Wine Tips For The Holidays

Georgia Trend. Nov 2022.

How many times have you wandered the wine aisle at the grocery store and been overwhelmed with the selection of countless bottles? When you are scrambling to make your Thanksgiving dinner or to buy Christmas presents, the last thing you want to do is read every label and figure out which wine your guests would prefer to drink.

Thankfully, educational stores like Vino Venue in Dunwoody make it easier. Co-founded by Lelia Bryan and her late husband, Michael (who started the Atlanta Wine School in early 2000s), Vino Venue is a wine shop, tasting room, restaurant and school – all in one place. The couple wanted to create a space for those who wanted to learn about wines and taste them before committing to buying. Over the past 10 years, they expanded to offering wine and cooking classes, a wine club, and wine-themed trips to places like Piedmont, Bordeaux and California.

What makes this neighborhood wine shop different from big-box sellers is the unique collection of wines and personalized recommendations. Each week, beverage director and partner Rob Van Leer tastes more than 100 types of wines from all over the world to carefully select what goes on the shelves and in the wine club. He gets to know customers’ profiles by asking them a series of questions. An informal wine-shopping interview can last between 10 seconds to a half hour, depending on the interest of the buyer.

For this holiday season, first think about what are you cooking, who you are hosting and what is your budget, Leer advises. He says you can get quality wines at every price point, and can follow certain pairing guidelines. For example, dry, tart or sweet lambrusco from Emilia Romagna goes well with a charcuterie board. Easy-drinking sauvignon blanc, gamay and delicate pinot noir are also good with hors d’oeuvres. Champagne, Beaujolais, Burgundy and many Tuscan and Oregon wines pair with practically everything and are good to keep on hand.

A German gewürztraminer, French gamay and merlot, or Oregon pinot noir will also fare well at a turkey dinner. If you are serving a brunch of, say, cornmeal-crusted oysters, frittata, fruit and biscuits, serve something that’s cold, sparkling and has low alcohol content, like a fruity pear cider from Normandy.

Wines can also star at your cocktail party. Add a sprig of rosemary and a sliver of fresh orange to Chandon Garden Spritz. Top vibrant and sweet cognac-like Pineau des Charentes with inexpensive apple cider and cinnamon stick. Serve red or white vermouth on the rocks, with a splash of OJ or soda water, or make a classic negroni.

As the meal progresses, you can go bolder and richer, pairing French pinot noir with lamb and steak, Spanish Rioja with salmon, and fruit-forward California wine with burgers. Get a dessert wine to round off the meal or serve a glass of grande cuvée to reset everyone’s taste buds. Plan for an average of a bottle per person for a dinner party, and remember you can always drink what’s left next day!

To taste before you buy, check out Vino Venue’s 32 wines “on tap,” or attend its high- end wine tasting class on Dec 4th.

~ Written for and published by Georgia Trend. All rights reserved.

7 Wine Producing Regions of the World That You May Not Know About

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. October 2018.

Next time when you sit at a bar or browse the wine racks at your neighborhood wine retailer, expand your horizon beyond the well-known wine growing regions of the world. Most of us gravitate towards the familiar French, Italian, South African or Argentinean bottles for a little flavor of the world. However, there are some lesser known countries that are also producing great quality wines. Often, the production is too small for global distribution, but here are a few that are easily available at your neighborhood wine shop.


The Dalmatian Coast overlooking the Adriatic Sea is dotted with small vineyards growing local plavac mali and pošip grapes. Cool winds and temperate climate make it ideal for white grapes and crljenak kaštelanski, which is the parent grape of what’s now known as zinfandel. It was Croatian born Miljenko “Mike” Grgich who brought these to the Napa Valley and Croatian wines are now gaining significant international recognition. Visit his Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford or board the Napa Valley Wine Train for a private tasting and tour.


Although Lebanon has been producing wine for a few hundred years, it was the French influence during the World Wars that promoted a sophisticated culture of wine drinking in Beirut. Most of the wineries are in the southern Beqaa Valley growing, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and Rhone varieties. Founded in 1857 by Jesuit priests (though no longer affiliated), Château Ksara developed the first dry wine in Lebanon, which is still available in 42 countries.


Moldova is one of the largest wine producers in the world, exporting over 67 million bottles annually. The country’s southern region is best known for red and semi-sweet varieties. One of the major attractions in Moldova is “Mileștii Mici” — the largest wine collection in the world with almost 2 million bottles according to the Guinness Book and Cricova, an underground winery that stretches for 75 miles.


Archeological digs prove that wine production in Georgia dates back 8,000 years when grape juice was buried underground in clay jars for fermentation. To date, wine is produced by small farmers, monasteries and wineries in traditional ways. Kakheti is the most popular wine-growing region in Georgia producing sweet and dry varieties. Winery Khareba is one of the most visited wineries in the country, located in a tunnel carved from the Caucasian Mountain range.

Brazilian wine brand Macaw


Italian immigrants have been making wine in Brazil since the mid -19thcentury.  More than 1,000 wineries have emerged in Brazil in the last 20 years, most of them located in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul. These are mostly good quality sparking varieties such as cava, charmat and muscat, as well as few young, easily drinkable table reds. The Serra Gaúcha region is also emerging as a popular wine destination with quaint resorts located on vineyards. Macaw, recognizable by a logo of the tropical bird, makes the most extensive variety of Brazilian wines that are available globally.


Algeria and Morocco in northern Africa benefit from high mountains and cool Atlantic breezes that allow for the right climate for growing wine. Here too, French colonists introduced large-scale production of wine. Morocco has five distinct wine regions producing rosé, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, clairette blanche and muscat. Trinity Oaks Chardonnay and Amazir red blend are available at most Total Wine shops around the U.S.


Tanzania is the second largest producer of wine in Sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa. Thanks to South African investors and Tanzanian government-established Dodoma Wine Company (Dowico), local farmers are incentivized to grow and experiment with different types of grapes. Dodoma-based Central Tanzania Wine Company (Cetawico) is perhaps the most popular one, producing light and fruity chenin blanc, syrah, cabernet sauvignon and a local variety named for a Dodoma sub-region, Makutupora.

~Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine. October 2018. 

St. Croix: Open for Business and Thriving

For Cuisine Noir. July 2018. 

Though much of the Caribbean has seen its fair share of devastation with hurricanes Irma and Maria, the U.S. island of St. Croix has bounced back a lot faster than its neighbors. One of the reasons for the quick recovery, as stated by native Sharon Rosario, is, “We don’t wait around for others to come help us. We get out and help each other out!” While insurance claims take months to settle, most of the highways on the island were cleaned out within days and reconstruction started almost immediately.

The kinfolk spirit of the island is rather infectious. In a matter of days, I was running into familiar faces at cafes and restaurants and introduced as “a cousin” from the mainland.

St. Croix’s local and expat community comes together each year to host the annual St. Croix Food and Wine Experience, a series of culinary events to benefit the 27-year-old St. Croix Foundation for Community Development. However, this year was exceptional as the needs of the community were pressing. Executive director Deanna James told attendees, “Natural disasters can exacerbate existing challenges and socio-economic disparities economies are facing. This hurricane highlighted how incredibly resilient this community is.”

Sommelier Patrick Kralik runs Balter restaurant in downtown Christiansted that was the scene of the opening party that welcomed sponsors and organizers. Kralik highlighted local ingredients in modern creative passed dishes including shrimp po’boy and vegetarian dolma paired with Sonoma wine; speaking to global resiliency in action from California’s coasts to St Croix’s shores.

Photo: Sucheta Rawal

An intimate dinner called the Giving Table Dinner at Catherine’s Hope was held at a private mansion boasting 360-degree views of the island. About three dozen guests enjoyed a five-course dinner prepared by celebrity chefs Julius Jackson, Michael Ferraro, Negust Kaza, and Robyn Almodovar with fine wines and the tunes of live jazz music. All funds raised through the charity dinner and auction went on to benefit the foundation’s recovery efforts on the island for community revitalization, public education and fiscal grantmaking.

The event ended at a warehouse by the airport’s hangar where local chefs and wine wholesalers from all over the world offered nibbles against the backdrop of private and rescue airplanes. Even small businesses such as Da Cake Man, Fusions, Blue Water Terrace and Bayside Kitchen took great pride in doing their share to support the cause, offering tastes of lobster Rangoon, fried chicken and red velvet cupcakes.

Photo: Sucheta Rawal

The closing of the third largest oil refinery in the western hemisphere in 2012 led to a steep downturn in St. Croix’s economy and many locals turned to opening their own businesses. Some include Uptown Eatery in Christiansted, a 15-seater healthy international- inspired café run by Jane and Dave Kendrick. Across the street is BES Craft Cocktail Lounge, a popular watering hole where mixologist Frank Robinson handcrafts each cocktail from scratch, grating ginger and squeezing limes before turning them into works of art. Tucked away in the middle of the forest is food truck-style Nidulari Bakery and Mahogany Road Chocolate, selling artisanal breads, homemade cookies and fresh samosas. Savant is one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the Caribbean serving Asian-Caribbean-inspired dishes in a romantic Italian grotto setting.

Located on expansive land with rolling hills and a private beach, the family-run The Buccaneer Hotel is the largest hotel on the island and has hosted celebrity guests as well as filming of the reality show, “The Bachelor.” They also provided space to the Army, FEMA and relief workers after the hurricanes and helped with the clean-up. As things begin to look up for the island, The Fred is the newest hotel to open in 31 years. This boutique property in the cruise town of Frederiksted offers a trendy setting overlooking some of the best white sand beaches.

Photo: Sucheta Rawal

While the people of St. Croix will surely capture your heart with their friendly smiles and welcoming attitude, there are a few other reasons to visit this U.S. Virgin Island. Picturesque volcanic hills, pristine beaches and colorful historical towns set against lots of sunny days and cool nights make St. Croix the perfect place to vacation any time of the year. Frederiksted or “Freedom City” is also a good place to learn the history of St. Croix, which holds roots in Dutch ownership, sugarcane mills, Alexander Hamilton, American annexation and the emancipation of slaves. Here you can see Mocko Jumbie dancers welcome cruisers wearing colorful garbs and carnival masks and Afro-Cruzan pottery. Snorkel or kayak at the Buck Island Reef National Monument’s warm turquoise waters and get up close to the well-conserved coral and marine life. Shop for handmade silver jewelry at one of the many galleries and don’t forget to bring back locally distilled Cruzan® Rum.

St. Croix is open for business and now more than ever is the best time to go.  For more planning ideas and tips, visit https://www.visitusvi.comand

~ Written for Cuisine Noir. July 2018.