Happy New Year!

May the new year bring you good health, an abundance of love, prosperity, and new friendships. We had a wonderful time on our November-December cruise sharing experiences with friends and family. There were ten of us traveling together including my wife and myself.

Everyone did their own thing during the day and then we would get together in the evening for cocktails and dinner. We dined in a different restaurant almost every night, but made arrangements to sit together as a group. We had a great time sharing that day's experiences. Lots of laughs and what fun! I encourage you to join us on one of our cruises. Check back regularly and I will let you know what we have planned.

I don't often write about restaurants, but thinking about the new year and new friendships, I have to let you know about my success in bringing together my friends, Albert and Ernest Benitez from Ajo Restaurant located in Round Rock, Texas, and my friends, John and Audrey Catalano from Bent Oak Winery located in Cedar Park, Texas. As many of you know, I'm all about pairing good food with good wine.

Well, this time I've managed to bring together great food and great wine in my opinion. They will be having their first wine dinner-pairing at Ajo on January 10, 2017, and needless to say, I'll be there. I encourage you to call 512-992-2335 and RSVP your attendance at this event without delay!

However, if you're unable to attend this event, you can still experience great food by visiting Ajo in Round Rock and great wine by visiting Bent Oak Winery in Cedar Park. And, while dining at Ajo, save room for the bread pudding (hint, hint). Let the Benitez brothers and John and Audrey Catalano know you are also a friend of mine when you visit so that we can all enhance our circle of friends this new year. After all, spreading love through good food, wine, and friendship is what it's all about, right?

And speaking of love, I've often mentioned that great wines are produced out of passion and you can say the same for great food. Without passion in the wine making process, you will experience not so good jug wine and without passion in the kitchen, you will experience not so good cafeteria food. It has been my distinct pleasure this past year to witness the passion the Benitez brothers have consistently demonstrated in their restaurant and the passion John Catalano has consistently demonstrated in his winemaking process. I am extremely pleased to share my passion for both with you. Be sure to visit them soon, and I'm sure you will agree with me.

I'm often questioned about how wine clubs work and I've mentioned them in some of my past articles. But, in case you might have missed the articles or you are still not certain how they work, allow me to explain. Let me start by saying that I am a big fan of wine clubs and belong to a number of them. They are a great way of experiencing limited releases and wines you can only get from the winery.

Most if not all (remember, with wine there are always exceptions) wine clubs work the same. You can join a club by signing up at the winery or most now allow you to join online. There should be no fee to join and you should be billed only for the wine purchased less the club discount (plus the appropriate tax and reasonable shipping charges if shipped). If it's anything other than that, my advice is don't join.

Most clubs offer a 10 to 20 percent discount to club members and ship four times a year skipping the hot summer months for obvious reasons. Most list their shipping schedule in information regarding their club. Some clubs have different levels of participation allowing you to choose a mix of red and white wines or all reds or all whites and the number of bottles in each shipment. Most shipments will average in the $100 to $200 range depending on the club and your level of participation. You can arrange to pick up your club shipments at the winery and save shipping costs, or you can choose to have the wines shipped to you. All that information should be spelled out in their club information. If not, call and ask their club representative to explain.

The winemaker usually chooses which wines to ship; but, most send out an email beforehand allowing you to substitute or add to your order. They sometimes also offer club members the opportunity to purchase special releases or offer free shipping. And some even have special events for the members picking up their releases at the winery. Clubs are a great way to add your favorites to your wine cellar (even if your cellar happens to be a rack or shelf in your pantry). Also, they give you the opportunity to try new releases from your favorite producers and then re-order those you like at club prices. I take advantage of wine clubs to stock my more expensive favorites and purchase my less expensive everyday wines from local wine retailers. Now, do you see why I'm a fan of wine clubs?

One important thing to note if you are having wine shipped to you in Texas, an adult over the age of 21 must be present to sign for the wine. The two licensed carriers in Texas for wine shipments are UPS and FedX. If you're having the wine shipped to your home address and no adult will be present, both allow you to have the shipments held at their facilities and you can pick them up at your convenience.

Also, I've lived in apartments before and made arrangements with the office staff to accept and hold the shipments for me. Now that l'm retired, I don't have that problem, and if I happen to be on a cruise, I have great neighbors that look out for me. So, make friends and having wine shipped to Texas shouldn't be a problem. Once in awhile, you might have to share a bottle with a neighbor, but what a good way to become good friends. Remember, this is a new year and a chance to make new friends, share some wine and spread the love.

This month's recommendation, in case you haven't guessed it, is from Bent Oak Winery. It is their 2015 Texas Merlot. I know what you're thinking, Merlot grown in Texas? Can't be right, right? Wrong! Merlot can be grown in Texas under the right conditions and with the right amount of care.

Mr. and Mrs. Winemaker, a.k.a. John and Audrey Catalano, travel from Cedar Park to Palacios Family Vineyards located 5 miles south of US290 out of Brenham, Texas and handpick the grapes themselves in the early morning hours and then transport them back to the winery in Cedar Park for processing by that afternoon. If you don't have passion and love making wine, then the winery business is not for you.

My passion and love lies in the consumption of the wine made by people like John and Audrey. Bent Oak's Texas Merlot is true to it's heritage having been grown and produced here in Texas. The 2015 has notes of plum and dark berries with a just a hint of oak. I found it to be smooth and soft on the tannins. It will pair well with Ajo's Roasted Semi Boneless Half Chicken or the Bourbon Candied Pork Belly. Yummy!

And while you're out celebrating in the new year, be sure to designate a non-drinking driver. Remember, always drink responsibly. I want to keep all of my friends and that means you!

Until next time, Cheers🍷