Tina Caputo's Image

Tina Caputo


Petaluma, California

Author's website
Author's twitter
Author's facebook

In her day job, Tina is the editor-in-chief of Vineyard & Winery Management magazine, a wine business magazine based in Northern California. Before joining V&WM, she was the managing editor of Wines & Vines magazine. Throughout her career Tina has written about wine and lifestyle topics as a freelancer for publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, Wine Review Online, US Airways magazine and Decanter.

Articles by Author

Bettering ‘Buttercream’ By Adding More Butter Image

My birthday falls just after the first day of spring, and along with warm sunny weather there’s one thing I always look forward to when the season changes and I clock in another year on the green side of the grass: cake. Not just any cake, but a rich chocolate one slathered with my mom’s famous vanilla buttercream frosting.

I don’t normally get excited about frosting — it’s usually too sweet or too gritty for my taste — but this one has a light and silky texture, with the perfect amount of sweetness and vanilla flavor. I could eat it with a spoon (and sometimes do).

I can’t think of anything more perfect for topping a springtime cake, whether it’s devil’s food, yellow or red velvet.

Mom’s magical frosting is based on a recipe she found in an Eastern Star cookbook, a post-wedding gift from her grandmother in the mid-1960s. Mom fiddled around with the recipe, tweaking the amount of sugar and flour, and eliminating the use of shortening until she made it her own. “After that I don’t think I ever made another frosting,” she told me.

Mom’s process involves boiling milk and flour in a saucepan until it’s thick and lump free. While the mixture cools, butter, margarine and sugar are creamed together in a stand mixer until fluffy and creamy. The cooled flour mixture is gradually added to the mixing bowl, along with vanilla, until all the ingredients are incorporated and the frosting looks like whipped cream.

When I asked my mom why she uses equal parts margarine and butter in her recipe, she wasn’t exactly sure. “The original recipe called for half shortening,” she said, “but I couldn’t stand the idea of eating raw Crisco.” She thought margarine was a more palatable option.

Although the Eastern Star recipe was simply titled “Frosting,” mom has always called her frosting “buttercream.” I recently learned that technically, that’s not quite correct.

Classic buttercream frosting

According to John Difilippo, who teaches baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley, there are many versions of buttercream frosting. But the one most commonly used by American pastry chefs, he said, is Italian buttercream. It’s made by boiling sugar and water into a syrup and combining the mixture with whipped egg whites. Finally, butter and vanilla are beaten into the mixture until smooth. French and Swiss versions are slightly different, but all include egg whites or whole eggs, and some form of cooking to pasteurize the eggs and ensure a more stable frosting.

Difilippo had never heard of a buttercream recipe quite like my mom’s, but he was able to solve the shortening mystery.

Picture 1 of 3

Butter and sugar are creamed together in a stand mixer until light and fluffy. Credit: Tina Caputo

“It’s a very common process, just for saving cost,” he said. “Crisco is much cheaper than butter.”

The person who contributed the Eastern Star recipe may have learned it from a relative who grew up during the Depression, when many people couldn’t afford the luxury of an all-butter frosting or one using eggs.

“A lot of people simply make recipes the way their mother or grandmother taught them,” Difilippo said.

True enough. For all the years I’ve been making my mom’s frosting, I’ve always used equal parts butter and margarine. Now that I know the reason behind the margarine, it’s going to be all butter from here on out.

I don’t think my mom will mind my tinkering with her recipe. After all, she’s the one who started it.

Karen’s Buttercream Frosting

Makes enough for one 9-inch layer cake (if you like a lot of frosting on your cakes, increase recipe by one half)


1 cup milk

4½ tablespoons flour

2 sticks (1 cup) butter, room temperature

¾ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla


1. Cook milk and flour in a saucepan until mixture is thick and starts to bubble, starting at medium heat, then turning down to low. Stir constantly to make sure there are no lumps. Remove from heat, cover pan and let cool completely.

2. Beat butter in a stand mixer at medium speed, adding sugar a little at a time, until mixture is very creamy and fluffy. Be patient — this will take about five minutes.

3. While mixing at low/medium speed, gradually add the cooled flour/milk mixture, then the vanilla, until all ingredients are incorporated. The finished frosting should be light and fluffy, similar to whipped cream.

Top photo: The author’s favorite birthday cake since childhood — chocolate, topped with her mom’s buttercream frosting and chocolate chips. Credit: Tina Caputo

Read More
Detroit-Style Pizza Is The Motor City’s Latest Export Image

When I was growing up in the Detroit suburbs, there were two kinds of pizza: round and square. The “square” variety was technically rectangular, a deep-dish pizza with a crispy crust and sauce on top of the cheese. Given a choice of shapes, I almost always wanted square.

After moving to California as an adult, I thought it was odd that pizza came in only one shape (round), but until recently, I never realized that the square pizza of my childhood was unique to Detroit.

My pizza epiphany came during a visit to Texas a few months ago. My husband and I were exploring the hipster bar scene on Austin’s Rainey Street when we spotted a food truck called Via 313. (313 is Detroit’s area code.) Sure enough, the truck was serving up “Detroit-style pizza” to hungry bar-hoppers.

I thought this was a fluke until I learned that Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, locally famous for its regional Italian and American pizzas, also offers a Detroit-style pie.

Motor City pizza in Texas and California? Further investigation was clearly in order. How did this regional style of pizza originate, and why is it suddenly appearing in other parts of the country?

A crusty tale

It all began in 1946 with a Detroit tavern called Buddy’s Rendezvous. Soldiers returning home from World War II had developed a taste for European foods, so Buddy’s owner August “Gus” Guerra created a square pizza based on a Sicilian recipe. Because square pizza pans were hard to come by, he improvised with heavy steel trays used by Detroit’s automakers to hold car parts.

Buddy’s Pizza quickly became a neighborhood favorite, and competing Detroit pizza joints, such as Cloverleaf and Shield’s, adopted the tavern’s unique pizza style. Buddy’s now has 11 restaurants in the Detroit area and still makes its pizza using Guerra’s 1946 recipe.

Wesley Pikula, vice president of operations for Buddy’s Pizza, described the defining features of Detroit’s original square pizza. “We place the pepperoni under the cheese, in part to flavor the crust, and so it doesn’t burn during the cooking process,” he said. “We use brick cheese from Wisconsin (a medium-soft cheese similar to a white cheddar), and we place the sauce on top of all the ingredients.”

The result is a pizza with a light-textured crust and caramelized cheese around the edges.

National recognition

More than six decades after Buddy’s introduced its trend-setting pizza, a Detroit-style pie scored top honors at the 2012 International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. The Pizza Maker of the Year award went to Shawn Randazzo, a Cloverleaf veteran who launched Detroit Style Pizza Company later that year. Randazzo now owns three pizzerias in the Detroit area.

Although that would have been enough for many restaurateurs, Randazzo has a grander vision in mind. Through his Authentic Detroit Style Pizza Maker Program, Randazzo is helping entrepreneurs across the country introduce their customers to the Detroit style of pizza.

Picture 1 of 4

Shawn Randazzo of Detroit Style Pizza Company shows off his prize-winning pizza. Credit: Courtesy of Detroit Style Pizza Company

“My big eye opener came in 2009 when I entered my first pizza competition at the [North America] Pizza & Ice Cream Show in Columbus, Ohio, which had over 70 competitors from across the country,” he said. “I was just a five-hour drive from Detroit, but I was the only competitor who had a square pizza with cheese to the edge. I couldn’t believe it.”

When Randazzo’s pizza won the top prize, he realized that most of the world was missing out on one of America’s great regional pizza styles.

So far nine pizza makers have completed the Detroit Style Pizza Maker program, and Randazzo has consulted for dozens of others, including clients from Thailand and Korea. Program graduates have opened pizzerias in Virginia and Kentucky, and one is currently setting up shop in Maine.

Making it right

“An authentic Detroit-style pizza requires a dough recipe that has a much higher hydration level than typical pizza dough,” Randazzo explained. “In bakers’ percentage, water content should be around 70% or more, which aids the fermentation process. The high water content also helps produce a light and airy crust.”

Pizzas assembled in the traditional pepperoni-cheese-sauce arrangement are baked at 525 F in seasoned pans made of rolled black steel. (The original Buddy’s pans were made of blue steel, but the manufacturer stopped producing them a few years ago.) If the positive feedback he receives from former students is any indication, the Detroit pizzavangelist’s efforts are working.

“I believe at the rate it’s been going,” Randazzo said, “Detroit-style pizza will become just as popular as New York and Chicago styles.”

Taking it on the road

Around the same time that Randazzo was wowing pizza competition judges in Ohio, Zane Hunt and his brother Brandon were cooking up a Detroit-style pizza concept of their own. In 2010, the Detroit-area natives rolled out their first Via 313 food truck in their adopted home of Austin.

“When I moved to Austin in the summer of 2009, I was on a quest to find foods that reminded me of home,” Zane said. “Brandon was still in Detroit at this point and we often talked about finding that one spot that served the pizza of home. He moved here a short time later and we ate at about 150 pizza places over the course of a year. Along the way it was becoming obvious that the pizza we loved in Detroit didn’t exist here.”

Determined to bring Detroit-style pizza to Austin, the brothers began a trial-and-error process to perfect their recipe. “Our dough mixture changed more than 75 times,” Zane recalled. “We were like mad pizza scientists.”

Less than a year after they launched Via 313, they added a second trailer to the fleet.

“The response has been overwhelming,” Zane said. “Here we are in 2014 and the style has gained serious steam around the country. It makes us proud to know we’re part of spreading the word outside of Detroit.”

A San Francisco convert

Tony Gemignani, 11-time World Pizza Champion and owner of three San Francisco pizzerias, didn’t grow up with Detroit-style pizza. But he has become an enthusiastic convert.

Gemignani serves a Detroit-style pie at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach, and teaches restaurateurs and home cooks to make it at his International School of Pizza, also in San Francisco. He’s also launching a Detroit-style pizza concept at the D Casino Hotel in Las Vegas.

He first sampled Detroit-style pizza 16 years ago while doing a commercial for a Detroit pizza chain, and his interest in the style was rekindled years later by a student in one of his American pizza courses. Gemignani went back to Detroit to research the type, and ultimately added a Detroit-style pizza to the menu at Tony’s.

When pressed by his students to compare Detroit pizza to other styles, he describes it as a sort of Chicago-Sicilian hybrid. But even that isn’t quite right. “When it comes to the process, everything’s a little different,” Gemignani said.

The best way to show people what makes Detroit pizza unique, he said, is to have them taste it. In a recent class that included two die-hard New York pizza fans, Gemignani added two more believers to the Detroit pizza cause. “They were really skeptics about it, but then after they ate it they said, ‘Man, this is [expletive] good!’ ”

He then asked the students how they would classify the Detroit-style pizza. Sicilian? Pan? “No,” they said. “This is in its own category.”

Editor’s note: Black steel pans and pizza-making kits are available through the Detroit Style Pizza Company’s website. This fall, Tony Gemignani will release a cookbook that includes recipes for Detroit-style pizza.

Top photo: Via 313′s Detroit-style pizza is a hit in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Via 313

Read More
Pork Stock: What To Do With The Other Great Soup Starter Image

The last time I made tamales, I also made a delicious discovery: pork stock. My tamale recipe calls for simmering pork shoulder in a pot with water, an onion and a couple other simple ingredients until the meat is fall-apart tender. Some of the resulting liquid is typically used to make the masa — the cornmeal dough that forms the base of the tamales — but on this occasion I bought already-prepared masa to save some time. This left me with a couple of quarts of fragrant, delicately flavored stock.

What to do with it? Dump it down the drain? Freeze it for a future tamale-making session? Then a radical thought occurred to me: Why not use it to make soup?

While that idea may not seem like the stuff of anarchy to readers outside the United States, the fact is, we Americans almost never cook with pork stock. Many of us have never even tasted it, that is, outside the realm of Asian and Latin restaurants.

Why is that? Is there some kind of cultural taboo against pork stock? Would its flavor somehow overwhelm American soups and sauces?

I turned to Beatrice Ojakangas, author of “The Soup & Bread Cookbook,” for an explanation, but even she was stumped.

“We seldom encounter pork stock, if ever,” confirmed Ojakangas, whose book includes more than 100 soup recipes, yet not a single one involving pork stock. “However, I have retained the juices from fresh ham and used them in pea soup and bean soup.”

She made an interesting point. Americans will often flavor soups with pieces of ham or bacon, but for some reason we haven’t made the leap to pork stock. “I don’t know why it isn’t more highly prized,” Ojakangas admitted.

White bean soup made with homemade pork stock. Credit: Tina Caputo

White bean soup made with homemade pork stock. Credit: Tina Caputo

Perhaps it’s simply a matter of commercial availability. You can go to just about any grocery store in the U.S. and buy chicken, beef, mushroom and vegetable stocks, but pork stock? Good luck with that. If you want to make soup with pork stock, you have no choice but to make it yourself.

The good news is that it’s really easy to do just that. There are a couple ways to go about it. You can make the stock from bones, which is cheap, but can take three hours or more. You also can make it from meat, which costs more, but takes less time and yields tasty leftover meat that can be used for some other purpose. Anne Mendelson wrote a great article for Zester that covers the basic stock-making techniques in more detail. I’m a fan of the meat-based method, because it creates the makings of a second meal for the same amount of effort.

The resulting stock is flavorful, but not overpowering, which makes it very versatile. It’s delicious as a base not only for Japanese ramen and Mexican posole, but also for pork chili and white bean soup.

Basic Pork Stock

Makes about 6 cups


3½ pounds pork shoulder, trimmed of fat and cut in large pieces

10 cups water

1 medium onion, quartered

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 ½ teaspoons salt


1. In a Dutch oven, bring pork, water, onion, garlic and salt to a boil.

2. Reduce heat and simmer covered, about 2 hours or until meat is very tender and falling apart.

3. Remove meat from broth and allow meat to cool. Shred meat using two forks and reserve for another use, such as tamales or pulled pork sandwiches.

4. Strain the broth. If using immediately, use a fat separator to remove fat from the broth. If not, refrigerate overnight in a couple smaller containers and skim solidified fat from the top before using or freezing.

White Bean Soup

Serves 6


1 pound dried white beans (Great Northern or cannellini)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 celery stalks, chopped in ½ inch pieces

3 carrots, chopped in ½ inch pieces

2 dried bay leaves

4 cups pork stock

4 cups water

Salt to taste

Extra virgin olive oil for serving


1. Rinse and pick through beans to remove any pebbles. Cover with cold water and soak overnight. Drain.

2. Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat and add onion, garlic, celery and carrots. Sauté until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes.

3. Add beans, bay leaves, pork stock and water to the pot. Bring to a boil and simmer gently until beans are tender, about 90 minutes.

4. Add salt to taste. If you like a thicker soup, remove ½ cup of beans, puree them and stir back into the pot.

5. Finish each bowl with a drizzle (about 1 teaspoon) of good extra virgin olive oil.

Top photo: Homemade pork stock. Credit: Tina Caputo

Read More
Kimball Brings ‘America’s Test Kitchen’ To Your Kitchen Image

If the average food magazine were a castaway on the ’60s TV show “Gilligan’s Island,” it would be Ginger: glamorous, worldly and somewhat unattainable. Cook’s Illustrated magazine, on the other hand, would be a hybrid of Mary Ann and the Professor: wholesome, intelligent and oh-so-accessible.

Just look at a cover of Cook’s Illustrated and you’ll see what I mean. Rather than seducing readers with gorgeous food-porn photography, Cook’s presents still-life illustrations of basic ingredients, such as walnuts or heads of garlic. Inside the magazine you won’t find profiles of celebrity chefs or reviews of the hottest new restaurants. You won’t even find color. Cook’s is printed in no-nonsense black and white, and most of its images are simple line drawings.

While the glossy magazines present features about how to entertain your impossibly beautiful friends on the rooftop deck of your Manhattan apartment, Cook’s chronicles its 37 failed attempts at roasting the perfect chicken before discovering the best technique.

To put it another way: Cook’s Illustrated is a cooking magazine for nerds. Nerds like me.

Through its pages I learned to make wonderfully creamy scrambled eggs by cooking them slowly over a low flame and gently stirring with a heat-resistant rubber spatula. I learned how to avoid making a watery, gray scramble by cooking the eggs and vegetables separately and combining them just before serving. I learned to make a nearly foolproof pie crust by adding vodka.

Kimball’s food publishing adventures

I have Christopher Kimball to thank for all that kitchen know-how. Kimball founded the original Cook’s magazine in 1980 and ran it as editor and publisher until 1989, when he sold it to the Bonnier Group. The magazine eventually folded under its new publisher, and in 1993, Kimball relaunched the magazine as Cook’s Illustrated. Its audience has since grown to more than a million subscribers.

Kimball founded Cook’s Country magazine in 2004, and he’s also the bow-tied host of the PBS cooking shows “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country From America’s Test Kitchen.”

America’s Test Kitchen isn’t just a TV show, it’s a working test kitchen outside of Boston where three dozen cooks, editors, food scientists, tasters and equipment experts collaborate.

It was this team, led by Kimball, that created ATK’s impressive new book, “The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook.” This mammoth 822-page tome isn’t merely a collection of exhaustively tested recipes, it’s an education in essential cooking techniques. The book covers not only the “how” of each technique but also the “why,” and provides useful tips on such diverse topics as perfecting knife skills and choosing cookware.

We checked in with Kimball about ATK’s new book, the philosophy behind Cook’s Illustrated and the evolution of American home cooking.

What sorts of dishes did your family eat when you were growing up? Were your parents good cooks?

My mother was an early promoter of organic foods and ripped up the front lawn at our home in the ’60s to plant a large, organic garden with only partially composted fertilizer. The neighbors loved it! But she was not much of a cook. The food I loved the best was cooked at the Yellow Farmhouse in our small town in Vermont where we spent summers and weekends. Marie Briggs cooked the standard meat and potatoes but her specialty was baking — Anadama bread, molasses cookies, nutmeg doughnuts. I am still a meat and potatoes guy.

How did you learn to cook?

Marie taught me a lot on rainy days when I wasn’t out haying. I started using the old Fannie Farmer book when I was about 10. I eventually met Malvina Kinard, a friend of Jim Beard’s and the founder of the Cooks Corner retail stores. She taught me classic French cookery including coulibiac of salmon and how to make pate brisée.

In a world of glossy cooking magazines and celebrity TV chefs, why do you think Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen” have been so successful?

We ain’t glossy! The secret of teaching cooking is to put oneself in the shoes and kitchen of the typical home cook. They experience a great deal of fear and frustration (and failed recipes). That’s why we always start off with “bad” food. We make people comfortable by showing what can and often does go wrong. Then we fix the recipe together and explain why a recipe works. It’s taking the time to explain why things go wrong that is important — an educated cook is a better cook.

How many variations are typically tested at ATK before a recipe is deemed ready for publication?

The typical Cook’s Illustrated recipe is tested at least 50 times over a period of weeks.

What was involved in creating the “America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook”?

Almost no-knead bread from the "America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook" is baked in an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. Credit: Tina Caputo

Almost no-knead bread from the “America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook” is baked in an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. Credit: Tina Caputo

Lots of aspirin and long nights in the kitchen and at the computer. We tried to put what we know about cooking into a form that was both in-depth and easy to approach and digest. The book is really a culmination of over 20 years of kitchen work.

Why is it important to know why a particular technique works versus simply knowing the technique itself?

If you understand why, you are much more likely to do it right. When you don’t understand what you are doing you are less likely to do it, and then you end up doing something really stupid like substituting shrimp for chicken (a true story from one of our readers).

Are Americans better cooks today than they were when you started Cook’s magazine?

Yes, no question. The 1980s were a low point in American cooking. Women had fled the kitchen and left for the workplace. Convenience was at a premium and the food industry exploded with more and more bloody-awful products that nobody questioned at the time. These days, balance is being restored. More parents are choosing to stay home. Health is a major consideration, which places the emphasis back on home cooking; it’s the best way to control what goes into your body. And, finally, a whole generation of kids had grown up in households without parents that cooked much and they wanted to find out what they were missing. Plus, the emergence of food television has also brought many folks into the kitchen.

How much of being a good cook is science versus art?

There is very little art in cooking unless one is a top chef. There is also not much science to it unless you develop recipes professionally. That is, you don’t really need to know that flour does not contain gluten per se, it contains glutenin and gliadin, two proteins that interconnect to form gluten in the presence of water. Cooking is really about paying attention and caring about what you are doing.

How important are improvisational skills in the kitchen?

Too many people want to improvise rather than follow a recipe; they think that doing it step by step is beneath them. That is, however, the only way to become a good cook. Then, later in life, with many thousands of recipes behind you, the art starts to come into the process. First, you have to know what food should feel, look, smell, sound and taste like.

What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday dinner at home?

Pot au feu — boiled beef with a salsa verde, horseradish and simmered vegetables such as cabbage, potatoes and carrots. And don’t forget a couple of bottles of a great white Burgundy while you are at it, and a good store-bought baguette.

Top photo: Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen.” Credit: Courtesy of “America’s Test Kitchen”

Read More
The Holiday Candy Tradition These New Yorkers Love Image

When November rolls around and the scent of cinnamon is in the air, you may look forward to traditional holiday treats like pumpkin pie or your mom’s gingerbread. But for people in Rome, N.Y., in the foothills of the Adirondacks, the holidays wouldn’t taste the same without Turkey Joints.

They’re not made from turkey; they’re not even shaped like turkeys. Turkey Joints look like bones. Imagine a knobby 5-inch-long candy, similar in girth to a pretzel rod, covered in a crunchy, pearly-white sugar coating. Inside each “bone” is a creamy chocolate and Brazil nut “marrow.” Bizarre, yes, but also delicious.

Rome residents don’t make Turkey Joints at home; they buy them at Nora’s Candy Shop. Nora’s is owned by the Haritatos family, which began making the chocolate treats in 1919, and they’re still made by the same (secret) handmade process. No one knows for sure where the idea for the bone-shaped candies came from, but they’ve been a local Thanksgiving and Christmas tradition for decades.

“I don’t know how many jars we sell during the holidays,” said Sharon, a Nora’s employee who handles in-store and online sales. “But I will say it’s a lot. All I know is, at the end of the holiday season I am extremely tired!”

As New York Romans have moved away to other parts of the world, the Turkey Joints tradition has spread. Each year, Nora’s ships the candies to homesick people all over the United States, and beyond.

Turkey Joint candy. Credit: Tina Caputo

Turkey Joint candy. Credit: Tina Caputo

I was introduced to Turkey Joints several years ago by my friend Doug Gallaher, who grew up in Rome and moved to San Francisco in the early ’90s. At 45 years old, Gallaher has never known a Christmas without Turkey Joints.

“I don’t know anyone who is from Rome, or who had a relative from Rome, who does not think of them as a holiday food,” he told me. “What I like about them is that they are tied so closely to Christmas memories, but they are a tangible, unchanged thing. My mom still sends me a jar every year in my Christmas care package.”

Like many former Rome residents, Gallaher also gives Turkey Joints to friends each year during the holidays.

“I typically buy between six and eight jars and bring them to holiday parties instead of wine,” he said. “I try not to have any myself until after Thanksgiving and really try to hold out until Christmas Eve. I typically fail at this.”

Turkey Joints sell for $19.99 a jar, and are available only between October and May. (They don’t fare well in warm weather.) Due to the weight of the glass jars and the delicacy of the candies, shipping costs $15 for a single jar — nearly as much as the Turkey Joints themselves. But when you think about it, that’s a small price to pay for a sweet, unchanged taste of childhood, even if it’s someone else’s childhood.

To order Turkey Joints online, visit www.turkeyjoints.com or www.tasteofcny.com. Along with Original Turkey Joints, Nora’s also offers newfangled flavors such as Chocolate Covered Turkey Joints, Coco-Monds (a coconut/almond version) and Peanut Butter Sticks.

Top photo: Turkey Joints from Nora’s Candy Shop in Rome, N.Y. Credit: Tina Caputo

Read More
Holiday Wines Worthy Of A Special Occasion Image

Several years ago, while visiting my family in Michigan for the Christmas holiday, my dad told me about a mysterious collection of wines stashed in his basement. The wines had been passed down to him by an old Italian judge, who had died before he had a chance to drink them.

Naturally, I was curious about what sort of wines they were. My dad hadn’t bothered to go through the couple of cases he was given, instead leaving them for me to pick through when I arrived. I was practically rubbing my hands together in anticipation of the treasures I might find in Dad’s basement.

When I went downstairs on Christmas morning, what I found was mostly disappointing — white wines from the ’70s that had turned brown, unremarkable reds never meant to be aged, cork-tainted wines that had to be poured down the sink. But there was one bottle that made my heart palpitate: a 1967 Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva from Tuscany.

I brought it upstairs and popped the cork, and found that the wine had held up beautifully over the years. It had lovely mature character, and managed to retain much of its fruitiness. I poured glasses for our little gathering — my dad, stepmom, husband, sister and brother-in-law — and we all agreed that the wine was something special. Truth be told, it was a little past its prime, but that didn’t stop us from finishing the bottle.

While we waited for the rest of the family to arrive for dinner, my husband searched the Internet to find out more about the wine we’d just polished off. “Wow, that wine is selling at auction for $200!” he announced. My frugal father, a man who drinks wine daily but rarely spends more than $10 on a bottle, was thunderstuck. “If I’d known that,” he said, “I would never have opened it.”

He was only half joking. But what better time could there be to open a special bottle of wine than the holidays, when you’re surrounded by family and friends — the people you love most?

Holiday-worthy wines

Even if you don’t have a 1967 Chianti hiding in your cellar, chances are you have a bottle or two stashed away from a winery visit or vacation. What are you waiting for? My dad’s Italian judge was waiting for the right occasion to open his wines, too. If you don’t already have a special bottle set aside, why not make this the year to splurge on a memorable wine to share with your favorite people?

Here are five wines that fit that description nicely. These Napa Valley and Sonoma stunners taste great now and will improve with age, so you’ll be able to enjoy them at future holiday celebrations too. The wines are balanced and food friendly — none containing more than 14.1% alcohol — so they’ll pair wonderfully with your holiday brisket or standing rib roast.

Pine Ridge Vineyards Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($85): This gorgeous wine has an enticing aroma of red fruit, along with cherry and berry flavors accented with baking spices. It’s elegant and balanced, with soft tannins.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Napa Valley Fay Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($95): With aromas of raspberries and cedar, this is a beautifully balanced wine with bright red cherry flavor, silky texture and well-integrated tannins.

Clos Du Val Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($80): Here’s a classic, age-worthy Napa Valley Cabernet with rich aromas of leather and black fruit. It has black cherry and chocolate flavors, along with good structure and moderate tannins.

Cobb Wines Sonoma Coast Jack Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009 ($70): This lovely cool-climate Pinot smells of ripe raspberries and cherries, and has delicious red fruit flavors to match. The wine’s fruit-forwardness is balanced by a good bit of acidity.

Inman Family Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2009 ($35): With its aromas of red fruit and cinnamon spice, this wine was made for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s medium bodied and elegant, with soft tannins and flavors of red fruit and cola.

Top photo:  A selection of holiday wine. Credit: Tina Caputo

Read More