day gift baskets (for her or for him) that include all three components! We call them our Three Part Harmony Gifts, in three sizes:

Three Part Harmony: Tenor, Alto (pictured), and Soprano

Lavish Gifts

This may be the year when you want to express your ardor in a monumental way: go for it! Think sumptuous and extravagant. Create a feast of love with an intimate tableau in your own living room (or bedroom). You can do it yourself, or let us do it for you. Our luxe and deluxe Epicurean Hamper will tempt with delicate delectables from appetizers to dessert. Consider having it delivered with caviar and champagne to amp up the passion even more.

Epicurean Hamper with Caviar

Or perhaps you’d prefer to send our “Lavish Love”: a new Valentine’s Day gift basket idea that we developed for 2018. The name says it all! We set the stage with champagne, chocolates, caviar and red roses, and you provide the rest for a perfect romantic experience.

New for Valentine’s Day 2018

Whether you create your own “themes of love” gift baskets, or choose to send one of ours, don’t be sexist in your thinking about this holiday! Traditionally, Valentine’s Day gifts tend to be for her, but men like getting Valentine’s Day surprises too. Our romantic selections make great Valentine’s Day gift baskets for him as well!

Why Natural Wines?

What is “natural wine?” Natural wines have no governing body or official accreditation, but hold themselves to the strictest standards. Many natural winemakers practice aspects of biodynamics and all are at least farming organically.  There’s an argument that wine is inherently unnatural.  We are, after all, just hitting pause on the life of some grape juice that wants to turn itself into vinegar.

It’s worth noting that over 50 additives and processing aids (such as non-wine sugar, various acidic chemicals, beet juice for sweetness and color, something called MegaPurple, oak essence to mimic barrel aging, etc.) can be added to wine in the US and EU without listing them on the label. This fact alone might make you more interested in natural wine.  Wine, to us, is about conveying a sense of place where the grapes are being grown, or terroir.  The more unobstructed the grape, the better the wine.

The best way to consider natural wines is to start with the notion of zero pesticides and zero additives, and go from there. What can be added to wine and still be natural?

The best definition we’ve found of natural wines comes from Isabelle Legeron, M.W. in her book Natural Wines:

“Whether or not it is certified, natural wine is . . . wine from vineyards that are farmed organically, at the very least, and produced without adding or removing anything during vinification (wine making), apart from a dash of sulfites at most at bottling.” (Natural Wines, page 23)

What does it mean to grow grapes organically?

Organic “viticulture” rejects the use of man-made, synthetic chemicals in the vineyard. This means no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or synthetic fertilizers. Organic farmers instead use plant and mineral based products to combat pests and diseases, improve the health of the soil and build up plant immunity and nutrient uptake. It’s estimated that between 5-7 percent of vineyards are now organic or converting to organic. (Natural Wine, page. 33)

It’s important to remember that all farming was organic before inorganic methods were an option.  The industrial revolution saw the development of these methods in the form of tractors, hybrid seeds, and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.  Organic farming as it’s known today is a direct response to those synthetic methods developed in the early 1900s.

An example that is often used is Roundup, a popular herbicide that is allowed by some regulatory boards such as California’s “SIP Certified” (SIP = Sustainability in Practice). There’s also the “Bordeaux mixture,” a fungicide made of copper sulfate and calcium hydroxide, that is permitted by all except natural winemakers who are only self-governed.  I can’t imagine that spraying copper in the vineyard is a great way to encourage more microbiological activity in the soil.

It’s worth noting here that many organic vineyards and farms that are farming organically, particularly the smaller ones, are choosing not to be certified organic because it’s a costly and cumbersome process. Their grapes are no less organic than a certified grape.

What is biodynamic farming?

It’s hard to mention organic farming in the wine world without whispers of biodynamics.  Biodynamics is an ethos started by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920’s. (Yes, the same Steiner who was the brain behind the well known Waldorf Schools. And, yes, the same Steiner who never farmed a day in his life!)

It’s founded on a holistic approach to a self-sustaining micro-ecosystem with perfectly balanced microbial life, soil, grapevines, livestock, insects, and other plants.  The essential principle is that more life in the vineyard and more microbiological activity in the soil will naturally lead to happier and healthier grapes.

 

Bruno Allion Vin de Gamay: a natural wine

Bruno Allion Vin de Gamay.

 “Demeter” certified and no added sulfites

Demeter is the only biodynamic certifying board in the world. Some smaller producers who are farming biodynamically using wild yeast and adding a tiny amount of sulfur at bottling, may not be able to fork over the money necessary for Demeter certification, especially when they’re starting out.

What is natural winemaking?

Wine can be made from grapes alone without the addition of anything else. So, is it okay to add yeast during the wine making process? The short answer is “no.” Yeast is an invisible fungus that consumes the sugar in the grape juice and releases alcohol as a by-product, along with complex flavor compounds. Natural wines are made using the yeast that naturally occurs in vineyards and on the grapes. This indigenous yeast is the foundation of natural wine making because it is part of the terroir, or natural environment, which includes the soil, climate and topography. The decision to introduce foreign yeast into the wine making process severs the relationship between the wine and the place the grapes were grown. This means the terroir is not being expressed in the wine when you drink it.

What does a natural winemaker look like?

Meet Beatrice & Pascal Lambert. They founded their Domaine in 1987 in the Loire Valley near the town of Chinon, in the region of the Touraine, or the “garden of France“. Beatrice and Pascal have been carefully cultivating Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc on approximately 25 acres (soils range between sand and gravel deposits, limestone-clay soils and flint based clay soils) and the estate has been practicing organic viticulture and biodynamic preparations since 2005, becoming certified in 2012. With their draft-horse Isis, they plow the rows between the vines, planting each year different cover crops to assist in the uptake of the biodynamic preparations while adding back nutrients for the following season. They closely follow the lunar cycle from vineyard to cellar, only using indigenous yeasts with fermentation occurring in concrete or wooden vats. They mature and age their wines according to the different terroirs using concrete and wood vats. They also rack and bottle according to the lunar cycles as well. Their success as growers and natural wine makers is based on accentuating the purity of the terroir from which their vines come as well as elaborating on their personalities in the cellar.

 

natural wine makers

 

 What about added sulfites?

In conventional wine making, sulfites may be added during various stages of wine making to control risk factors inherent in wine production. Sulfites are useful for slowing oxidation and knocking out harmful bacteria, and are a common preservative found in wine. However, natural wine makers believe sulfites mute the nuances of vintage or vineyard. Significantly, there are naturally occurring sulfites in wine that aid the natural wine maker. Added sulfites are one of the key distinctions between commercial and natural wines, but it’s not all or nothing.

Some natural producers will not add any sulfites at all, while others will add a dash at most, usually at the bottling stage. For natural producers, the decision to add even a dash of sulfites is an economic decision related to the quality of a vintage, ripeness of grapes when picked or worries about transportation or storage.

How much sulfite can be added to still be considered “natural”? In order for a wine to be USDA certified organic, the grapes must be grown organically and no sulfites can be added to the wine. By the current USDA Organic Standard, any wine, foreign or domestic, can contain only naturally occurring sulfites (less than 10mg per liter) to be marketed and sold as an “organic wine”. In the US, naturally occurring sulfur dioxide (which is often at undetectable amounts) is permitted, but not in excess of 20 parts per million (or “ppm”), which is the same as 20mg per liter of wine. Wine “made with organic grapes” can have the addition of sulfites up to 100 ppm, but are generally much lower (around 40 to 80 ppm). In contrast to the US, in the EU, organic wines can have up to 150 ppm of added sulfites.

Whether sulfites are naturally occurring in the grapes or added by wine growers and producers, all wines containing more than 10 ppm must state “contains sulfites” on the label.  Just to put this in perspective, industrial wines can be as high as 350 ppm, way more than any natural wine maker would consider adding.

Side note on sulfites:  According to the Cleveland Clinic, only asthmatics are predisposed to have a reaction to sulfites, and even then it is only 1-5% of all asthmatics.  Luckily, for those select few, we do now have delicious wine made without the addition of any sulfur whatsoever. However, if you don’t think twice before eating a couple of raisins (which can contain sulfites well exceeding 100 ppm in one serving), then the addition of 70 ppm of sulfur at bottling should be of no concern. Remember, conventionally produced wines can have up to 350 ppm.

Our final take on added sulfites and natural wine:  the addition of a dash of sulfites at bottling does not disqualify a wine that is otherwise made from organic or biodynamically grown grapes from being considering a natural wine. In the EU, natural wine advocate Isabelle Legeron has set limits for added sulfites for her RAW Wine Fair:  70 ppm of added sulfites for natural wine (compared to 100 to 150 ppm for certified organic wine and 350 ppm for conventional wine).

How do natural wines taste?

Some natural wines just aren’t very good. Farming organically or practicing biodynamics doesn’t guarantee a quality wine.  What it does ensure is that you’re ingesting something that is healthier for you than something produced from commercially farmed grapes that have been sprayed with herbicides and pesticides. But if it doesn’t taste good, what’s the point?

There are two main issues that low intervention wines face in a finished product, both of which can have extremely varying levels of influence on the wine. The first one, volatile acid, is a result of bacteria in the wine creating acetic acid at any point in the wine’s fermentation process. Bacteria are everywhere, but they thrive with more oxygen and in warmer temperatures. Ethyl acetate can be described as a glue-like or nail polish remover smell.  In small doses, under certain conditions, in certain wines and with certain foods, this quality is extremely desirable.

The second pitfall of natural wines is a recently coined term, “mousiness.”  Mousiness affects unsulfured wines, and is an infection caused by a strain of the lactobacillus bacteria family.  It is something you can only detect on the finish, and is described as dog’s breath, sour milk or dead mouse. Yuck!  However, it can be instantly stopped with the addition of a small amount of sulfites.

Low intervention wines that avoid these two potential dangers can be mind blowing.  They are not created to taste a particular way, but taste a particular way because of where the grapes come from, how the grapes are being treated and how little the winemaker has to do to alter the “sense of place” the grapes convey to us.  If you taste enough, you can tell when a wine has been acidified, chaptalized (sugar added), or over-sulfured.  The resulting wines are not harmonious.

Natural wines that come together without additives can sing, tell a story, and take you on a unique journey you will never forget!

Author’s Note:  Working as the sommelier for Manhattan Fruitier, I curate a collection of natural wines from small producers around the world. Manhattan Fruitier will deliver Champagne and wine in New York State, including NYC, and Washington, D.C. Also for delivery in NYC and DC, I  pair natural wines with Manhattan Fruitier’s gourmet gift baskets – cheese, cured meat, chocolates.

7 Tips for Buying Wine

wine glasses and bottles

Pretty much everyone will admit to discomfort, and perhaps even anxiety, when purchasing wine. And why not? There’s so much to know … so many varietals, so many wine regions, so many makers, and so many so-called experts. The important thing about wine is enjoying it! And there are many levels of enjoyment.

For most people, it’s about liking what you drink. Knowing more about the wine may enhance your pleasure, but it’s not necessary. My advice is to enjoy it first and learn more about it if you think it will add to your pleasure. Fortunately, you have a lot of resources for good and great wine here in New York State, and particularly in NYC. Whether it involves eating out at a restaurant or having wine delivered to your New York or NYC home or work, there is no shortage of opportunity to sample and enjoy wine.

1. In a Restaurant, Talk to the Sommelier
Talking about wine in a restaurant setting can be nerve wracking. In front of a date, family, friends, or colleagues it can be intimidating choosing a wine that will not only please everyone but will also be within your budget. The sommelier or server knows the wine list best and wants to please you. Remember, you pay the same for the wine whether you get a recommendation or not, so why not take full advantage of the in-house expertise?

One additional benefit to choosing wine in a restaurant with the help of a sommelier is that you can often sample a couple of bottle selections if they are also offered by the glass. Even if you taste only one or two wines, your feedback will really help the sommelier recommend something you’d like or even love.

Just so you know, even wine experts ask for wine recommendations when they go out to eat. The surest way to have a new and exciting wine experience is to ask the resident expert. For example, the owners of Manhattan Fruitier excitedly told me about a sommelier’s recommendation at NYC’s Boulud Sud of a bottle of 2015 Schäfer-Fröhlich Blanc de Noir Trocken, a lively, lightly fruited white wine made from Pinot Noir grapes. They were surprised and delighted by this unusual wine!

A final note about ordering a bottle of wine in a restaurant: there’s a bit of psychology at play when wine lists are constructed. Diners don’t like to order the least expensive bottle on a wine list, so we tend to order the bottles in the tier just above the least expensive wine. Restaurants know this and often slot higher margin, low surprise wines in this group. If you can increase your budget slightly to get above this tier of wines, and then ask for a recommendation, you’ll likely be in for a nice surprise.

2. In a Wine Shop, Don’t be Shy – Tell the Merchant About What You Like
Wine shops can also be intimating, and/or extremely hard to fathom. There are so many selections, even of the same varietal. How does one make sense of all the choices of unknown producers, unfamiliar grape varieties, and difficult to decipher labels? And the task is made no easier by the fact that Old World wines often have labels that do not indicate the grape variety.

Tips for Buying Wine
Don’t be drawn to fancy labels, alone

You’ll be missing out on some truly enjoyable wines if you choose only bottles that have eye catching labels. This is why you want to ask for a recommendation. There are incredibly knowledgeable people in wine shops across the country who love what they do and want to share bottles they think are delicious with you. And, they are just waiting for you to ask. It’s as easy as saying, “I’d really like to explore some new wines.” This will lead to a conversation about what you drink now and what you like and don’t like.

The experience for a wine expert shopping in a wine shop is admittedly a little different. I’m like a kid at a candy stand when browsing the wine store. Even so, I’ll narrow it down to a couple of things I find interesting and then ask for advice. I almost always refuse assistance from a sales person while shopping for anything else, but with wine I always accept!

Once you discover a few wines you like, it’s easy to stop in your wine store, in NYC or elsewhere, and order a case to be delivered to your home.

3. Share Your Price Point
I think the easiest way to start the conversation is to first set a price point and then talk about styles and characteristics that might interest you. The price point is important because it narrows the options the sommelier will consider, both on the high end and low end depending on your budget. Wine shops offer much gentler markups than restaurants, which is all the more reason to be more adventurous in your choices in a wine shop.

You shouldn’t be embarrassed to request less expensive wines. In a wine shop, bottles starting at $10 to $12 can show a wine’s typicity (the degree to which a wine reflects the signature characteristics of the grape from which it was produced, i.e., how much a wine made with Syrah grapes reflects signature Syrah characteristics). At this price point, you are also beginning to see wines made from grapes grown in a specific area (i.e. the wine is made from grapes that all come from Monterey County, not simply California), and it is labeled as such.

Red wines can be more expensive than white wines for the simple fact that red wines may spend a little more time in the cellar before bottling. Also, red wines may be aged in expensive oak barrels. For this reason, it’s more likely to find a white wine from a lesser known region that’s able to convey a sense of place than a red wine within the $10-$15 range.

The $15-$20 range opens up many more doors. Eric Asimov, Wine Critic for the New York Times, thinks that $15 to $20 a bottle is the sweet spot for great wine values. You’ll find more than a few options from almost any region you can think of. Also at this price point, you’ll find producers who are consciously farming or sourcing grapes and making their wines with very minimal interventions in the cellar, allowing the grapes to show some terroir (or “sense of place,” encompassing the unique geology, topography, climate, plant and animal life as well as history and culture of people in the region).

Wines over $20 should display even more of what a vineyard and producer can do. These wines should come from producers who have proven they make good wines consistently vintage after vintage. Scarcity also affects price, and smaller productions and more hand crafted wines will always be slightly more expensive.

At Manhattan Fruitier, we offer wines ranging from the $20s on up. This is because we want to be sure that the wine a customer sends as a gift, either individually or as part of a wine gift basket in NYC, is exceptional.

A note about very inexpensive wines: the wine industry, like the food industry, is basically divided between producers who make vast quantities of drinkable wines for cheap prices and those who make smaller amounts of wine with the intention of delivering wines that reflect the grape and their craftsmanship. Predictability and homogeneity in the cheaper wines is often achieved by mixing grapes from different vineyards, industrial farming of grapes, and the use of additives to eliminate variation from year to year. While there are sound wines below $10 per bottle, by paying a few more dollars a bottle, you’ll likely be rescued from boring wines and instead experience wines that are surprising and delightful.

4. Color or Type of Wine
First, the good news: telling a wine expert the color or type of wine (red/white/rose/sparkling), price point and one or two characteristics that you like in a wine such as grape varietal (e.g. Chardonnay, Merlot or Pinot Noir) or taste descriptors (such as light or full-bodied, sweet or dry, oaky or no oak, or level of tannin) should be more than enough for her to give you something fun and delicious that she’s excited about. If not, you might be in the wrong store or restaurant.

Because taste is always subjective, it’s helpful to share a common language to communicate your preferences helps. Your wine vocabulary will only get better with the more wines you taste and the more you talk about them with experienced tasters. Just knowing a few distinguishing characteristics of the wines you really like can help tremendously with making a good recommendation.

5. Build on Your Preferences
The other easy way to ask for suggestions is to tell the wine steward about a specific wine you’ve enjoyed. If you tend to frequent the same wine shop or restaurant, feel free to share your impressions of wines they have previously recommended to you. For instance, “That Chardonnay you recommended last time was too fruity or too smoky.” Don’t write off Chardonnay just because you had a bottle you didn’t enjoy. There’s plenty of variation within wines made from the same grape varietals.

Take pictures of wines you like (or don’t like) with your cell phone. Then the next time you’re shopping for wine you can remember what you liked and even show the label to the expert. You can do the same for wines you don’t like since this is also a good guide for what not to recommend.

A quick note: You might be shocked by how much you paid for a wine in a restaurant, particularly more expensive NYC restaurants, compared to a retail wine store. Remember, there’s a lot that goes into serving a bottle of wine in a restaurant, and it’s no secret the wine and alcohol sales are critical to the financial success of many restaurants.

6. Keep an Open Mind
Keep an open mind and be willing to try wines from different varietals and from different areas of the world. For instance, many non-experts have the opinion that German Rieslings are sweet because that’s all they’ve tasted. Well, there are some amazing dry Rieslings that may have you opening this wine again and again. Also, great wines are being made in unexpected places around the world: Sicily, Sardinia, Jura (France), Moravia (Czech Republic), Burgenland (Austria), and Corsica, just to name a few.

7. Free Wine. Why Not?
Many wine shops have weekly wine tastings where you can discover something new. Free wine with the possibility of discovering a new favorite sounds like a good deal to me!

And then there’s Manhattan Fruitier
I’ve assembled a highly curated selection of natural wines at Manhattan Fruitier. With fewer than 100 wines, you can be assured that any wine you choose will be exemplary and reflect the varietal, wine region and unique skills of a particular small wine maker.

Tips for Buying Wine
Manhattan Fruitier Farmhouse Cheese Basket with biodynamic Chablis

In addition to individual bottles, I have also paired Manhattan Fruitier’s artisanal food gift baskets with complementary wines so that the experience of both the food and the wine are enhanced. For example, I’ve paired the Farmhouse Cheese Basket with Brocard Chablis Sainte Claire 2015, a fine biodynamic white wine from Northern France, because it is an intense, mineral driven wine built to cut through the creamy cheeses while also having enough ripe lemon and green apple to stand up to the sweeter cheeses.

Fortunately, our wines and wine gift baskets are available for delivery throughout New York State, including NYC.

Introducing Wine Gifts

We are delighted to introduce you to Manhattan Fruitier’s very own collection of wines! Wine is a natural extension of Manhattan Fruitier’s gift offerings. We hope you are as tantalized as we are by the possibilities. We are currently offering individual bottles of wine and wine gift baskets for delivery in New York State, including, of course, NYC.

Prosciutto & Parmigiano Basket with a Tuscan Chianti wine

Our Prosciutto & Parmigiano Basket with a Tuscan Chianti

We know that buying wine can often be intimidating. There are so many choices and so much to know about wines from around the world. I recently tasted delicious bottles from Sardinia and Lebanon. Wherever grapes will grow, good wine is likely being made. It’s hard for even a wine expert to keep up.

That’s why we put so much attention into creating a highly curated wine collection that won’t overwhelm you.  Instead of thousands of wines to choose from, we offer fewer than 100 wines that reflect the highest standards in grape growing and winemaking. It’s the ultimate indulgence to enjoy a bottle of high quality bottle of wine from a small producer half way around the globe. And delivered as a gift in New York City, it’ll be prized and remembered.

Whether you are purchasing an individual bottle of wine, or pairing wine with one of our gourmet food gifts, we will guide you like a sommelier in a restaurant. In fact, our wine selection is curated by sommelier Ryan Burkett, who trained as a sommelier in fine restaurants in Charleston and New York City. Ryan has a passion for introducing people to the wines and producers he believes in.

Here’s the bottom line:  Any wine you buy from us will be exemplary. We want your experience of buying wine, whether for yourself or as a gift, to be stress-free and fun.  And we’ll deliver to your home or work anywhere in New York State.

The Wines

We offer wines of all tastes and styles with one very important thing in common: they are made by people who care. The wines we offer best express their creator’s intentions. We choose wines from grape growers and winemakers (often one in the same) who want to convey their sense of place, or terroir, to us through the grapes grown on their land.

Wine making is part art and part science. It involves working with an unstable product (fermenting grape juice) which has to be monitored and sometimes gently massaged to ensure that it stays on the path to become an enchanting libation. The best wine makers gently guide the fermentation process, without heavy handed interventions.

wine gift basket with red wine

Our Organic Cheese Basket with a bottle of organic red wine from the Loire Valley

We have a special affection for “natural wines,” namely, wines made from grapes that are grown organically or biodynamically, and made with no or very few additives. The idea is to let the grape speak to us through the wine. This is the magic of wine:  You can be mentally and emotionally transported to France, Italy, Spain, Australia, California, Sicily … while sipping wine in your NYC apartment.

We will be blogging regularly about wine so that you can travel to amazing places and share the stories of people with a passion for what they do.  Wine is geography, history, culture, language, and countless other facets of life.  But really, wine is about the pleasure of drinking it. Enjoy!