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He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not

Tales from Valentine’s Day and the wines that match them

“Know your ingredients” is the oft-repeated motto of many an experienced chef. At its core, the art of wine and food pairing relies on one’s grasp of the many and varied styles of wine. Sommeliers typically combine an understanding of how we taste with their prodigious knowledge of both wine and food. On-the-spot wine pairing calls forth the sommelier’s most crucial skill—to imagine taste in one’s mind.

In addition to the considerations given to food, the underestimated influence of atmosphere may sway not only our wine selection but also our ability to taste. Established traditions permeate our personal celebrations, bringing to mind a particular beverage or recipe. Eggnog, for instance, is rarely drunk apart from Thanksgiving or Christmas, and on New Year’s Eve the celebratory Champagne toast seems almost indispensable.

Sports events, too, have their distinctive character. The most recent, Super Bowl Sunday, conjures up images of party-goers nonchalantly gulping from bottles of ice-cold beer or stoically sipping stiff drinks from a rocks glass, not savoring goblets of first-growth Bordeaux. Imbued in each occasion is a particular mood or ambience that tends to influence our choice of food and beverage.

Valentine’s Day, however, strikes me as a lost opportunity for serious wine appreciation. The simplistic message conveyed by heart-shaped greeting cards and chocolate desserts hardly seems worthy of a holiday that dates back hundreds of years. Perhaps I would feel more energetic about this fondant-dipped day in February if it displayed just a bit more character. Where are the fireworks, the crystal ball dropping over Times Square? Gone are the turkey feasts and flutes of sparkling wine—gone are the superstars serenading at half-time. Where are the stories of discovery or sacrifice? Even the TV-centric Super Bowl requires participants to commit four hours of weekend time and eat some salty snacks.

Interestingly enough, contrary to the trifling confections of recent Valentine’s Day traditions, the history of this holiday of the heart contains several colorful, if slightly gory legends.

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On February 14, 1929 at approximately 10:30am, submachine guns prattled more than 90 bullets into the backs of seven well-attired men. Archival photographs show that they dropped where they stood—petals plucked off a daisy—to the cold cement floor of the S.M.C Cartage Co. garage on Chicago’s North Side.

The massacre was likely conceived by one of the most brutal gangsters in the history of organized crime in America—mafioso kingpin Al “Scarface” Capone. The site of this bloodbath was the headquarters of Capone’s pesky rival “Bugs” Moran. Moran, who referred to Capone as “the beast,” was the most prominent gang leader on Chicago’s North Side and the only impediment to Capone’s complete control of the lucrative bootlegging and prostitution rings.

As the life blood drained out of the six mobsters and one hanger-on (an optometrist getting his kicks by befriending gang members), their boss, George “Bugs” Moran, lay peacefully in bed across the street, having avoided certain death by sleeping in late. The crime was never solved. Capone and his henchmen went unprosecuted. The unforgettable crime was henceforth known as the Valentine’s Day Massacre. Ironically, Capone died of a sort of “love disease.” In 1947, his mind succumbed to the effects of syphilitic dementia and his body steadily deteriorated.

Wine recommendation for the Valentine’s Day Massacre: Definitely red and expensive—you never know if today is your last day, so you will want to drink a great wine. I suggest Paolo Scavino 2001 Barolo, Bric dëi Fiasc ($110). This is truly a heavenly wine. Rose-scented from the fog-laden hills of Italy’s Piedmont region, a complex layering of dark cherries misted with truffle oil and a haunting finish that lasts so long it makes life seem too short. Food pairing: Chicago-style deep dish pizza, of course. Fillings: olives, sausage, garlic, shiitake mushrooms, and plenty of cheese. Hold the bait.

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The notion of Valentine’s Day as a holiday for couples in love did not emerge until the Middle Ages. The origins of the day, however, seem rooted in the pre-Christian, pagan rites of ancient Rome. The Lupercalia fertility festival, one such lively ritual, featured young bachelors running through the streets, slapping women with blood-dipped strips of goat hide. It was also thought to be good for the crops.

Wine recommendation for the Lupercalia festival: Chill up Banfi’s Rosa Regale Brachetto d’Acqui ($20). A wine that is easy to drink. A delicious Italian sparkling wine, semi-sweet, simultaneously lush and refreshing (with all that running around you are going to need something cold and bubbly)—and it’s red! Also perfect with a raspberry tart.

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Nowadays the stock images of this tamed-down holiday are more likely to be associated with heart-shaped beds and chocolate-stained kisses rather than animal sacrifices and lusty drunkenness. Predictably, the spread of Christianity throughout Europe squelched the explicit expressions of sexuality as acted out in pagan rituals. Thus, the sinfulness of unbridled physical desire was replaced with a depressing story of a martyred saint.

Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day around 498 AD. Although the church recognized three saints named Valentine or Valentinus, only one is credited with sending the first “Valentine,” or love note.

In the third century AD, the priest Valentine served under Emperor Claudius II. Claudius outlawed marriage for all young men in attempt to solicit the best possible performance from his soldiers. The defiant Valentine married these estranged couples in secret, but was eventually found out and imprisoned. Presumably, while held captive, a young woman paid Valentine frequent visits (perhaps the daughter of his jailor), providing him with love and sympathy. Before his death, this heroic priest wrote passionate letters to his young beauty, signing them “from your Valentine!” (Oh, how I yearn for the raucous days of the Roman marriage “lottery.”)

Wine recommendation for an imprisoned, passion-struck martyr: I am beginning to see the need for an indulgence of one’s sweet tooth on Valentine’s Day. 2007 Angel’s Landing Stag’s Leap District Cabernet from Napa Valley ($20). Deep, dark, and packed with black berries, cassis, and vanilla. Hedonistic red. Treat yourself and serve it up with a three-layer chocolate ganache cake!

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Regardless of origin, it was in the Middle Ages when Valentine’s Day became a widely celebrated, romantic holiday. In Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules he writes of the mating of birds every February: “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day/Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”

Heroism, romance, and unrequited love were appealing themes in the Middle Ages. Amorous sentiments communicated through handwritten notes became a popular practice. The earliest Valentine’s Day card on record dates back to the early 15th century, a love poem written by Frenchman Charles of Orleans who was kept under house arrest by the English for 25 years. From The English Poems of Charles of Orleans [Ballad 28]:

A ioly wynd als blowyng into fraunce

Where now abidyng is my sovl


Which is the swete of alle my


And hool tresoure of my worldly


Captivity does seem to make the

heart grow fonder!

Wine recommendation for Charles of Orleans: 2009 La Spinetta Biancospino Moscato d’Asti ($15.99). Serve with fondant-dipped petit fours. Almond cake is also a fabulous match for this delicate, sparkling wine that tastes of ripe, juicy pears.

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Until the 19th century, handwritten greetings were generally constructed and personalized by the sender. In America, the first commercial greeting card business began in 1840, started by a woman from Worcester, Massachusetts, Esther A. Howland. She constructed each amorous greeting by hand, complete with lacey borders, pop-ups, and a pre-packaged message: “May friendship’s constant kiss be thine/From this sweet day of valentine.”

Renowned for her elaborately, decorated cards, Howland’s business was enormously successful, foreshadowing the coming age of manufactured greetings.

Although from humble beginnings, 18-year-old Joyce C. Hall from Norfolk, Nebraska, along with his brother Rollie, began a postcard business in 1910 that would forever change the way we commemorate Valentine’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries, and every other imaginable event—Hallmark Cards.

The trademark motto of this industry goliath, “When you care enough to send the very best,” so appealed to millions of Americans, who trusted Hallmark’s tasteful messages more than the words from their own pens, as to conclusively end the era of handmade greetings. The intimate sentiments of the heart could now be expressed in a line or two of Hallmark wisdom.

Perhaps the orgies of ancient pagan festivals subversively leave their aphrodisiacal residue upon Valentine’s Day in the guise of a brightly decorated box of chocolates. Red hearts and all. I’d like to think so.

Wine recommendation for chocolate truffles: 1994 Sandeman Vintage Port ($60). Velvety, cherries, lavender, toasted spice.

Paula Paradise is Director of Wine Education at Premier Wines. Find free wine classes at

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