Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Christmas gift guide for wine lovers

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In "The Devil Wears Prada," the fictitious editor based on Vogue's Anna Wintour gives everyone on her huge Christmas list a bottle of wine.

You really can't ask for a better endorsement of wine as a Christmas gift. Here's a woman who can give scarves, unisex t-shirts, or anything stylish at all -- and she chooses wine.

Of course, she has an army of starving, ambitious women to shop and ship for her. You don't. I'm going to try to simplify your task with suggestions at every price level.

First, consider the basics of a great Christmas gift:
1) Something the recipient will use and enjoy
2) Something he/she wouldn't buy himself
3) Something surprising and fun

Re Point #1: Don't overspend! Most people will NOT open a $50 bottle of wine; they'll think it's too good to drink and will store it inappropriately as a trophy. Obviously there are exceptions, but save money by knowing your audience. $25 per bottle is the limit for what I would spend on anyone who doesn't drink wine at home more than twice a week.
A related point: I'm not a fan of wine gadgets, which rear their useless head at this time every year. There are some great wine accessories, but they're not really gadgets. No wine lover ever has enough glassware; decanters are nice; and if you're spending big bucks, everyone should have a wine fridge. More on this below.

Point #2 means that daily-use supermarket wines are no more exciting than any other product you can buy from the supermarket. Don't spend more than necessary, but do look for something that's not available everywhere.

On point #3: it's cool to expand people's horizons; give some dry Riesling to a Chardonnay lover. But there are limits; you're not going to turn a committed Cabernet drinker into a Blaufrankisch fan with one bottle. Still, it's worth attempting to rock their world, especially at $20 and under, where they're most likely to give something new a shot.

Here are some thoughts at different levels of spending.

$10: The key here is to get something interesting. Portugal and Spain are good sources of interesting wines under $10. From Portugal, I'm a huge fan of Vinho Verde. From Spain, try Marques de Riscal, red or white. For something outside the mainstream, consider a bottle of Fino or Oloroso Sherry, which has the advantage of lasting for more than a night or two after it's opened.
Alternately, one of the few wine gadgets that everyone should have are wine charms: little doohickeys that you attach to the bottom of a wine glass, so you can identify whose glass is whose.

$20: This is THE sweet spot for wine gifts. It's enough money to get a good bottle, but not so expensive that the recipient won't open it.
My top recommendation is for people who visit winery tasting rooms. Buy a case of a wine in this price range that you like, and give a bottle to 9 of your best friends (keep 3 for yourself). This says something wonderful about you: that you were thinking of them and went to some trouble to get a great gift at the source. Moreover, you can taste the wine first and learn its story; it's the best way to personalize a gift.
That's not an option for everyone. So here's the backup plan: A bottle of good domestic bubbly. Everyone should drink more bubbly but most people don't buy it for themselves. Roederer Estate, Scharffenberger, Gloria Ferrer and Gruet all give good value in this price range.

$40-$50: At this price level, I think about bottles that will last more than one night.
Madeira is a great choice because it's indestructible; your friend can open the bottle Dec. 25 and next Christmas, the wine will still be good. The Rare Wine Co.'s historic series is good value.
Tawny Port for me is best at 20 years old, and that's right in this price range. It won't last as long as Madeira, but it should stay delicious for a month or two at least.
It's also a good level to start thinking about spirits. A nice bottle of artisanal Bourbon or Reposado Tequila makes a great gift for somebody who enjoys sipping an occasional nightcap.
And don't forget glassware. You can get 6 good wine glasses from Cost Plus for less than this. Wine lovers always need glassware.

$100: It's rare for me to give someone a single bottle of wine this expensive. I would have to know the person and their tastes. But if I did, I would try to give them a single-vineyard Burgundy or tete-de-cuvee sparkling wine.
You might also consider a themed three-pack, such as three different Pinot Noirs from the same producer.
My number one choice in this price range is probably an upscale Scotch: an 18-year-old, such as Glenlivet Nadurra, should cost a little less than this.

$200 or more: Everyone should have a wine refrigerator; it's a lot more valuable than a case of wine.  Without one, you're at the mercy of the weather, because temperature variation is bad for wine aging, and a single day over 80 degrees can kill your wine.
I have three coolers myself: a 100 bottle unit that cost $1000, a 54-bottle unit that cost $500, and the 21-bottle Air & Water cooler, which at $220 is about as cheap as these things get. The last was sent to me to review; I wanted to see if it would make a good gift.
The short answer is that it would. It has weaknesses: the racks won't accommodate some of today's fat wine bottles, and the "on" lights are so bright that I have to keep paper taped over them.
But the pluses are its low cost, small footprint, quiet operation and light weight. My wife, who could drown standing up in a pool's shallow end, can lift and move it by herself. It's a great gift for somebody who's just starting to get into wine, particularly for apartment dwellers with limited space. Recent college graduates, perhaps?

$500: Rather than a single bottle of wine, consider a hand-blown decanter. Eisch makes some beautiful ones; you could get hand-blown glasses to go with it.
You could also see about a wine from your recipient's birth year. Madeira would be my first choice because it ages so well and would last for a couple years after opening; vintage Port is another good option. That said, the last time I had a bottle from my own birth year, it was a birthday gift, it was a Lopez de Heredia red, and it was magnificent.

$1000: Hire a private chef to cater a meal at your friend's house.
Or, buy a 6-pack of age-worthy wine. Know your audience: it's easy for me to say fine Burgundy, but most folks who receive gifts in this price range would much prefer a 6-pack of well-regarded Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons.
A gift certificate for a top B&B in wine country is a great gift if you know your recipients will travel there.

$10,000: For this amount of money (plus travel expenses) I will come to your house and sing "Puff the Magic Dragon" while pouring you and your guests a wine I personally select for its deliciousness.

$20,000: Same as $10,000, without the singing.


  1. I'll take the 20,000.00 please I hate people sing while enjoy wine/food. Chamber music is good, one man band;)

  2. In the $100 to $200 range a gift of a few deliveries from a relevant wine club would be fun and interesting.

    Wine clubs are worth considering for several reasons. First, they are failsafe Christmas gifts, because your loved one is reminded of how thoughtful you are with each delivery.

    Secondly, inasmuch as wines are shipped with descriptive tasting notes, the recipient can learn at his/her own pace.

    Thirdly, because of those detailed tasting descriptors, wine clubs offer a stress-free way for beginning wine enthusiasts to expand their knowledge in the privacy and security of their own surroundings. This avoids the uneasiness of tasting with a group of strangers, (who it seems are always more knowledgeable).

  3. Hey Tom.

    Wine clubs as a gift depend on where you live. I'm not a fan, but I live in San Francisco.

    The secret of wine clubs is that many if not most of the wines are either private label bulk juice, or wines that the winery couldn't sell elsewhere. That doesn't mean they're bad wines: hell, I drink private label bulk juice wines when I'm on airplanes. But they're not what I would choose to drink.

    I guess a wine club is a good gift for somebody in a rural area with no good wine shops nearby. For somebody in a city, though, a wine-shop gift certificate would be better.

  4. That may be the case when it's direct from wineries, but when it comes from well known brick and mortar retailers and outfits that sell name brand, well known labels, I have this feeling that they wouldn't dare market some junk.

    Personally, I wouldn't do a wine club either, Gris, because I enjoy browsing wines in the stores and sampling at their tasting bars.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  5. Tom: A few years ago I looked into writing an article recommending non-winery wine clubs. I didn't find any that I would want to be a member of. They all sold the same sort of wines.

    There are so many unsalable wines in today's world. Wine club recipients have no choice but to take these leavings. Again, they might be good. But who wants to be forced to drink wines everybody else rejected?

    Winery wine clubs are better, IMHO, if you like the winery. Sometimes you get failed experiments, but often you get single-vineyard gems that aren't made in big enough quantities to go into distribution.

    I get to taste a lot of wines that aren't on the mass market. Some of my favorite wines every year are wine-club-only. Problem is, to get all of them you'd have to be a member of dozens of wineries' wine clubs.

  6. Cool gift ideas that was a great Christmas gift guide! Glad I saw this post. I've got an idea. Looking forward for your next post. Keep posting.


  7. I got this Air & Water wine cooler a few months ago and I love it! It perfectly chills my red and white wines with its dual temperatures. Plus, it’s compact and easily fits in my small apartment. I highly recommend this wine cooler.