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Wine Gifting for Dummies
By Robert Whitley
Dec 18, 2007
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No one should be surprised that my most frequently asked question in this season of gifting is what to give someone who is wild about wine.

Choosing the right gift is not as easy as it would seem. Of course, it would help to know a bit about the wine lover in your life. Does this person already own an extensive array of good wines? If so, what is the focus? If not, what do they like when you order from a wine list at a restaurant with a well-stocked cellar? What's the budget?

A few suggestions are in order, for the number of shopping days are dwindling, and a few of my ideas may require an online purchase, and consequently shipping during the busy holiday season.

Let's begin with the wine enthusiast who has everything (or so it seems) and money is no object. If it's me, I'm all over the Stages Leap Collection, which is a nifty package of 15 Cabernet Sauvignons from different producers in the prestigious Stags Leap District sub-appellation of the Napa Valley. The stars in this grouping are the Shafer 2003 Hillside Select, the Chimney Rock 2003 Reserve, the Silverado 2003 Solo, the Clos du Val 2003 Oak Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and the Cliff Lede 2003 Poetry. Shafer's Hillside Select is one of the three best red wines from California that I've tasted this year. For more info and to order, visit StagsLeapDistrict.com.

Cost: $1200, plus tax and shipping.

Perhaps your wine lover has a small stash of highly prized wines, but no adequate means of storage. I've been there myself, making do with stacks of wine boxes turned on their side in an out-of-the-way closet. But long term, if a person has precious wines that will increase in value as they age, a temperature-controlled refrigeration unit or a simple racking system in a cool, dark corner of the basement will help protect the investment.

I have two refrigerated wine cellars in my garage; one that holds slightly more than 30 cases of wine, and another that holds 15 cases, including separate temp settings for whites and reds. I purchased both from a company called The Beverage Factory, which specializes in online sales. They carry all the major brands (Vinotemp, Eurocave, etc.) and you can view the selection online.

My 30-case unit (without the hip and trendy window on the door) cost me about $1500, and the 15-case unit (with the hip and trendy window, removable racking, separate zones for different temperature settings, and a light) ran about $1200, but I would expect to see many 'specials' running at this time of year.

You say yourr favorite wine lover has a cool area of the house that negates the need for refrigerated storage? No problem. Visit WineEnthusiast.com and thumb through its online catalogue if wine accessories. I own several of what they call their 'Swedish wine rack.' These come in two sizes -- 14-tier and 7-tier -- and the larger of the two holds 126 bottles at a cost of $199.95 ($85 for the smaller unit). What I love about mine is the fact that the racks are very user friendly and easy to assemble.

I say user friendly because I can store anything from a half-bottle to those bulky, heavy, over-sized 750ml bottles that are so in vogue. The larger bottles won't fit into the tight spacing of my 30-case refrigerated unit, and the half-bottles would simply drop straight through the racking.

At BedBathandBeyond.com I found the nifty Cooper Rapid Beverage & Wine Chiller ($59.99), which claims it can chill a bottle of wine to refrigerator temps in six minutes. You'll have to click on the button for "Gifts" then 'Wine Enthusiasts' and browse until you find it.

While you're there, use the 'brands' pull-down menu to find the Eisch crystal stemware, where you can pick up the new 'breathable' ($19.99) wine glasses. The glasses are treated in such a way that the wine breathes after a few minutes as though it had been decanted for an hour or more.

When I tried the beathable stemware from Eisch I found the textural enhancements more profound than the aromatics, but my test was hardly scientific or in any sort of controlled setting. What really caught my eye from Eisch, however, was the drip-free duck decanter ($149.99), which now is the most handsome decanter I own. And so far I haven't lost a single drop of wine onto my table cloth.

Last but not least, you are shopping for the wine enthusiast who neither has a collection nor the inclination to start one, though they would really dig a chic wine that wouldn't set you back too much -- something, say, for well below $100 a bottle, but still very high class.

For such a person I recommend you take a close look at three outstanding California producers (Nickel & Nickel, Patz & Hall and Dutton Goldfield) who are making exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that is good as anything out there -- at prices well below what you would pay for one of the cult wines, or a Napa Valley icon such as Phelps Insignia.

Nickel & Nickel specializes in vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay that can cost anywhere from $40-$60. Besides Nickel & Nickel's Seaby Vineyard Chardonnay, which I rank among the top 15 or so Chards produced in California, I also highly recommend either the Suscol Vineyard or Harris Vineyard Merlots. I prefer Suscol because it's one of the finest Merlots I've ever tasted from a California producer, but the Harris isn't far behind.

Patz & Hall is a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay specialist with exceptional wines in the same price range.  The Patz & Hall Chenoweth Ranch Pinot is simply mind-blowing, but I honestly can't find a weak spot in the entire range of Pinots from this Sonoma County producer. Ditto on the Chardonnays.

I used to shy away from Patz & Hall Chards because of their fat, oily style, but a stylistic shift seems to have occurred. The current releases exhibit exceptional acid/fruit balance and, for the first time in my experience, show hints of minerality and terroir that generally aren't detectable in flabby wines.

Dutton Goldfield's prices nudge slightly higher, but its Pinot Noirs are spectacular and never fail to deliver. In fact, the Mcdougall Vineyard Pinot from the Sonoma Coast, which I reviewed this week, is as good as any Pinot Dutton Goldfield has ever made.

Email Robert at whitleyonwine@yahoo.com.