Full House

Once again, during this season of giving thanks and acknowledging gratitude, I am reminded of what is most important in life. Although my children are now in their 20’s, it is still wonderful when they return to the nest. I forget how much I crave just hanging in our warm, cozy house– with the immediate family intact– until everyone comes home.

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The last time we were all together was in mid-August, so this has been a long stretch, during which our frenetic lives have continued on. Yet, once we’re reunited it seems like no time has passed. Within minutes, the familiar dinner table banter returns. We sprawl across the couch watching Monday night football, NBA basketball and movies laced with sophomoric humor. We play board games, take neighborhood walks and snuggle with the dog. We live in the moment and enjoy life’s simple pleasures that seem so elusive these days.

 

Never mind the multiple trips to the supermarket, health food store, fish market and other local purveyors to ensure that the refrigerator is always filled with healthy foods that meet everyone’s culinary preferences. Never mind my role as a short-order cook, serving up 3-course breakfasts and home-cooked dinners with the dishwasher working overtime. Never mind the piles of clothing and wet towels on the floor and the beds that will remain unmade for days. And never mind the daily loads of laundry. This is but a small price to pay to have the band back together.

When our house is full, I experience a completeness and peaceful comfort that stirs my soul. My sleep is deeper than usual. I am reminded of a TV public service announcement from my childhood: “It’s 10:00 pm. Do you know where your children are?” During four brief nights, the answer is “yes, I do.” They’re home. Right where they’re supposed to be. And everything feels right with the world. My heart is full.

In closing, I am inspired by the lyrics of Homegrown, a song by my favorite musician that also happens to be my cell phone ring tone…

“I’ve got everything I need and nothing that I don’t.” –– Zac Brown Band

Full house… full fridge… full heart.

The Running of the Sap

When they reach a certain age, some men buy a fast sports car or motorcycle, trade in their middle-aged spouse for a trophy wife, or quit their job and join a rock band. My husband has opted instead for homespun hobbies that tap into his inner provider. Like his affinity for berry picking in the summer, in late winter/early spring, my hubby is in full-blown maple-sugaring mode. In Pamplona, Spain, they have the Running of the Bulls– here in Armonk, New York, we have The Running of the Sap.

Inspired a few seasons ago by neighbors who had tapped their trees and enjoyed maple syrup for months after, my husband became intrigued– and soon obsessed– with collecting sap daily and turning it into homemade maple syrup. Always a fan of Sunday morning pancakes, this new hobby gave him both a purpose as well as something tangible to show for his efforts. Not to mention the environmental benefits of this sustainable practice (my take, not his.) For those not familiar with maple sugaring, turning sap into syrup is a simple, five-step process.

Step 1– Identify a sugar maple tree

This is easy in summer, as the maple leaf is familiar to all. However, in winter– when we are in syrup mode– maple trees can be identified only by bark. The bark is “furrowed,” characterized by deep asymmetrical grooves that are closely spaced between each plate of bark.

Step 2– Tap your maple tree and collect the sap

Drill a 7/16” hole into the tree. The hole should tilt slightly downward. Then insert a spile (a small wooden or metal peg used to control the flow of liquid) into the hole. Hammer gently on the spile until it is secure. If the weather is warm enough, the sap– which is indistinguishable from water– will begin to flow immediately. The sap drips into a bucket or container that hangs from the spile. My husband uses a sturdy ‘sap bag’ with an airtight closure.

 

Step 3– Transfer sap from buckets to storage containers

A single maple tree will generate as much as 2.5 gallons of sap per day. Pour the sap from the bucket or bag directly into the storage container. Any food-grade container may be used to store the liquid. My husband uses large drink coolers. Store the sap at 38°F or colder. If there is still snow on the ground, keep your containers outside, packed in snow. You can also store them in your refrigerator, or for longer-term storage, in your freezer. Sap will spoil quickly if not kept cold.

 

Step 4– Process sap into maple syrup

When you are ready to make maple syrup, pour the sap into a large pot (a “lobster” pot works well) until it is ¾ full. Boil the sap until it reduces down to ¼ – ½ the depth of the pot, then add more sap. It takes 40 parts sap to make 1 part maple syrup (10 gallons of sap yields 1 quart syrup,) so it can be a long process. Once the sap has boiled down and taken on an amber hue, transfer it to a smaller pot. Continue to boil the sap until it takes on the consistency of syrup. Dip a spoon into the liquid; syrup will “stick” to the spoon as it runs off.

 

Step 5– Bottle your syrup and enjoy!

Sterilize your glass bottles and caps in boiling water, then fill them with syrup. Now you can enjoy the fruits of your labor!

Speaking of labor, if you’ve read this far, you are probably wondering why someone would dedicate so much time and effort to a pastime with such a low yield. (Just 1-2 quarts of syrup for two weeks of daily labor.) I posed this question to my husband, and here was his response:

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“I enjoy the feeling of living off the land. I’m taking a natural substance from a tree and making it into something tangible that my family and I can eat. And, when I consider the people who typically make maple syrup, I think of quiet, rural areas in Maine and Vermont. I love the rural countryside. However, we live in a densely populated area. When I make maple syrup– or pick wild raspberries like I do in the summer– I get a taste of authentic, country living.”

In short, maple sugaring has proven to be a fun hobby that provides my husband with a strong sense of pride, accomplishment and personal satisfaction. Plus, our entire family gets to reap the benefits, as his homemade syrup is delicious!

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California Dreamin’ Evermore

I open my eyes to expansive views of the San Francisco Bay, as the sun creeps up behind the lush hills of Angel Island. Pristine sailboats rock in the gently rippling water below our window. The Golden Gate Bridge shimmers in the distance inside a cocoon of fog. I realize with a start that I am not dreaming––this is my current reality, at least for a brief while. I am in love with the Bay Area.

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A peaceful early morning in Belvedere, California

This is our fourth winter trading in the harsh east coast weather for a few weeks in California. We have been especially fortunate this year to have dodged several Nor’easters. While winter in the Bay Area does not promise palm trees and tropical temperatures, we are, nonetheless, immensely grateful for weather in the 50’s and 60’s which suits our active, outdoor lifestyle.

 

Moreover, the appeal of California extends beyond its nice weather and natural beauty. As I articulated three years ago in my initial California Dreamin’ blog post: “To love California is to embrace a lifestyle of openness and friendliness…to achieve an ideal balance between seriousness and fun…to naturally smile and greet those you pass on the street…to strike up conversations with strangers everywhere you go…to feel healthy, fit, relaxed and stress-free…and, to marvel at the selection of fine wines available in the local supermarket!”

Being in California fills me with the purest sense of joy, hope and serenity. Breathing in the fresh morning air is invigorating. Running on a sandy path along the bay, unencumbered by multiple layers of clothing, plus hat and gloves, is liberating. Eating a Dungeness Crab Louie salad on the outdoor deck at Sam’s Anchor Café in February is simply blissful…

 

Even the dogs are happier here than anywhere else. With a daily routine of doggie park play dates, mountain hikes and ocean frolics, the ubiquitous tail wagging is not surprising. I understand how the dogs feel, because my tail never stops wagging when I’m in California!

 

The challenging part of being in California is trying to focus on work with so many wonderful distractions all around. The key is to embrace the Cali lifestyle which incorporates an ideal work-play balance. We have happily discovered that if you work productively and efficiently, you are rewarded with a glorious selection of outdoor play options before the sun sets.

 

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Redwoods & Waterfalls

Choose a seaside walk, a hike among redwoods and waterfalls, a scenic bike ride or a search for colorful sea glass strewn along local beaches. It’s all good.

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While in the Golden State, I am content deep in my soul. I am my best and truest self. My thoughts are crystal clear and my creative juices flow continuously. This is where I am meant to be. I am happy, relaxed and totally at peace. I sleep more soundly than at home––a major feat for a usually fitful sleeper. If only our golden retriever were here, it would be truly perfect.

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Postscript: A week has passed since I wrote this blog post. My three-week reality is now just a beautiful memory… I have returned home to my cold, grey and snowy world… back to California Dreamin’… on such a winter’s day.

 

 

 

Talking to Strangers

Growing up, I always heeded the parental warning: “don’t talk to strangers.” I am fairly certain that most people of my generation grew up with this similar caution. We never answered the door for someone we didn’t know. We politely declined and kept walking when asked for directions or for the time. And we certainly did not strike up conversations with random strangers just to “be friendly.” Strangers were dangerous. We were trained to avoid them.

At some point in my adult life, I seemingly forgot these warnings. I cannot recall when or why, but some time ago I began not only talking to strangers, but also, engaging many of them in interesting conversations and actually befriending some. I can be virtually anywhere– at a checkout counter… in a movie theater… dining in a restaurant… waiting in an airport… hiking up a mountain… riding a ski lift… or working out in an exercise class– and I will happily strike up a conversation.

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Met some nice strangers waiting in a movie queue for an 8:00 a.m. film…

Whenever I start talking to a stranger, my husband groans and rolls his eyes, as if to say: “here we go again.” I am not purposefully trying to annoy him. Rather, I am naturally friendly and actually get a rush of adrenaline from talking to strangers. During these spontaneous conversations, I usually learn something new, while gaining a different perspective on a particular topic or issue. Sometimes we discover friends in common via the six-degrees-of-separation phenomenon. Or, we end up helping one another. And, in certain circumstances it seems easier to tell a stranger something very personal… it feels less risky opening up to someone who doesn’t know you.

I love when a stranger smiles at me and I smile back and we have that wonderful momentary connection. Perhaps it’s my inner California girl shining through. I live on the East Coast, but I spend a lot of time on the West coast and often feel more like a Californian than a New Yorker. In the Golden State, people routinely smile, say hello to strangers and converse with them; it’s part of the open, welcoming culture there. Much less so in New York– except around the Christmas holidays, when everyone is a little bit kinder and friendlier.

Just this morning, I had a wonderful conversation with a stranger. I was waiting in line at a local food market and a woman walked in with a golden retriever. As two “golden retriever people,” we immediately started comparing notes on our dogs. I told her about the rescue group I work with and the story of how we adopted our Golden from Turkey. Then, another woman, who works in the shop, joined the conversation. She, too, apparently had a golden retriever. Within minutes, the three of us had bonded over our dogs. I left the store with two email addresses, two telephone numbers and three new friends– two human and one canine named Harper. I have no doubt we will stay in touch.

So, with apologies to my Mom, I’ve adopted a new guideline: “talk to strangers.” After all, at some point in our lives, every good friend we have was once a stranger.

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The Nest Replenished

If you had told me when I became an empty nester that I would actually miss the piles of dirty clothes and shoes, the daily trips to the grocery store and produce market, the nonstop cooking of omelets, grilled chicken and roasted vegetables and the dirty blender bottles lining the kitchen counter, I would’ve called you crazy.

Well, now I’m rethinking that perspective. Over the past week, I surprised even myself when I discovered that not only did I miss the mess, but also, I longed for it! This meant that our family was intact once again, with both adult children home, a super-happy (albeit mischievous) dog, and a house filled with home-cooked food, animated conversations around the dinner table, laughter over the familiar dim-witted Caddyshack and Animal House jokes and, of course, lots of football & basketball on TV!

Three years ago when our youngest left for college, I launched this blog for the purpose of embracing a new phase of life, embarking upon new adventures and sharing my experiences. My husband and I have fully enjoyed– even celebrated– our empty nester lifestyle. We have relished our newfound spontaneity as we attend concerts, shows and plays, go out frequently on weeknights and travel extensively around the US and abroad. We definitely miss our children, but we stay in close touch and speak to them often. And, most importantly, we are happy that they are each on their own journeys, living their lives.

Yet, for a few brief days this past week, with everyone under one roof, our nest was temporarily full. My responsibilities increased exponentially as I returned to full blown “Mommy Mode,” juggling food shopping, short-order cooking, dish washing, laundry, and the many other tasks that I had cut way back on in recent years.

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I was happy to do all of this for the reward of having my family at home. The experience was completely wonderful and exhausting in equal parts. I loved every minute of it. Interestingly, although our children have grown and matured, we all seem to revert back to our former family roles. Life at home seems so natural and easy… perhaps that’s why it’s important for children to leave the nest and step outside that comfort zone. Nonetheless, I relished our time as a family– sitting around the dinner table and just talking… taking long walks with the dog… watching sports and cheering together for our favorite teams. It is certainly bittersweet to witness our children’s transition into adulthood, but I must admit that, for a few brief days, I fully enjoyed taking care of them.

I did not raise my voice once this week. I gave no unsolicited advice. (well, maybe once, but it wasn’t totally unsolicited.) I did not stress out about the unkempt piles of dirty clothes and the unmade beds. I simply closed the doors to my children’s rooms to hide the mess. I tried to live in the moment and enjoy this quality family time. And, I hugged my son, whom I see so rarely, quite often (I think he was a little annoyed by this, but thankfully, he didn’t protest too much.)

 

Our five days in the replenished nest has come to a close… for now. One child is across the country back at college; the other has returned to real life and work in the city. The laundry is done. The dishes are washed and put away. Our table of four is back to a table of two. Tonight, it will be just me and my husband (and our golden retriever, Casper) watching This Is Us. And yes, this IS us.

The pace is decidedly slower and quieter, but I am good with that. I now realize that our nest is never truly empty, because it remains a warm and welcoming place where we love unconditionally and always feel comfortable just being ourselves.

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Casper figured this out awhile ago…

Back to School

Watching the kindergarteners waiting at the bus stop, I am flooded with mixed emotions. Their post-summer haircuts, new sneakers, colorful backpacks and “happy-face” name tags, identifying them as new students, bring back many bittersweet memories. The children, filled with first day jitters, pose for photos and videos. The parents choke back tears, recognizing this as a major milestone of parenthood. They are amazed at how quickly the years have passed.

Fast forward 16 years, as I try to fathom how my son can possibly be a senior in college. Like those Kindergarten parents, I am filled with pride, witnessing how far my boy has come, yet wistful that the years have flown by in the blink of an eye. The juxtaposition of the first day of elementary school and the last year of college is not lost on me… hence, I pause to reflect on “back-to-school” and all it signifies.

For toddlers, back-to-school is mostly a time of fun and excitement (with the exception of those dealing with separation anxiety,) as children enjoy days of structured play with peers in a comfortable, safe environment. For parents, preschool is a welcome reprieve for several hours a day when they know their children are well supervised, fed and are learning basic, yet important, life skills.

The elementary and middle school years bring progressively more structure, responsibility and, of course, longer days for students. Back-to-school entails battling long lines at Staples where families stock up on school supplies like pocket fodders, notebooks, colored pencils, compasses and markers. First day photos at the bus stop begin to wane; indeed, many middle schoolers are embarrassed to have parents at the bus stop with them. Students begin to worry about which teachers they have, whether they have classes with their friends, and what outfits they will wear each day to school.

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First day of school, September 2002

High school is an entirely new back-to-school experience. Family summer vacations are cut short to make way for pre-season fall sports and other extensive commitments which commence well before the first day of school. With our daughter’s soccer schedule, this entailed double sessions every day in sweltering August heat, intense workouts and an anxiety-ridden three days of tryouts. High school also demands heavier homework loads, a continuous stream of exams and college preparation. And, for parents, the stress of newly licensed teenage drivers who feel it is no longer “cool” to ride the school bus.

For college students, back-to-school means organizing, packing and driving (or, in our case, shipping) multiple suitcases, duffels and boxes to campus. Instead of buying basic school supplies at Staples, college dorm life now necessitates trips to Bed, Bath & Beyond and Target for everything from rugs and printers to book shelves and mini-refrigerators. (Gone, apparently, are the days of driving oneself to college with a suitcase, a milk crate filled with record albums and a few posters.) It also involves bidding farewell to the comforts of home, including healthy home-cooked meals, comfortable beds with clean sheets and plenty of space to relax. Once back at school, these young adults will resume their lives of independence, learning to schedule their own days and juggle priorities like classes, extracurriculars, jobs, meals, homework, sports and friends.

For empty nester parents like myself, back-to-school means the end of summer’s carefree spontaneity, outdoor concerts, barbecues and beaches and signals a return to a more predictable routine. I actually like routine so I don’t mind that part of it, although I am saddened as the days continue to grow shorter… plus, I can never figure out what shoes to wear this time of year. However, the upside is promising: minimal grocery shopping, less laundry, and no messy piles of clothing, wet towels and other random belongings spread throughout the house. Still, our quieter home always takes some getting used to each fall.

As my son begins his senior year of college– our final back-to-school experience– I cannot help but reflect back on his first day of Kindergarten, as we waited with our neighbors for the yellow school bus. While this was in the days before social media, I still remember capturing those Kodak moments and tearing up as the bus pulled away with my little boy aboard. All the children at the bus stop that day, including our son, have grown into confident, self-possessed young adults, ready to take on the world. And to think it all began 16 years ago at the corner of Fox Ridge Road and Fox Ridge Court.

So, back to school we go– one final time…

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Drink Pink!

Like many of my generation, my early wine-drinking experiences incorporated Mateus Rosé. This sweet, fruity, inexpensive wine came in a really cool bottle with an old-world label. Mateus was the perfect choice for a picnic, tailgate or outdoor concert. What more did a young, inexperienced drinker need?

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Despite the success of Mateus, wine connoisseurs were long biased against rosé, often shunning it as a frivolous “picnic” wine. Today, rosé is no longer the maligned wine varietal. The pinkish-hued wine has been gaining in popularity for several years, with people of all demographics joining the Rosé Revolution. Nielsen data showed +64% growth in rosé consumption from May 2016 through April 2017 (the overall wine category grew just +4% during the same period,) with dramatic, +84% growth in the final four weeks of the survey, even before the summer surge.

The pink stuff is everywhere. Local liquor stores from Peoria to Portland prominently display rosé wines and feature rosé tasting events. Store managers cannot keep certain brands in stock. Most restaurants, from casual beach joints to fine dining establishments, feature rosé on their menus. On Nantucket Island, a popular summer vacation spot, bartenders have nicknamed the top-selling Whispering Angel rosé “Nantucket Lemonade.”

Younger drinkers have played a substantial role in the popularizing of rosé. The wine’s pink hues and easy rhyming sounds make it ideally suited for Instagram and other social media platforms. And the less intimidating image rosé conveys has clearly helped its rise– as Lorna Andrews, a fashion influencer and blogger notes: “you can lob a cube of ice into a glass of rosé without fear of vitriol and serve it with any food whatsoever.” It’s a drink that says ‘I don’t take life too seriously.’

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Bros drinking rosé = Brosé

Rosé wines are enjoying widespread appeal, and not just among millennials; these days, all demographic groups are drinking pink– from baby boomers to grandparents and even men who typically drink hard liquor (hence, the Brosé phenomenon.) In fact, research from the Provence Wine Council confirms that the U.S., Russia and Australia now have an equal number of male and female rosé drinkers, and Brazilian men apparently drink more rosé than their female counterparts!

Curious about this rosé revolution, I undertook some research to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. This research encompassed hands-on tasting, reading numerous articles and talking with local wine experts. A special thanks to Carol Todd of Wine Geeks in Armonk, NY and Noah Goldberg of The Study in Greenwich, CT for educating me about rosé. Here is some of what I learned.

What is the appeal of rosé and why is it so popular these days?

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Rosé is very easy to drink and quite affordable. It is probably the easiest wine to pair with a wide variety of food. Rosé is perfect at a picnic, barbecue or clambake. It pairs beautifully with hamburgers, salmon, shrimp, lobster and countless salads. Food & wine critic, Peter Gianotti, notes that rosé also holds its own when served with spicier foods like Indian, Mexican, Italian tomato-based dishes or Thai cuisine. Rosé is a many-sided wine, making it highly adaptable to all tastes and palates. This versatility, coupled with its unassuming nature, enhances rosé’s likeability among all types of drinkers.

Further, as Noah Goldberg points out, rosé is drinkable as a current vintage­– that is, the grapes are harvested in the fall and the wine is ready to drink the following spring. Unlike many white wines like chardonnay, and especially red wines, which need to ferment for years before they are drinkable, rosés are typically consumed very young– helping us feel more connected to the wine.

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Rosé also enjoys a ‘beyond the bottle’ allure that traces to the celebrity/pop-culture factor, with a host of stars either producing their own rosé or promoting wines and related lifestyle brands. This rosé A list includes: Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie, Martha Stewart, Drew Barrymore, Francis Ford Coppola and his daughter, Sofia, and rapper Wiz Khalifa just to name a few.

Rosé has been around for a long time. Why have we not heard much about it until recently?

Rosé wines originated in Provence, France but became popular on American shores after WWII with the launch of Portuguese brands Mateus and Lancers. These sweet rosés set record wine sales in postwar America. Next up was White Zinfandel and the wine spritzers of the 1980s,  which made domestic rosé production profitable.

As more Provençal wines entered the U.S., tastes began to shift. The drier Provençal rosés were found to be highly versatile and adaptable, doubling as both aperitif and complement to many cuisines. For over a decade, rosé wines from Provence have been trending steadily upward. In 2001, rosé imports from Provence to the U.S. were just 158,000 liters, compared with 11.5 million liters in 2016– this translates to a rise of 7,165% rise over the past 15 years!

Today, the market has evolved to include many high-quality rosés from wine-making regions around the world. As people drink more rosé, they are venturing beyond the traditional strawberry and citrus staples for which Provence is known. There are also deeper, richer rosés that are more akin to the red wine experience, which has brought many red wine drinkers into the rosé fold. This proliferation of sophisticated wines from various regions has helped further legitimize rosé as a ‘serious’ wine.

What gives rosé its distinctive pink color?

There are three different winemaking methods used to make rosé. When rosé wine is the primary end product, the most common method of producing rosé is the skin contact method. Red grapes are crushed with the skins remaining in contact with the juice for just a few days. The longer the skins are in contact with the juice, the more intense the hue of the final wine. (In red wine making, the skins are left in contact for weeks or months.)

When a winemaker desires more tannin and color to a red wine, some of the pink juice can be removed at an early stage via the saigneé method (from the French “bleeding.”) The red wine remaining in the vats is intensified as a result of the bleeding, and the pink juice that is removed can be fermented separately to produce rosé.

The third method, simply blending red and white wine to make rosé, is uncommon and is discouraged in most wine-growing regions, especially in France, where it is illegal. Still, some winemakers opt for this method– for example, Summer in a Bottle, a popular rosé made on Long Island, uses the blending method.

Rosé wines are made with either a single grape or, more often, with a blend of grapes; the grapes used will determine color and aroma. Thinner-skinned grapes like pinot gris or pinot noir yield a lighter colored rosé, while thicker-skinned grapes like cabernet sauvignon or syrah yield darker and richer rosés. Local factors from climate to soil will also significantly affect the resulting wine.

Is rosé just a refreshing summer beverage or can it be consumed year-round?

“Because it’s meant to be served chilled, it’s refreshing and it’s very pretty, rosé has been mostly marketed for summer. But that is quickly changing,” says Carol Todd, whose family drinks rosé year-round. Before all of its associations with beachside sunsets and cookouts, rosé had classically been a summer wine because of its production timing and limited quantities. It was typically released in the spring and would often go on sale after Labor Day, enabling distributors to sell all their rosé inventory by early fall. This created a more seasonal feel. However, given its increased production, rosé is now easier to find throughout the year, with an expanded selling season from March through November. With rosé consumption extending well into Autumn, rosé has become the perfect complement to Thanksgiving dinner, with traditional foods like turkey, cranberry and stuffing.

Is rosé just a fad or is it here to stay?

Noah Goldberg is confident that rosé is here to stay. He contends that a large part of rosé’s popularity is rooted in its associations with easy living, summertime and fun. The lighter blush rosés from France certainly fit that bill. However, Noah’s hope moving forward is that tastes in rosé wines continue to evolve beyond the traditional Provencal wines as wine drinkers learn to appreciate many rosés of ‘character’ from across the globe– including vintages from Spain, Argentina, Australia, Italy and Greece. With Noah’s prompting, I took home a bottle of Hentley Farm, a full flavored Australian rosé, and served it last night alongside our dinner of steak, salmon, veggies, potatoes and fresh berries. Much to our surprise, the rosé went beautifully with all the different foods and perfectly bridged the gap between red and white wine drinkers in the group.

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For those who think that rosé is merely a flash-in-the-pan, just look to France (the birthplace of rosé,) where rosé sales outstrip those of white wines. This has been the case since 2008, making rosé a dominant staple in the country’s culture and cuisine.

Rosé, it seems, can be many things to many people. Not only does it appeal to all types of wine drinkers, but also, rosé exudes a relaxed vibe and suits a variety of foods and occasions. After studying rosé in depth, I am left with one final thought:

Few things in life are less intimidating that a glass filled with something pink.