An illustration of a wine bottle and glass with a string of holiday lights

Hosting a Festive Holiday Bash? Here’s Wine 101. Cheers!

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A Hotelie and master sommelier offers insights into navigating the grape (including why you should ditch those Champagne flutes)

By Beth Saulnier

With the festive season upon us, Cornellians tapped Maddy Jimerson ’12 for tips on choosing, serving, and enjoying wine—during holiday parties and all year ’round.

A specialist in the wines of Italy, the Hotelie and third-generation alum is the wine director at Casa Tua, an upscale Italian restaurant in Aspen, CO.

In August 2022, she completed the infamously taxing series of exams to join the Court of Master Sommeliers—becoming, at 32, the group’s youngest current member and one of fewer than three dozen women worldwide ever to achieve the distinction.

A photo of Maddy Jimerson

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when enjoying wine?

Wine represents a unique place; it goes beyond just liquid in the glass. For example, Nebbiolo and Barolo from Piedmont, Italy; when you drink these wines, you’re drinking the place from which they come.

What are the biggest mistakes people make in serving or drinking wine?

Not planning—seeing wine as almost an afterthought.

Also, it’s important to be open minded. Some people make up their mind that they don’t like white or they don’t like Chardonnay, for example. But the wine world is so vast and immense; don’t limit yourself. Experimentation is fun!

Be adventurous and go out of your comfort zone. Instead of serving a Champagne, look for Franciacorta, which is a traditional-method Italian sparkling wine. You can stay within a style, but try a different region; if you like Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley, maybe try one from Washington State.

In U.S. culture, wine has been put on a pedestal, and it can be intimidating. But wine should be approachable. I’m an expert in my field, but there’s so much that I don’t know about wine. It’s a continuous discovery.

How do you feel about the typical guidelines to pair, say, white wine with fish or red with beef?

It’s more important to think about the wine’s texture than its color. For example, you could pair red with fish, but you don’t necessarily want a full-bodied red, like a Cabernet Sauvignon, even with a heavier, fattier fish like salmon. But a lighter-bodied red, like a Pinot Noir, could work really well.

Be adventurous and go out of your comfort zone.

How do you decide how much wine is enough for a soirée?

Of course it depends, but a standard 750 milliliter bottle is going to give you almost four six-ounce glasses. For a dinner party, I usually allot three glasses—three-quarters of a bottle—per person.

When we think of the festive season, we think of sparkling wine. Beyond a traditional New Year’s toast, when do you like to serve it?

It can be nice to start a dinner off with sparkling wine. And I love to serve it with the dessert course. I like to do a Champagne that has a bit more residual sugar; a brut instead of an extra brut, for example.

I also like to serve Champagne rosé; with rosés, you get more perception of the sweetness of fruit, and it’s a bit more textural. It’s also a great palate cleanser. After having heavy dishes, it’s nice to finish on something that has bright acidity and is lighter bodied.

Beyond sparkling, any suggestions for dessert wines?

Tokaji is a great wine from Hungary that has bright acidity—so even though it’s very sweet, it’s balanced. I also like a lot of the passito-style wines from Italy—vinsanto, for example. Again, they typically have bright acidity that adds balance. These can go well with crème brûlée or tiramisu. The rule of thumb is that you want your dessert wine to be just slightly sweeter than the dessert itself.

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How does one know if a wine should be decanted prior to serving?

I like to decant older wines, but for younger ones I don’t find it totally necessary. In advance of a dinner party, I like to open the wines first thing in the morning, taste them, and leave the bottles with the cork out. That way, the wines slowly take on air without giving them too much.

The rule of thumb is that you want your dessert wine to be just slightly sweeter than the dessert itself.

How important is the shape of the glass?

It makes a big difference. It’s not necessary to invest in different stemware for all the different wines, but having one really good all-purpose glass is key. I typically like a glass that has a wider vessel, because you get more aromatics.

If you can buy two types of stemware, I’d suggest a Bordeaux glass and a Burgundy glass. The Bordeaux is for more full-bodied wines; the Burgundy is for wines that are lighter-bodied and more aromatic.

Must sparkling wine be served in a flute?

The flute is becoming less and less prevalent. Again, the wider the vessel, the more aromatics you get; with the very narrow flutes, you lose a lot of the beautiful aromatics.

I like to serve sparkling wine in an all-purpose glass or Burgundy glass; when in doubt, serve it in a wider vessel. The perlage—bubbles—come across as more refined, whereas in a flute they can be more aggressive. I like to serve Champagne in coupe glasses as well; those look really festive.

If there’s leftover wine after a party, what can be done to preserve it?

There are many strategies, but at the restaurant where I work, we use what’s essentially a pump that pulls out the oxygen. Also, if you have multiple open bottles of the same wine, there’s nothing wrong with combining them, so each is more full and less oxygen is in contact with the wine. And—with reds as well as whites—if you put it in the fridge, it will last longer.

What are some tips for navigating the wine store?

First, identify what style of wine you like. It can broadly be broken down between New World and Old World wines—New World being the U.S., South America, Australia, etc., and Old World essentially being Europe.

For those who like fruit-forward wines—again, this is a very general statement—you want to look toward these New World regions. For earthier wines, look toward the Old World of France, Italy, etc.

Go to your neighborhood wine shop, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for suggestions. Hopefully you can build a relationship, where they learn your style of wine, your palate, what you like and don’t like. It’s really trial and error—but it’s an adventure.

Top: Illustration by Cornell University. Jimerson photo provided.

Published November 22, 2022

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