Over time and across many cultures, Christmas has become an eclectic mix of tradition blended with a generous dash of quirky customs unique to specific regions and families. In that spirit, three winemakers from around the world shared with us, in their own words, their holiday stories.
Faouzi Issa, Domaine des Tourelles, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
Issa is the winemaker and co-owner of this 148-year-old domaine, Lebanon’s first commercial winery.
This year for Christmas Eve all the family will be gathering at my parents’s house in the Bekaa Valley. We’ll open gifts, the kids will be playing; Later that night if I still have the energy, I’ll go to midnight mass at my school’s church and meet up with lots of old friends.
My twin sister Johanne, who is a talented photographer, always gifts us the most amazing surprises. One year she collected images from my dad’s archives and made a video of us when we were babies.
Christmas Eve, we never drink my wines. I always select some bottles during the year, like the 2004 Pavillon Blanc du Margaux we opened last year. This year’s lineup includes a 2001 Rauzan-Ségla also from Margaux, and Canadian ice wine from Peller Estates.
My mom will be preparing an amazing menu, as usual, which may include turkey with chestnuts, foie gras, salads, and far too many local and imported cheeses. There’s no space for sweet desserts!
On Christmas Day we’ll be with my in-laws in Beirut. We’ll have a very long lunch which starts around 11 am and goes until 7 pm. My wines are exclusively present here. We’ll likely eat something like Beryani chicken, vine leaves with lamb and beef fillet slow cooked with oriental spices, plus plenty of Lebanese desserts.
When it snows during Christmas in the Bekaa, there are two food traditions that I make sure not to miss: The first is called bakssama. The first snow of the year is normally very clean, therefore the tradition in Zahlé, the valley’s capital, is to mix the snow with grape molasses. It makes a great, energizing breakfast. The other is a soup called “kishk.”
Tom Lubbe, Domaine Matassa, Côtes du Roussillon, France
Lubbe is a South African/New Zealander who makes natural wines from his 100+ year-old biodynamically farmed vines. He is married to Nathalie Gauby, of the well-known estate Domaine Gauby.
I don’t travel around Christmas time because it’s an invitation for misery, having missed the Pan Am/Lockerbie flight [which crashed in 1988] by a whisker at age 18. [I was] flying back from my first vintage in Europe.
I do have fond memories of my first Christmases in France which were at my in-laws’ place and included my wife’s grandmother, Marguerite. I would get sat next to Marguerite because no one else could understand what I was saying, although everyone said it was because we ate the most. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand most of what Marguerite was saying back to me as she would resort back to a predominately Catalan mix as the drink flowed.
There would be at least three different preparations of foie gras, and because I was a known glutton I was expected not just to have a serving of each but seconds as well. Mamy Marguerite was pretty impressed with my efforts. By the end of the meal I was unable to join her in Roquefort and thick slices of butter on bread with a glass of vin doux to help digestion as I was trying to avoid falling into a calorific coma by drinking salty fizzy water.
These days, apart from trying to avoid foie gras, there is no specific recipe, although I do like to include a braai [South African barbecue] at some point in the day in deference to my South African origins. Ever since I tried braaing three ducks in a snowstorm I now go for the indoor braai, which is an essential part of my kitchen. Fire obviously plays an important part in coping with a cold Christmas and I tend to light one in the morning in the kitchen fireplace before making crepes for the kids.
Violet Grgich, Grgich Hills Estate, Napa Valley California
Grgich is the Vice President of Sale & Marketing at her family’s winery, Grgich Hills Estate, co-founded by her Croatian-born father Mike Grgich in 1977. Mike is best known for making the famed 1976 “Judgement of Paris” Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, which helped gain the Napa Valley worldwide recognition.
Growing up, our Christmas began on Christmas Eve. My dad and I would go out and find a Christmas tree, then spend the rest of the day decorating it while my mom baked and cooked.
Dad and I would always have different opinions about the size of the tree. He wanted it small and easy to decorate, and I wanted it BIG. One year I got my wish, and we got the fattest, most perfect tree that I’d ever seen. The difficulty started when we could barely fit it through our front door. Once we finally got it in, we stepped back to admire it, and slowly the tree tipped and fell over – it was so heavy it wouldn’t stay up. We had to nail the stand to the floor!
On Christmas Eve my mom would make bakalar for dinner, a salt cod stew which is a Croatian tradition, since Christmas Eve is a day of fasting (no meat or sweets). Also, [we would make] apple strudel stretched by hand, fritule [deep-fried fritters], and mandulet [honey/almond nougat]. We couldn’t eat any of the sweets until Christmas Day, which was hard!
I would get to stay up until midnight mass. After mass, I was allowed to open one present, the rest we opened the next morning.
Christmas day we would have roast duck or goose paired with our wines. Coming from a Croatian peasant background, you always consumed what you produced.
These days I usually spend Christmas Eve with my Norwegian mother-in-law, who cooks a fabulous meal of roast pork loin stuffed with cloves, German sausages, braised red cabbage and a deep rich gravy, followed by rice pudding. She hides a blanched almond in the rice pudding and whoever finds it in their mouthful has to pretend they don’t have it, and everyone tries to guess who has the almond. When the winner is revealed, they get the grand prize of chocolate marzipan.