As you look back on the year, you've probably had a glass of wine that's bonked you squarely in the pleasure center and made you say, "Sweet Lord, now I'm in trouble," or at the very least, "Whoa, there's more to this stuff than I thought." We've become a culture that is routinely snared in wine's prodigious, transformative powers. Not only do we delight in sampling as many bottlings as we can, we're buying the books, attending the tastings, filling the wine bars and pestering the sommeliers. We don't just drink wine; we're engaged by it.
That engagement is certainly something worth sharing, which is why, more than ever, it makes sense to give wine as a holiday gift. Of course, your average wine gift is rarely an average wine. On the other hand, neither does it have to be too expensive or froufrou. Indeed, there are worthy bottles at every price point that fill the bill for any recipient, from office-mates to bedmates, from bosses to mothers-in-law. And if you take as your baseline that wine that bonked you to begin with, you'll be in better shape than you think.
For bosses and associates
When it comes to the wine you give to a boss or business associate, so often the selection has less to do with what's in the bottle and more with what it says on the label, how it looks, how it makes you look, what it signifies and what it costs. You may like the person, you may not, but in this case you have to pretend that you do, sometimes elaborately.
For this reason, the wine gift in business is usually fraught with baggage surrounding price. It isn't enough to give something good; the bottle has to also be extravagant enough that you don't appear cheap. Sadly, this ignores the fact that a wine's price often has little to do with its potential to please someone.
Those of you who need to spend $150 on a Napa Cabernet, be my guest. But why not spend that same buck and a half on two or three well-selected bottles? The Napa Valley has a significant number of Cabernet houses that don't price their wines in the stratosphere -- and are to be commended for it. Here are five to consider: Von Strasser, from Diamond Mountain; Robert Craig, from Mt. Veeder; Frog's Leap, from Rutherford; Baldacci, from the Stags Leap district; and Bravante, from Howell Mountain. All of these producers make over-performing wines priced less than $75.
For even greater value, consider the Bordeaux-inspired wines of Washington state, where prices for most of the region's greatest bottles hover around $50; the wines of Pepper Bridge, Andrew Will, L'Ecole No. 41 and Col Solare frequently, needlessly stand in the shadow of Napa. They may not thrill with their cachet -- yet -- but they'll certainly thrill in the glass.
Another way to make your gift more memorable is to consider an older vintage. Many local wine shops -- Woodland Hills, Wine Exchange, the Wine House and the Wine Hotel in particular -- have wines from older vintages from Bordeaux, Italy, Burgundy and other places, wines that have been expertly stored and handled, that have come from a reputable cellar (in California, you can often get these wines directly from the winery as well). Often they're priced lower than the current vintage, so not only will you introduce the lucky recipient to the wonders of older wines, but you may save a few bucks too.
Another rule of thumb is to remember the artisan. For every iconic wine there are several wineries with tiny productions operating without much beyond an underground following. Not only will you be giving someone a good avant-garde bottle, but you may be getting them in on the ground floor of a lifetime of rewarding experiences.
Ask your retailer for Pinot Noirs from Drew, Anthill Farms, Freeman, Paul Lato, Raptor Ridge; Syrahs from Gramercy Cellars, Arnot Roberts, Wind Gap, Failla, Big Basin; Chardonnays from Littorai, Brick House, Evening Land, Peay, Hirsch; and Cabs and blends from Cadence, Robert Karl, Fantesca, Hourglass, Corison.
Pinot and more for friends
When it comes to giving gifts to friends and loved ones, we don't have to worry so much about what a bottle signifies. Whether the wine is plush, forward or casually profound, your only obligation is deliciousness.
If there is an Everyman variety that can please friends, geeks, freaks, bosses and freaky bosses, it's Pinot Noir. Pinot's greatest virtue is transparency; in each bottle it confers a sense of place more completely than perhaps any other variety, so you can tailor your Pinot gift to the right person.
For those who love opulence, grab a generous Russian River Valley Pinot from, say, Lynmar or Dutton Goldfield (around $50). For more refined textures, seek out an Oregon Pinot from Adelsheim (about $45) or Brooks (about $30). This year a number of New Zealand Pinots have struck close to my pleasure center, whether the elegant wines of Martinborough from Craggy Range and Escarpment, or the more earth-scented Pinots from Central Otago like Felton Road's lineup (all hovering around $45), or the more attractively priced Wild Rock Pinot (about $25).
I know of no red wine more festive and instantly heartwarming than Beaujolais, with exuberant red fruit flavors grounded by vinous, earthy character. It will be welcome at any holiday table, and is eminently affordable, like Chermette's old-vine "Cuvée Traditionnelle" (about $16), Marcel Lapierre's "Côte du Py" Morgon (about $23) or Jean-Paul Brun's Côte de Brouilly (about $18).
Another underrated, irresistible little wine from France is the Loire white Muscadet, made from a variety related to Sauvignon Blanc and built up by long contact with lees -- and a natural for a winter plate of oysters. Consider the vibrant bottlings from Pierre Luneau-Papin or the "Clos des Briords" from Domaine de la Pepière, both around $15.
Wine bargains are out there
One final note: As the industry crawls out of recession, it's not uncommon to find some very prestigious bottlings available at a fraction of their original price. Many wine shops, through special purchases and strategic buying, have acquired a selection of discounted bottlings, often exclusive deals.
At K&L in Hollywood, for example, you can find the 2005 Quinta do Vallado "Reserva," a sumptuous Portuguese red, for $30, nearly half-price. At Wine Expo in Santa Monica, currently all dessert wines are 40% off. At the Wine Exchange, a $70 Port from Niepoort, vintage 2003, is available for $40. Woodland Hills Wine Merchant is selling one of California's best Syrahs, the Rodgers Creek from famed winemaker David Ramey, for $34, about half its original asking price.
Perhaps the deal of the year is at the Wine House, where much of the stock of the defunct Havens Winery was snatched up this fall; all wines from this stunning former Carneros property are less than $20.