How to be original, or at least interest worthy, when compiling a holiday wine gift list? It's something we journalists must bravely face each year. So, with a twinkle in my eye, here are some ideas to consider.
Unless you know for certain what type of wine a friend or relative enjoys, don't buy a gift of wine. Even someone in my position, with a clear and evident passion for wine, has often received the likes of Christmas "White" Zinfandel or a bottle of Mateus Rose. Really! I've learned to accept any wine bottle with grace and equanimity, but if you're at all in doubt—just don't do it. Instead, seriously consider buying a gift certificate to a wine shop near your recipient's home. I can't tell you the glee I have felt when I've received one of these. It's like a "get out of jail free" card—you smile, your juices flow and your imagination runs amok. Now that's a memorable gift for your wine lover.
But for those of you for whom a piece of paper is no gift at all, consider purchasing items that will enhance your wine lover's experience.
Stemware has an ancient and storied tradition. The custom of holding a stem to clink glasses and to keep your fingers off the wine glass bowl has had a long and happy life. Today, there's a trend toward stemless glassware. Tumblers that resemble bar glasses are all the rage now. Easy to store, easy to place in the dishwasher and all around worry-free when placed on the table. How many hosts have dreaded the sight of Chianti slowly seeping into a white tablecloth?
There's an interesting answer to the stemless glass. It's called the "Steady-Temp Double Wall" tumbler. It has two layers: The outer layer fits your hand nicely, while the inner layer, divided by a vacuum, keeps your body heat from affecting the wine's temperature. I've never liked the idea of placing my 98.6-degree palm next to the wine. This solves that problem and looks nice as well. A set of two sells for about $20.
If you like stems, I still can't imagine drinking Champagne from anything else. Also, the art of swirling is somewhat lost in the tumbler-type glass. I prefer clear and uncut glasses to best see a wine's color and brightness.
Here are two excellent tiers from which to choose:
The Spiegelau Echtkristall series comes in a number of popular shapes and costs about $8 a stem. These glasses are thin enough to show color beautifully, yet sturdy enough for your dishwasher (if it will take the height). The 15-ounce "red wine" and the 12-ounce "chardonnay" should serve you nicely for all-around usage.
Riedel is the Ferrari brand of stemware. It's hard to argue its beauty, with intricate shapes to accommodate seemingly every grape type on earth. For the budget-minded, these are out. Prices range from $18-$80 a stem. The thinness of the bowls cannot be overemphasized concerning the care that must be taken. If you can afford them, they are marvelous state-of-the-art glasses. If not, why not consider at least giving two of these marvelous glasses for sharing that special bottle with a loved one or a wine appreciative buddy?
Corkscrews, decanters, wine savers and portable containers are always appreciated. One can never have enough corkscrews. They wear out. The Laguiole waiter's style corkscrew is a magnificent hand-finished choice. From $60 to $130, these are a pleasure to hold and designed to last. "Rabbit" corkscrews, at about $40, are ubiquitous, like their namesake, functional, easy to use and pain-free. For friends who have difficulty with the strength of their hands, this works with a quick down-and-up lever motion—the cork is easily lifted out (except for those dreadful plastic corks).
The deluxe Rabbit, made of sterner stuff, is $80. A more expensive and superior model using the same system is the Screwpull. It fits exquisitely in your hand and is a beauty of design and function. The standard model is $100. A heavier and even sturdier model comes in at $150, and the new Art Deco-styled LM400 model costs the same. For those of you with nimble fingers who still want ease of extraction, the pocket models are terrific—they require some elbow grease but provide an easy exit strategy, and cost $20. I've used all of these corkscrews with pleasure.
Decanters used to be all about cut crystal with many faceted sides producing a diamond-like brilliance to the wine. These are still available at department stores at varying prices. Those out of Poland and Czechoslovakia are often bargains. But the trend today is for clear glass decanters that show the wine's own color and intensity. I prefer to see the wine "as is" myself, as each wine has its own shade of wonderful, varying tone.
Clear crystal decanters come in all kinds of fantastical shapes; from the low-slung duck look to the whimsical Parabola double-ended aerator. Straight-up models with big bowls and dripless openings are also very popular. These can range from $40-$600. The choices have never been larger.
Wine savers that preserve leftover wine are a great item to have and give. The old standard Vacu Vin uses a rubber cork and a pump to expel the oxygen in the bottle ($14 with two corks). This will generally be successful if you consume the rest of the wine the following evening; longer term storage is very iffy. There is an improved model in stainless steel for $30. It clicks when the air is gone and comes with extras. The V-Gauge Wine Preserver uses the same principle but has a visual guide to tell you when the oxygen is all gone ($35 with two stoppers). The Pek Preservino Portable Wine Preserver is some neat trick. It injects argon gas to preserve the wine (as in those expensive machines such as Cruvinets that you see in wine bars). It has two stoppers and a replaceable gas cartridge ($40). The Epicurian Wine Saver electronically creates a vacuum and has a sensor light to indicate when it's finished. Very nifty; with four stoppers, it's about $80.
As the restaurant scene explodes throughout America, the pleasure of bringing one's own wine to dinner explodes as well. With corkage fees running $7-$25 a bottle, it is still often cheaper to bring your own special bottle and avoid bloated restaurant prices. But carrying in a naked bottle seems tacky to me. I highly recommend giving a bottle sack designed to carry your prize.
Oenophilia Inc. distributes hardy jute/burlap bags for this purpose. Strong with wooden handles, I've used these again and again and always mentally thank those who gave them to me. Realistically priced at $6 for a single, $8 for a double and $11 for a six-bottle tote, they are a great choice to please for a song. And remind your recipient to take the empty sack home after dinner—they're so easily forgotten after a marvelous repast! A set of bottle tags, which fit over the neck of wine bottles, identify your wine without having to unnecessarily pick it up from the wine rack. These are very useful and cost about $15 for 100 and $10 for 50. Reusable, they come with a pen designed to write on the plastic surface and make memorable stocking stuffers.
Most of these items are available at locally owned wine shops. Please patronize them: I think it's always best to keep one's money in the community when possible. If you're in a terrible rush, go to iwawine.com or wineenthusiast.com.
What not to buy
I've become really distressed over the silly, cute or just plain insulting names of wines today. I've previously mentioned Old Tart and Fat Bastard. And who wants to have Cleavage Creek at their table tonight? And aren't you just a bit turned off by people trying to peddle wine with such obnoxious names? Would you buy Fat Bastard toilet paper? If you would, then I guess you can stop reading.
The latest insult comes from DBS Management Group and its nationwide promotion of Sierra Nevada (Los Angeles area) wines named Redneck Red and White Trash White: "Back in time for Christmas" is their seasonal promotion. I'm sorry, but I don't get the joke. Who is this supposed to appeal to—bigots? My New Year's resolution is to not buy any wines that have these crude, offensive labels. I'm not against the memorable "Cardinal Zin" or "The Critique of Pure Riesling" from Bonny Doon Vineyard. These names are the height of true humor, and appeal to our intellect and free associative powers as well. They do not insult you, the buyer. Please insult these others by keeping your dollars away from them.
Arturo can be reached at email@example.com.