10 Tips for Fabulous Entertaining at Home with Wine Country Style
There’s always a reason to celebrate at Jordan, whether it’s harvest or summer meteor showers or a wedding proposal on our terrace. We pride ourselves on creating meals, parties and tasting experiences that leave a lasting impression.
One of the things that makes Jordan events memorable is our focus on details. In my role, I’m in charge of making sure our parties, lunches, dinners and private tastings capture gracious wine country hospitality in ways you’ll want to replicate at home. This process takes effort, but it’s not impossible; recreating our style at your own celebrations is doable if you keep a few concepts in mind.
CAPTURE CASUAL ELEGANCE
When people think about wine country, the word “casual” often comes to mind. We do, however, desire some formality, a sense of elegance. Simple table settings might be adorned with corks to signify assigned seating in an outdoor dining area. Or you might find an Instagram-worthy centerpiece that’s nothing more than a beautiful bowl of ripe, seasonal fruit, such as pomegranates and pears. I like to think of it as casual elegance.
CHOOSE A THEME
When you’re hosting a party, it helps to identify a concept or idea that’s going to be a common thread throughout the celebration. For example, we created our Starlight Dinner in conjunction with the Perseid meteor shower and planned all aspects of the event around a stargazing theme. In terms of decor, that meant selecting elements that related to the sky, stars and planets. We used navy linens as dark as the night sky, and arranged LED string lights down burlap table runners to look like stars. Another example is our Sunset Supper. When we decided to host a hilltop dinner party, I brought the color palette of a summer sunset to the table, incorporating orange roses, sunflowers and cone flowers in the floral centerpieces, and even a single pink rose bud on each place setting. One of the great things about having a theme is that it provides guiding parameters, making pre-planning easier.
DON’T FORGET TO GREET
Without question, one of the most important parts of any event is the greeting. How you welcome guests upon arrival sets the tone for the party, and gives them a favorable first impression of the occasion. At Jordan, we often ask a host to stand near the parking lot, anticipating the guests’ arrival for a subtle welcome. We also greet our event guests with a glass of Chardonnay or a flute of Champagne. Offering a warm greeting, that feeling of being waited for, that guarantee that nobody is going to get lost on their way inside, helps make guests feel welcome.
When I’m decorating for a party, I focus on using local flowers that are at their peak at the time of the event; if you work within seasonal guidelines, you are guaranteed a higher-quality flower with a longer life. Sonoma County floral season is at its height from June through September, giving me access to different types of dahlias, roses, sunflowers, hydrangeas and more. During fall and winter, I shift toward using hardier foliage and foraged flora, such as tree moss, branches and leaves. Fruits and vegetables on the vine can also become a focal point of place settings. One of my favorite things to do is incorporate a cluster of cherry tomatoes on the vine into each guest’s place setting. I simply take a handful of fresh herbs, a single flower for a pop of color and a tomato vine and wrap them together with a piece of raffia or ribbon.
PAY ATTENTION TO DÉCOR
I always want our tablescapes to look as if I didn’t slave over them all day. That means keeping décor fairly simple. Centerpieces can be easily over-thought or over-touched. Don’t be afraid to only have four bud vases in a straight row on your dining room table— that’s very clean and simple. It can be striking as well. Often the best components of classic décor are right in front of you—in your yard, on the side of the road. Magnolia leaves are a perfect example. They’re fun to work with because they’re big, sturdy and retain their shape and freshness for days. I also love oak branches, Spanish moss and blossoms. I’m a big fan of bringing nature to the table. Leaves and branches make for a great filler in floral arrangements, and they’re free. I’ve simply placed clusters of magnolia leaves down the center of the table like a runner, added in a few votive candles and gardenia blooms floating in a bowl of water as the centerpiece, and it completes that natural, wine country look.
GET CREATIVE WITH PLACE CARDS
Place cards are always a nice touch for seated meals, and you don’t have to toil over a craft project to create something wine country chic. Sometimes I’ll use a gold pen and write my guest’s name directly on a magnolia leaf, turning it into a natural place card. I also like working with the small manila tags typically used for mailings; those are really wonderful to tie around something elegant like a little bouquet of flowers, herbs or even a tree branch with flower buds. I used cherry tree twigs for our A Taste of Spring Dinner place settings because the pink buds are so beautiful and give a minimalist, elegant look. I’ve even done parties with petite succulents as place cards. For those, each person has a tiny pot, and I stick a small skewer into each pot with the person’s name. These are all little fun ideas that we do at the winery and anybody can replicate at home.
CRAFT A MENU AROUND THE WINE
At Jordan, the key to a memorable party is the marriage of food and wine. Choosing wines and dishes that elevate each other’s flavors is the most important part of a chef’s job, and my husband, Todd Knoll, our Executive Chef, is constantly challenging himself to find new pairings for Jordan Winery meals and culinary events. We always serve older vintages of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon at meals to showcase the wine’s ageability, and library wines from commemorative vintages often find their way onto tables for special occasions—year of a first date, graduation, wedding or a child’s birth. Mature Jordan Cabernets, as their fruit begins to soften, tend to express more earthy characters, and serving braised dishes, usually with herbs and mushrooms in the sauce, are a wonderful way to accentuate the charms of older red wines. The best braised meat for older vintages of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon is Sonoma lamb, and it’s perfect for a dinner party. Two racks of lamb create an impressive presentation and feed three couples.
For any entrée, we like to balance the flavors between the wine and the dish’s sauce or vinaigrette by adjusting acidity with fine aged vinegars. Aged sherry vinegar works particularly well because it is mellow, complex and subtle—like older Cabernets—and draws little attention from the fading fruit of the wine. Before serving, sip the wine and try the dish to see how the two interact on your palate, seasoning with vinegar, salt and pepper to taste. As salt is added, the perception of acidity in both the wine and the food is muted. The adjustment of salt must be closely monitored; just as the overuse of acid can leave a wine flat, over-seasoning can leave a Cabernet Sauvignon unpleasantly metallic. The final balancing of flavors is accomplished in small additions of seasoning just before serving until both the wine and food are shown in the best light.
Serving a dish that pairs well with both a white and a red wine also creates an interactive experience for your guests. I like to serve Grilled Sonoma Quail in a Peach Vinaigrette with Saba Glaze paired with both a young Jordan Chardonnay and a young Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon. The grilling of the stone fruits helps complement the subtle oak in the Chardonnay, and the peaches also bring out the wine’s stone fruit flavors. Saba is a very concentrated Balsamic, so its subtle sweetness will highlight hints of fruit in the young Jordan Cabernet.
BUILD IN ICEBREAKERS
Another clever idea for dinner parties is incorporating an icebreaker into your menu. I like using an edible centerpiece or interactive condiments for the appetizer or first course. During our Sunset Supper at Vista Point, Todd and I created a deconstructed caprese salad with five different tomatoes and four different types of basil, each displayed in its own small vase. We encouraged everyone to sample all of the tomatoes with the various basils to see which flavors brought out different nuances in two vintages of Jordan Chardonnay poured for them. Our guests had a lot of fun experimenting with the array of ingredients. We’ve hosted other meals where a trio of sea salts was served with grilled vegetables or artisan breads and truffle butter as the icebreaker, encouraging guests to compare and contrast. This approach starts conversation and makes everyone comfortable. Incorporating these fun little details really can make a meal memorable for guests.
EDUCATE WITH ELEGANCE
We always print menus for our culinary events at Jordan, and that’s another easy touch you can imitate at home. Whether it’s a formal dinner party or a cocktail reception with different wines, just having a list of all the different wines and dishes you served elevates the affair. I like to use artisan papers with subtle patterns (such as rice paper or vellum, found at papyrusonline.com) as part of the presentation and roll the menu into a decorative piece, wrapping it with raffia or ribbon and a herb or flower sprig from the garden. Lavender and rosemary are go-to herb choices, as they don’t wilt fast like a delicate rose bud.
ELEVATE WATER SERVICE
In addition to wine service, we always offer a non-alcoholic option to complete the beverage selections. When hosting a casual wine country or harvest lunch, fruit- or herb-infused drinks, often called “agua fresca”, are a natural choice. Agua fresca offers a wonderful twist on water refills. By puréeing a very small amount of seasonal fruits—French Charentais melons are one of our favorites—and mixing them into a large pitcher of water with a touch of honey, you instantly get a little bit of color and flavor, and it gives the meal a refreshing touch. For a more herbal style, we’ll strip handfuls of lemon verbena leaves from their stems and crush them lightly to release the essential oils, letting the herbs steep in cool water an hour before serving.
At the end of a dinner party, make a lasting impression by gifting a memento of the evening. Gifts that include a highlight of the menu always go over well, such as giving everyone a small mason jar filled with a dry rub or finishing salt used on the main course. At Sunset Supper at Vista Point, we gave everyone vials of homemade sea salts, an ingredient used in the salmon entrée. Seasonal fruits can also be transformed into an unexpected, edible gift; Todd places whole fuyu persimmons in a dehydrator for about 12 hours and then dips the dried fruit in Valrhona Blond Dulcey chocolate and sprinkles it with Maldon salt. When guests open the gift, they remember what a fabulous time they had and may be inspired to recreate the dish at home.