Holiday Party Planning 101

Decorating and Selecting the Right Wine for our Christmas Party

Sonja is the thrifty one, the budget-conscious one, the Dave Ramsay disciple.  Mark is the one who believes that the greatest imaginable sin would be to die with money in your possession, as money is a means to an end, namely, having great life experiences and sharing them with people you love. To the casual observer, this might sound like a recipe for disaster, but it works, and the truth is that we are good for each other. Sonja is deliberative; even small decisions generally are thought through to the end, while Mark is a dreamer, and often acts on impulse.  We balance each other out, and we have a lot of fun doing it. Occasionally, however, we hit a sticking point. One such hiccup occurred recently in planning for our annual Christmas event.

In hosting our party, we always provide the wine. Two years ago, it was Charles Shaw, or “Two buck chuck,” and while our guests were certainly polite about it, well, even the unsophisticated palate is likely to opt after the egg nog option if given the opportunity. Last year, we served large formats of two blends we found at Costco, and while we thought it was a better option, the simple red and white wines were difficult to pour and far from wowing our guests. Having made marked progress from one year to the next, we wanted to again do better this December.

As with finances, we occasionally differ in what is more important for the party. For Sonja, it’s making sure the tree is trimmed, each bulb is gleaming, and the stockings are hung with care. For Mark, it’s being the gracious host, shaking every hand, and ensuring what his guests consume is of the upmost quality (yet still within the budget). So last weekend, we struck a balance and decided to decorate for the season while also sampling an assortment of wine from which we would make our selection for the Christmas party.

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The first stop was at Trader Joe’s to find a selection of wines that were both economical and palatable.  Though we operate on a relatively tight budget, we’re well aware that there are any number of good wines out there that don’t have to break the bank, and we were determined to find just such examples to purchase en masse for our annual gathering.  We spent a good amount of time scanning different bottles and perusing their reviews on Vivino so that we could make an informed decision on our tasting selection. The goal was to find an off-dry or semi-sweet white, an old world red, and a new world red, in the hopes that such diverse offerings would be able to please most of our wine-imbibing guests.

Mark hates shopping more than most people, while Sonja loves it as much as, well, most women. The lone exception may be shopping for wine. In this, Mark is the champion, and can be happy perusing and tasting long after Sonja is ready to retire. On this day, Mark looked desperately at the end caps for some “Minty Mallows” (Mark was never able to live it down last year after not getting Sonja the minty mallows Trader Joe’s had on display at Christmas time) to keep Sonja entertained, but alas, none were to be found. In the end, only around thirty minutes or so was devoted to selecting the wines to be tasted.

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After we arrived home, we got to work on our first task, hauling all of the Christmas decorations upstairs. There are only around a dozen boxes in total, and only some of those are heavy enough to require two people to lift them. The completion of this task, of course, would be rewarded with our first sampling of wine. We started with the two German wines we had selected, the Joseph Handler Riesling and the Dr. Beckermann Liebraumilch. Though the Riesling was in a pretty blue bottle, and thereby the frontrunner prior to tasting, the Dr. Beckermann Liebraumilch easily won out for its balance and crispness. And at around $5 per bottle, it will be pain-free enough to buy a few cases, knowing that our white-wine drinking friends are likely to be pleased with our selection.

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Next, it was time to put up the tree. The placement of the tree would need to be migrated this year due to the construction of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the alcove where the tree resided last year. Sonja, needing to see the tree in place, insisted on construction at the top of the stairs… and then required it to be moved to the other side of the room, fully constructed. And what’s tree placement without the movement of a little bit of furniture?, so that happened too. Mark began to drag his feet a little, but the promise of tasting more wine on the horizon made moving the tree “a little more to the left, now back, nope too far, a little farther right, good, now let’s see what it looks like on the other side of the room” a bit more manageable.

After this ordeal (Mark’s word) delight (Sonja’s) was concluded, it was time to taste a second wine. Our options for new world red were both from California. The first, “Cocobon,” we had tasted before. Mark was disappointed when he tried to find the winery once prior, only to realize it’s a mass-production wine, but not being boutique doesn’t change the fact that it’s a tasty and unique red blend with strong hints of vanilla, cocoa, and other lovely flavors. The second was a Merlot from Sonoma, where we honeymooned, and where we began to appreciate wine a little more completely. Of late, we’ve been on a Merlot kick; years ago the movie Sideways (which, admittedly, we have not seen) was released, and seems to have created a weird stigma around this wine. Far too easily swayed, some people truly seem to have stopped drinking it (the market tanked by nearly 25% in the years immediately following the movie’s release). In spite of this, Merlot can be some of the very best wine if made well, and Sonoma is a place where people generally make wine very well. After tasting both, we opted for the Merlot, a big, tannic wine with cherry notes and plenty of character. It’s not the killer Merlot destined to change everyone’s mind (for that, try Freemark Abbey, Ballentine, or Hourglass), but at around $7/bottle, it’s another of those wines that we can be proud to serve without fear of breaking the bank on our annual Christmas gathering.

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Now that the tree was finally up and in the perfect place, it was time to decorate it.  This meant unwrapping each of the many, many ornaments that was individually wrapped in tissue, and carefully placing them on the tree one at a time.  Sonja has received at least one if not numerous Hallmark ornaments a year since birth, so the collection has grown to be quite substantial.  While Mark eventually began to lose interest in hanging (hundreds of) ornaments on the tree, he rarely loses interest in tasting wine, and so politely he soldiered on. The last two wines, “old world” wines meant to please the palates of those who prefer a smoother, less aggressive wine, were both enjoyable. From Italy, Aglianico, and from France, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend. While both were nice, smooth examples of old world wine, the blend eventually won out, as we felt it would make the nicer compliment to the big Sonoma Merlot, and help to diversify the selection for those with differing tastes in wine.

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After a bit of wine tasting, a substantial amount of cheese, a little scuffle over tree placement, and some garland lights that refused to illuminate, we concluded that our decorating could be done for the day. While the house wasn’t quite completely decorated, the wine selection was complete and it was time to settle in for a long winter’s nap.

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So there you have it, our fail-proof guide to a well-decorated house, a festive holiday celebration, and a happy marriage. And if you find yourself in the area this coming Saturday in the evening, we’d encourage you to put on your favorite cocktail attire and swing by for conversation, celebration, and a glass or two of wine. You know what we’ll be serving.

Happy Holidays,



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