IT’S THE SEASON of giving, and wine lovers know what that means: You’re likely to give, and to get, a bottle of wine.
Will your bottle be gratefully received or quickly regifted? I always hope for the former, and I’ve been mostly—though not entirely—successful with the wines that I’ve brought to houses of both strangers and friends. I’ve given wines that I considered interesting or fun, or that pair well with food; sometimes they’re just wines that I like to drink (Champagne). How do other wine lovers choose the bottles that they bring along? When I asked oenophiles, both pro and amateur, I heard some good stories and a few useful tips.
For my part, I’ve found that the easiest wine to bring to somebody’s house is one meant to match with a particular meal. I often bring bottles to dinners with friends whose menus I’ve inquired about in advance, and the wines, carefully chosen to pair with the meal, are invariably well-received. Sometimes I’ll bring a wine to match with the meal and a second for the host to keep.
When it comes to bringing wines to the houses of people I don’t know, let’s just say that my track record isn’t exactly 100%. One of my biggest failures in that regard came a few years ago, when my husband and I were invited to an avid wine collector’s house along with the friends that we had in common. The host, I was told, loved expensive Bordeaux.
Since I don’t have lots of expensive Bordeaux in my cellar, I decided to bring something fun that the collector probably hadn’t encountered. I chose the Ceretto Moscato d’Asti, a slightly fizzy, fresh, peach-inflected wine from a top producer in Piedmont, Italy. The Ceretto Moscato costs around $20, and it’s not only delicious, but comes in a cool triangle-shaped bottle.
The wine was no mere novelty, however. Although some wine drinkers think of Moscato as cheap commercial wine that comes in a jug, Moscato from Piedmont is quality stuff. Still, it seemed the collector presumed that my gift belonged in the former category. He took one look at my bottle and left it by his front door. All the easier to re-gift to his letter-carrier, I thought.
Sometimes I’ve brought wines that are a little too quirky for popular taste. Take, for example, the 2012 Calabretta Nerello Mascalese Vigne Vecchie ($35) that I recently brought to the house of a friend. A rich, earthy, complex red from the Etna region of Sicily, it reminds me of an old-school Barolo. But the wine can be a little bit funky when it’s first opened, and it definitely benefits from a good decanting. And sometimes that takes too long when you’ve brought it to drink with a dinner.
Such uncertainties are why I usually opt for a bottle of Champagne or a Cremant d’Alsace. Everyone knows what to do with sparkling wine, and if they don’t like it or don’t want to drink it, it’s the easiest sort of wine to regift. I usually give Champagnes from small growers like Pierre Péters or Pierre Moncuit to friends. To someone I don’t know well or whom I suspect would like a “brand” name, I’ll bring a Champagne from Louis Roederer instead.
Katja Scharnagl, beverage director of Koloman NYC restaurant in Manhattan, told me that she likes to bring Champagne, too, and her budget is a rather generous $40-$50 a bottle. Ms. Scharnagl also takes care to bestow the bottle ready to drink. “I always bring it chilled,” she said.
My friend RJ, a big wine collector, used to bring very good Champagne and wines to his friends’ houses. As he explained, “I bring wines I like to drink.” But sometimes the bottles are so good they’re completely drained before RJ gets a glass. “I brought a bottle of Tignanello to someone’s house, and it was gone in two seconds,” he said, naming a famous Super Tuscan that costs around $150 a bottle. RJ decided to stop gifting wine and gives expensive Japanese knives instead. (“They’re really great knives,” he said.) That way, I guess, he’s spared the pain of missing out on something he truly loves.
I wondered what wines a winemaker might bring to a party or a dinner. So I put the question to Richard Olsen-Harbich, head winemaker at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, N.Y., on the North Fork of Long Island. Does Mr. Olsen-Harbich typically give wines he made, or wines made by somebody else? And what wines do others tend to bring to his house?
Sometimes Mr. Olsen-Harbich brings his own wine—but not necessarily in a bottle. “I’ll bring a sample right out of barrel, which is always fun,” he wrote in an email. If he’s dining with fellow North Forkers, he’ll bring a wine from elsewhere. “I like turning people on to wines from the Finger Lakes or Virginia, which are harder to find and beautiful examples of winemaking,” he said.
Is it daunting for others to bring him a bottle? “They often stress out about it because they think I’m a tough audience, which I’m not,” Mr. Olsen-Harbich replied. But he loves getting wines he doesn’t know much about or has never encountered, and is especially keen on wines from Germany and Alsace, France.
When Alison Smith Story, co-winemaker at Smith Story Wine Cellars in Healdsburg, Calif., visits friends, she might bring a bottle of her own Smith Story Wine Cellars Brut Méthode Traditionnelle Mendocino County Sparkling Wine but also a vintage cookbook or an old book of poetry. “The vintage cookbook almost always becomes a topic of conversation at the table and is passed around,” she said. What wines do others bring to her house? She said her friends tend not to bring wine at all but, rather, “single-origin coffee beans or packets of flowers for my garden.”
I imagined it would be just as hard to bring a bottle to a wine retailer as to a winemaker, and perhaps even harder. After all, a retailer can get any wine he or she wants. And what might a retailer give to someone, given all the options? I asked Gina Trippi, co-owner of Metro Wines in Asheville, N.C.
Unsurprisingly, Ms. Trippi said she tailors the wine to the taste of the recipient. For a female and/or Francophile friend fond of crisp white wines, it might be a Picpoul made by a woman winemaker. Ms. Trippi had actually just published a set of gifting guidelines in the Metro Wines newsletter “The Public Palate.” One key criterion: “A gift should not have a screw cap.” Another piece of advice: “A bottle [should be] shelf priced at $20. A bottle under $20 may make you look a little too holiday frugal and one [costing] way over can be seen as showing off.”
For Ms. Trippi, a great gift bottle is one purchased from a small retailer like her, not a big-box store. “It’s a bottle that says ‘You know me. Or, at least you tried!’ ” she said. (And by the way, she really likes a good bottle of Cinsault.)
I can’t say I agree with or abide by all of her gift criteria. For instance, it’s near-impossible to find a wine from Austria, Australia or New Zealand that isn’t screw capped, yet some of those wines make wonderful gifts. I’ve also given (and received) wines that cost more than $20. But I definitely agree about choosing a wine that shows care and intention.
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on December 22, 2022, and written by Lettie Teague.
- Image courtesy of iStock
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