30 Second Wine Advisor: The gift of wine

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In This Issue

 The gift of wine
Holiday shopping is here, and the eternal question looms: What is the ideal, universal gift for hosts, friends, business associates, service workers and, not least, the family physician?
 A Message from The California Wine Club In this age of high-tech, mass-production and big business we are proud to be the same "mom & pop" company we started in 1990. Wishing a safe and happy holiday season to you!
 This week on WineLoversPage.com
Writer Donald A. Dibbern Jr. pushes back against hard economic times with a quest for wine value. The WineLovers Discussion Group" disses "point inflation" and those who worry more about the score than what's in the bottle.
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The gift of wine

American Thanksgiving Day is Thursday and that means Friday - jokingly nicknamed "Black Friday" - opens the serious holiday shopping season.

Party invitations are showing up in the mail, and so are hints from the mail carrier, the UPS man and even the garbage collectors. The eternal question looms: What is the ideal, universal gift for hosts, friends, business associates, service workers and, not least, the family physician?

I'd submit that - barring such obvious exceptions as Alcoholics Anonymous members or hardshell teetotalers - it's hard to top a gift of wine. Wine is broadly available and widely enjoyed. It comes in a convenient size package and commands a range of prices all the way from the budget level to wretched excess, offering you something at every price point depending on your desire to impress.

Best of all, it's dead easy to gift-wrap: You needn't even buy wrapping paper and a bow, as most wine shops offer an attractively affordable selection of decorative wine bags with tie tops, made with the tasteful giver in mind.

When you're looking for a wine gift that's a perfect match for your recipient, though, there's one little gotcha: Fine wine comes in almost infinite variety of style, flavor and price, and individuals' tastes vary. A truly thoughtful giver may want to make an effort to find out what particular wines the recipient prefers: European or American or other? Red, white or pink? Bone-dry, just a touch of sugar or outright sweet? Bubbles or not? So many decisions! An easy alternative might be to stick with the most popular regions and grape varieties in an appropriate price range, figuring that you can't go far wrong with the wines that fly off the shelves.

Here are a few specific suggestions aimed at making your wine-gifting experience a happy one for you and the person who opens your surprise package.

 Start at a quality fine-wine shop. Sure, you can pick up a cheap jug of mass-market wine at a neighborhood liquor store, but your city's better wine shops will likely offer you a broad selection of wine types and prices, and you can rely on the staff to give you savvy advice.

 Don't be shy about asking for that advice. Small wine shops are typically run by the owner; some large fine-wine shops seek to hire floor staff who can competently answer questions. If you know your friend loves Burgundy, for example, or Australian Shiraz, a knowledgable wine-shop source can point you to one - or several - similar wines in your price range.

 A little knowledge. If you're shy about asking for help, or find yourself in a warehouse-size store with no one to assist you, check out the popular wine regions and grapes and check the price tags to find something in your range. Red wine? The movie Sideways made Pinot Noir immensely popular, and Pinot is also the grape of French Burgundy, arguably one of the world's great wines (and priced to match). Merlot is widely popular (despite being badly dissed in that same wine-country comedy) because it's usually made as a fruity red wine with a mellow character. Many folks love Zinfandel (the real, red stuff, not the sweet pink "White Zinfandel" or "blush" wine). If you want a white, you can rarely go wrong with popular Chardonnay, with Riesling from Germany as a backup if you want a pick on the slightly sweet side.

 Fizz is fun. Just about everybody loves Champagne and similar sparkling wines, and the sound of a popping cork lets the world know that it's party time. Genuine Champagne, the real thing from France, is pricey, ranging from $25 or so right up to the three-figure range. But it's uniformly good, and when you're looking for a more upscale gift, it's hard to beat as a sure-fire pleaser. If you want the fun of bubbles without the high toll of the fancy stuff, ask for Cava, the sparkling wine of Spain, or Prosecco, the fun and frothy bubbly from Northern Italy. Both these wines should be easy to find in the $10 range.

 Sweet stuff. Dessert wines are rich, sweet and sumptuous; many of them also tend to be strong, many of them (like Port, Sherry and Madeira) "fortified" to 20 percent alcohol or so with a splash of brandy added to the sweet wine. There's a wide range of dessert wines, from those mentioned to wines made from overripe, late-harvested grapes such as Sauternes from France or the hard-to-pronounce Trockenbeerenauslese from Germany. Canada's native ice wine, made from grapes literally frozen on the vine, is a toothache-sweet, high-cost rarity.

 At the high end. Things get a little more complicated if you're seeking a spare-no-expense wine gift for someone you really want to impress. With the exception of Champagne, most "collectible" wines - such as top-tier Bordeaux, California Cabernet Sauvignon, the Barolo an Barbaresco from Northern Italy and limited-production Shiraz from Australia - require years of maturing in a wine cellar under controlled temperature conditions before they're ready to enjoy. Unless you know your recipient has a wine cellar and knows how to use it, it may be best to bypass this niche.

 Bottles large and small. Most wine comes in a standard 750 ml bottle, the modern equivalent of the old "fifth." But for a particularly spectacular gift, seek out a magnum (double the size of a standard bottle) or even such rarities as a Jeroboam (3 liters or four bottles), and on up to the man-size Nebuchadnezzar (15 liters or 20 regular-size bottles in one). At the other end of the scale, how about a gift basket with a half-dozen "half-bottles," the undersize 375 ml bottle that's just enough when you're drinking abstemiously or having dinner with a partner who doesn't do wine.

There's a huge range of options, and once you solve the basics, this is a great advantage: There's something for just about everyone at just about any price. Happy holidays, and bottoms up!

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This week on WineLoversPage.com

Dibbern on Wine: Flying Blind on the Flight to Value
Dour daily headlines pound us with dismal economic news. Still, even as we cut back on luxuries, it makes sense to sharpen our focus on the search for value in wine.

WineLovers Discussion Group: Wines that score over 90
Are wine buyers (or at least those who slavishly follow critical points) turning away from any wine that the critics score below 90? On the WineLovers Discussion Group, we're discussing - and mostly dissing - "point inflation" and those who worry more about the score than what's in the bottle.

Last Week's Wine Advisor Index

The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. However, we're skipping some editions at this point, and the Wine Advisor FoodLetter, customarily distributed on Thursdays, has been on break. I hope to resume it before long.

 Wine tasting potpourri (Nov. 21, 2008)

 Local Riesling (Nov. 19, 2008)

 Sauvignon or Fumé? (Nov. 17, 2008)

 Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:

 Wine Advisor Foodletter archive: