Toasting, whether a perfunctory "Salute! or a more witty attempt at capturing the attention of a lively dinner crowd — is de rigueur during the holidays...

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TOASTING — WHETHER a perfunctory “Salute! or a more witty attempt at capturing the attention of a lively dinner crowd — is de rigueur during the holidays. The dictionary definition of toasting is “to drink to the health or honor of” someone or something, but these days it seems to lend itself to any expression of welcome and well-being.

The word toasting, according to most sources, comes from the late-17th-century custom of putting a piece of spiced and toasted bread in a drink, perhaps to improve the flavor. (These days, the toast in our wine comes from very expensive oak barrels, but that’s another story.)

The practice of raising a glass or cup or chalice in a toast is much older, perhaps dating to a time when the first duty of a host was to assure his guests that they were not being poisoned. The host/conquering hero/new poobah would take the first swallow of wine from a communal cup, which presumably guaranteed that it was sound.

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These days there may be less danger afoot, but just to be certain, these toasting traditions and superstitions should be observed: First, never toast with an empty glass. Bad form! If there is a nondrinker in the room, fill his or her glass with something — sparkling water or cider, for example. Second, raise your glass in the direction of — or better yet clink with — everyone at the table or within reasonable range. While you’re at it, be sure to make eye contact with each person. Third, and most importantly, do not fail to take a sip before setting down your glass.

Why clink? Of course, it adds to the ceremony. But the usual explanation is that when we sniff, swirl and swallow wine it offers pleasures for the senses of sight, smell, taste and touch. The only missing sensation is sound, hence the clink.

What to say? Pithy, modern toasts are hard to come by. A lot of old proverbs along the lines of, “If the sea were wine, everyone would be a sailor,” are just too funky. The tendency to over-philosophize is an ever-present danger, and attempts at poetry are best left for the late hours of the evening. You can always try for a bit of wit, e.g., “Here’s champagne to my real friends, and real pain to my sham friends.” Or this quote attributed to Groucho Marx: “I drink to your charm, your beauty and your brains — which gives you an idea of how desperate I am for a drink.” Then there is the old standby, which dates from the days when the sun never set on the British Empire: “Here’s to wives and sweethearts. May they never meet!”

Unless you are terminally tongue-tied, it’s best to avoid pre-written or memorized toasts. Just be yourself, and let the spontaneity of the moment inspire you. If you don’t feel inspired, a simple “Welcome friends!” will suffice to launch a party or a meal. Or put on your best careworn look and do a Bogart: “Here’s looking at you, kids.” Still nervous? Then wait until after the first glass or two has been drunk to say anything more; you’ll find that wine and words tend to flow best in tandem.

In theory, any wine is suitable for toasting, but in practice, you don’t want to toast your guests with rotgut plonk. Champagne or good sparkling wine is the best choice at the start of the night. A glass of something red usually jump-starts dinner. As the night wears on you’ll find that toasting gets easier, and heartier. By the time you reach dessert, you’ll want to bring out a fine port, madeira or sherry to wrap things up.

Five To Try

Paul Cheneau “Lady of Spain” Brut Blanc de Blanc; $10. This value brand makes an unusually flavorful Spanish sparkler. It even smells expensive, with an elegant toastiness and crisply defined, food-friendly citrus fruits. It falls off quickly, but otherwise could pass for French. The lovely package and holiday pricing are a bonus. (Unique)

Sagelands 2002 “Four Corners” Merlot; $11. Frederique Spencer is one of a growing number of French-born winemakers who have decided to make Washington state home. Her first vintage as Sagelands winemaker was 2002, though she had worked at the winery for years. This soft, supple merlot is a pretty wine, not a big one, loose-knit and approachable. It drinks like an older wine, with no rough edges, and the gentle use of new American oak is refreshing. An outstanding food wine. (Noble)

Filli Cigliuti 2000 “Campass” Barbera d’Alba; $33. In a recent tasting of 2000 Piedmont reds, the barberas were the big surprise. Lush and ripe, they are priced well below the barolos, yet are more accessible and certainly more modern in style. This bottling is an extracted, dense and complex wine layered with notes of earth, mineral, tobacco, leather and herb. But the mouth-filling, black fruits are what keep you refilling the glass. (Bianco Rosso)

Warre’s Otima 20-Year-Old Tawny Port; $40. Note that the price is for a 500 ml bottle, two-thirds normal size. However, with a 20-year-old tawny this still represents fair value. Warre’s introduced the 10-year-old Otima some time ago; its high quality and sensible size made it an instant success. The 20 should do just as well. It’s powerful, ripe and long-lasting, and a bottle is plenty for four people for dessert. Give it hours of breathing time. (Noble)

Emilio Lustau Pedro Ximénez “San Emilio”; $20. It is almost beyond belief that dessert wines this rich and profound can be had for so little. But the world of sherry confounds the consumer. Lustau is a fine brand, with excellent wines in all styles from the saltiest Manzanilla to this decadently dense Pedro X. It is dessert in a glass. (Cavatappi)

Paul Gregutt writes the Wednesday wine column in The Seattle Times and teaches wine-tasting seminars. He can be contacted at