If you're ever invited to dine in someone's home in France, please don't bring a bottle of wine. Nothing will spur a French host to recoil in abject dishonor and displeasure than the gift of a bottle of wine (like carrying coal to Newcastle, bringing owls to Athens, or selling snow to Eskimos).
Beyond the delicate subject of French pride, there are practical reasons for this: Does the wine pair well with the dishes your host has prepared? Does the style of wine jibe with the host's tastes? Will the host feel compelled to open a bottle of wine that requires aging or aeration?
Ultimately, the gift of a bottle of wine can create more trouble than reward (although there are some exceptions; see below). Here are five gift ideas that are sure to bring wide grins to the face of any wine lover.
5. Decanters - Crystal vessels by Riedel (above) are the benchmark for fine wine decanters these days. They're not cheap, but they're worth every penny for their high-concept design and the technical precision. You can find them at an independent wine shop like the Houston Wine Merchant or at a department store like Macy's. But here's a little tip: Look for crystal decanters at consignment and thrift stores in high-end neighborhoods. As long as they're not chipped, they will polish up like brand-new. And remember: Decanters don't need to be made of crystal. Glass decanters work just as well, are more sturdy, and go a lot easier on the pocketbook.
4. Wine Maps - Tracie P and I fell in love this year with Delong wine maps (that's his new California map, right). At around $25, "Metro Wine Map of France" is one of the gifts I'll be using to stuff stockings this year (not literally, of course): It's an entirely unique and innovative approach to enocartography that uses the French subway system map as a mnemonic device for learning the appellations of France. It's simply brilliant. The conventional maps devoted to Italy and France are superbly executed. And Delong also offers a wide range of "wine discovery tools" like tasting notebooks and the chrome Pulltap double-hinged wine key, also around $25 (my favorite cork screw).
3. Olive Oil - From California to France, from Italy to Greece, nearly every one of the great wine regions of the world is also blessed with top growing sites for olives and exceptionally delicious olive oil. No matter what style of wine a connoisseur enjoys, I can guarantee that she or he will appreciate the gift of fine olive oil. My top pick (at around $24 for a 500 ml bottle) is the Vetrice from the village of Rufina, Tuscany. You'll find it at the Rare Wine Company in Sonoma. Unfortunately, the Rare Wine Company cannot ship wine to Texas (because it's prohibited by our state's legislature). But it can ship olive oil and also offers reproductions of vintage decanters, excellent wine maps of Piedmont and Tuscany, and original vintage Italian wine posters like the famous Contratto poster by Cappiello for $2,950.
For the best selection of small-production olive oil from California, check out the selection curated by "national treasure" Darrell Corti in Sacramento, the man who made Zinfandel a household name in the U.S. and our country's top purveyor of domestic olive oils (he's also one of the world's greatest expert on olive oil-cured tuna and offers one of the best selections of tuna in the U.S.).
2. The Oxford Companion to Wine - Meeting and tasting with Jancis Robinson -- the first woman in the world to become a Master of Wine and the editor of the Oxford Companion to Wine -- was one of the highlights of my year. But I felt like I already knew her: Not a day goes by that I don't consult her Companion. It's what is called a folio in the book trade, a large-format tome ideal for your reference library and your coffee table. For $65 a year, you can also subscribe to the fully searchable online version at her site, JancisRobinson.com. I can't think of a better gift for someone who's trying to develop and expand their wine knowledge. I use it nearly every single day.
1. Champagne - The only wine that we give as gifts during the holiday season is Champagne. No matter what style of wine a wine lover likes -- new or old world, modern or traditional -- everyone loves Champagne. And yes, when it comes to Champagne, brand-name recognition is a big part of the equation. But isn't that what the Christmas season is about? My number-one retail resource for Champagne is Spec's because of the cash/debit card discount. A behemoth among wine shops, it has the widest selection. And don't hesitate to ask the store's Champagne specialist about "Grower Champagne," an emerging category of grape growers who have begun bottling their own wines instead of selling to the historic domaines of the appellation.
But if you're coming to our house for Christmas, please make it Bollinger (around $50 for the classic Special Cuvée).
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Check out our other 2011 holiday gift guides:
- 5 Ridiculously Cute Kitchen Gifts, by Phaedra Cook
- 5 Gifts for the At-Home Baker, by Brooke Viggiano