Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Get Some Air In There - Wine Decanters - A Great Gift

My husband and I buy two main types of wine. I'm not talking about red and white. I'm talking about what we call "maintenance" and "bottle" wine. As much as I hate to admit it, the hubby and I have NO problem polishing off a good bottle of wine with dinner...and a not so good bottle will be gone by the following day's dinner. I also cook with wine...often in fact. If you do the math and consider that we drink wine with dinner about 4 or 5 nights a week, and factor in the wine I use for my beef bourguignon, wild mushroom risotto and lets not forget those burgundy mushrooms that sit atop a nice piece of aged steak, it can end up being quite an investment in wine. So over the past few years we've started splitting our wine purchases into box or what we call "maintenance" wine, which we use to cook with or drink when we're looking for a "one glass" evening, and bottles of wine, which we save to pair with a particular dinner or break out when we're feeling a bit saucy (I love that word). I think our box/bottle system has made all the difference in our wine budget.

Alright. Not all boxed wine is created equal, and having tasted some pretty nasty ones over the years, I can understand how they gained such a poor reputation. But recently the boxed wine movement has been pumping out some good wines in convenient boxed form. A few of my favorites right now are Bota Box's Old Vine Zinfandel (they make a pretty bitchin Shiraz too), Pinot Evil's Pinot Noir (I'll be honest...it's not my fav boxed wine but it's good AND it's got the "see no evil" monkeys on the box...cute), and the bargain wine that started it all for the hubby and I...drum roll please...Banrock Station's Riesling. Food & Wine magazine has given this riesling kudos over and over again. 3 or 4 years ago, after reading it's praises AND finding that my local Kroger in VA had it on sale for $3/bottle for about 3 years in a row, I became somewhat of an addict. I recently found it in boxed form and it's just as good as ever.

So what does all of this boxed wine talk have to do with the title of my post you ask? Even some of my favorite bargain wines could use a little help. That's where decanting comes in and where my next "holy crap, Christmas is in 10 days and I still need a gift for 8 people" gift comes to the rescue. Decanters! After our latest trip to the Napa Valley the hubby and I have been decanting fools. Basically, young wine (as most boxed wine is) needs to "breath" a bit before you drink it. I'm sure you've all heard this term associated with wine. The lady in Napa told me something about the tannins in young wine being rough and oxygen helping smooth them out and blah, blah. I'm not a chemist...I'm a drinker. Here's what I DO know. We honestly enjoy our boxed wine MUCH more when we decant it. We can even get away with serving it at dinner parties! We use a traditional crystal decanter that we received as a wedding gift (I love it) but there are some new, inexpensive (and conveniently small) decanters/aerators out there on the market that can make the perfect gift for people who even mildly like wine...because it makes even the most mediocre wine better! The Vinturi aerator is the most popular hand-held one out there now but there are plenty to choose from. I think a cute gift would be a cheap-ish bottle of wine (like my all time bargain bottle fav Banrock Station) and a Vinturi type aerator OR a box of wine with a traditional decanter. For around $30 or $35 you can give a cool, useful and fun gift. For even more fun I recommend doing blind taste tests (try it when you're sober...grape juice spiked with vodka might taste good after a few too many).
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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

You Got Your Bacon In My Chocolate - Great Holiday Gifts Part 1

The holiday season is upon us once again and the air is filled with joy and good cheer. But while those sleigh bells are jinglin' and ring ting tinglin', you're staring at the list of people you need to buy gifts for and realizing that once again you have NO idea what to get them. So between now and Christmas I'm going to be blogging about some unique gift ideas to get you in the holiday spirit and out of that gift-giving-holiday-funk.

Today's gift: Bacon-Chocolate: That's right folks! Move over Reese's Peanut Butter Cups...because this time I've got bacon in my chocolate.

I'm not sure if y'all keep up with the novelty gift trends, but recently, bacon themed EVERYTHING has been at the top of the novelty gift charts. Bacon wallets (I took this picture at a very normal gift shop in Charleston SC). Bacon band-aids. Bacon Christmas Tree ornaments. And there are SO many more. Honestly, I would have trouble spending my hard earned money on a box of bacon strip bandages. I wouldn't, however, have any trouble spending money on bacon spiked chocolate and neither should you. It makes the perfect stocking stuffer or unique gift for your next door neighbor...AND...it's good! This bar is by Vosges Haute Chocolate (I hate the fact that they put Haute in their name but I forgive them) and I bought it at World Market but I'm sure you can find bacon chocolate in lots of places these days. It's flavor is sweet and salty with a hint of smoke. There are actual pieces of applewood smoked bacon in each bar that gives it a unique texture and aroma. It may not be for everyone but it's certainly worth a try. So get that hard to shop for person something unique this year...and grab yourself a bar while you're at it.
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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ring In The New Year

Time flies huh folks? Can you believe that this year is almost over!? I used to be shocked when I walked into a store and saw them displaying Christmas stockings next to Halloween costumes, but now I get it. October 31st turns into January 31st in the blink of an eye. You've got to act fast or plan well if you want to make the holiday season a success. And all of this planning takes a lot of work. By the time the holiday season is over don't you feel like you've earned a break? I do. So when the wrapping paper is in the trash and all of the leftover ham has gone into the dog's bowl we give ourselves a little break...a little fun...all in the way of a little trip. Every year the hubby and I travel to a different city (within driving distance of wherever we might be living at the time) to ring in the new year and party like a local for two or three days. It's the perfect way to cap off the hectic holiday season and I recommend everyone try it at least once. This will be our 6th new year together and since we now live 5 1/2 hour north of where we used to live in Richmond, VA, a new world of drive-able destination possibilities has opened for us.

In the past we've spent new year's eve in places like Baltimore's inner harbor, Washington DC's Georgetown and Philly (before we moved here of course). They were all easily drive-able from our home in Richmond and made for a stress free getaway (oh...and one year in Cancun *that explains the Feliz Ano Nuevo picture at the top of the page*, but that was for our friends' wedding so we were happy to disregard the "drive-able" rule for that one!). This year we're heading to Niagara Falls, Canada to ring in the new year. It's 6 1/2 hours from our home, it offers plenty of sightseeing opportunities AND there will be a huge firework display, free outdoor concert and festival area...complete with beer gardens. I expect this location to be darn near perfect for a new year's eve trip (fingers crossed!). After years of hits and misses I've compiled a list of things to look for in a new years eve destination to ensure you'll have a great time. So if you're interested in trying something new to start off 2010, here are a few tips to make it a wonderful experience:

1.)Be sure to seek out some sort of entertainment prior to 11pm and have a plan or destination for midnight...lest you want to fall asleep and miss everything:
It's not always better to burn out than to fade away. If you party a little too hard prior to, say, 8pm and then find yourself just waiting around for midnight, you may not make it. The hubby and I always spend most of new year's eve day sightseeing and being active (we are in a new city after all). Find an ice skating rink (this one was in DC but there was one in every cold city we've been to during new year's), visit the historic section of town or do some shopping. Then we rest in the hotel and don't even think of going out on the town before 7pm. A good way to keep having fun all the way up 'till the ball drops is to seek out a "happening" area. The inner harbor in Baltimore was chock full of entertainment. In Philly you might want to go to South Street or Old City where there are bars and restaurants every 10 feet and PLENTY of interesting people. What I don't recommend is going to one bar/club and staying there all night. What's the point of going to a new city if you never see it. Washington DC can be tough for this. Many of the clubs and bars in the "happening" area of Adam's Morgan had $100 (plus) cover charges so bar hopping wasn't exactly feasible. But that's the first time I had ever encountered such a phenomenon.

Many cities offer a lovely firework display at midnight...but many don't. Be sure to know where the fireworks will be held and plan to work your way in that direction during the night. Bar hopping isn't a bad way to travel in such a situation. One of the more memorable fireworks displays we saw took place in Baltimore's inner harbor. This place was perfect for a new year's eve celebration. It had plenty of bars and restaurants all in a small area...perfect for bar hopping. And all of said bars had large patios and outdoor areas that made watching the firework display easy as pie. The close proximity also allowed for everyone to enjoy the many bands and various sorts of entertainment, and, you were never far from your "inner harbor" hotel...a MUST for getting back to your bed safely and efficiently at 1am. Philly also has a great show that can be seen from the South Street pedestrian bridge and you can bar hop yourself silly on the way there.

2.) Don't get caught in a stuffy bar with no escape plan OR stranded outside with no bathroom:
I hear that spending new year's eve in Time's Square is hell for anyone not wearing a diaper...and I suppose hell for anyone standing next to someone who is in fact wearing a diaper. It's a caged in area with no bathrooms and little access to booze. No thank you. The polar opposite of this would be spending that $100 to be stuck in a bar and still have to pay for your drinks. The perfect location to start the new year would be somewhere that has good "open container" laws such as New Orleans, Las Vegas or Key West, where you're free to stroll the sidewalks wearing a damn beer helmet if you like (my kind of place). We've spent ample time in all three of these places and they all offer that "new year's eve feel" every day of the year. But we don't all live within driving distance of these gems so our best bet is to find a part of town with lots of options AND entertainment, or seek out a festival like the one we'll be attending in Niagara Falls.

3.) Don't overpay for your hotel:
After buying hundreds of dollars worth of Christmas presents I know the last thing you think you can afford is a trip. But if you're driving there and only staying a few nights the trip can be downright cheap! Please, pretty please with a cherry on top, bid for your hotel room if you're planning a new year's trip. Go to Hotwire.com or Priceline.com and you'll be able to find lodging for close to 1/2 of what you would pay on an Orbitz.com type place. People get scared that they don't know what hotel they'll be staying at until after they pay for it but a 4 star is a 4 star no matter how you slice it. Here's how to do it:
1.) Go to www.biddingfortravel.com
This site has allowed me to get 4 star hotel rooms in places like San Francisco for as little as $69/night. Bidding For Travel is a bulletin board of sorts. Since priceline only allows you to bid once per 24 hour period on a specific star rated hotel in a specific area you need to make your bids count. This site allows you to read people's posts on what worked and what didn't work for them so you know how high or low to bid. Just find the city you're looking for on the bulletin board and read away.
2.) Once you're ready to bid research the "areas" on the priceline map carefuly to be sure you're bidding for a hotel in the exact area you're looking for. Priceline doesn't let you choose a specific hotel but it does let you choose a specific area. And after all, it's really all about location, location, location at the end of the day. Look for things like access to subways or trolleys and bars/restaurants/entertainment when choosing your area.
3.) Bid. Ok. This is the part that scares people but fear not. It's not scary after you do it just once. Priceline is going to ask you to choose your city, the exact area in that city and the star rating of the hotel you want. Then it's going to have you put in all of your credit card info and click to bid. At this point you've basically told them if they can find a, say, 4 star hotel in the Fisherman's Wharf area of San Francisco that will take your bid of $69 for one night, that they can charge your credit card immediately. It's scary...but a rush too :) Keep in mind that you cannot get a refund on this room so be sure you're plans are set. If you win the bid then you're all set and I promise you'll enjoy your trip more, knowing that you paid next to nothing for your luxury accommodations. If you lose the bid wait 24 hours and bid a bit more, every day, until you win.

So get out there and treat yourself to a little getaway for the new year. After all of the holiday hubbub is said and done, getting away can be just what the doctor ordered.
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