Down to business: It's prime shopping time for the holidays, and assuming you're not one of those tightly wound Black Friday types, you still have a buying blitz ahead.
For the wine-inclined on your list, here's a whole world of possibilities:
In October, just as I considered the virtues of , my parents sent me an extraordinary set of Riedel Champagne flutes for my birthday — the very sort of thing I would covet forever but never buy for myself.
Chances are, the wine lover in your life has a perfectly competent set of glassware, but nothing that excites them — and they probably dream of beautiful, sparkling, perfect glasses to grace their cabinets. A great glass can make the difference between that special wine being very good and mindblowing.
High-quality glassware has all the virtues of a great gift: It's simultaneously practical and special. Based on some simple criteria, I recommended several brands, including Spiegelau and Riedel's entry-level Wine series and the Connoisseur line at Cost Plus. Plenty of other options can be found at stores like Crate & Barrel and at online retailers.
These aren't everyday glasses. Feel free to splurge on the $50-per-glass stuff, but you can also delight with beautiful stemware good enough for a dinner party but not so expensive that it should be locked in the credenza.
It's easy to find great picks for $6-10 per glass. A full set should run under $60. If your recipient owns good red wine glasses, buy a set for white. Or follow my folks' lead and pick some Champagne flutes.
Books2005 has been a banner year for wine books. The most newsworthy was Elin McCoy's not-really-authorized biography of Robert Parker, "The Emperor of Wine" ($26, Ecco, reviewed ), which helps explain not only the motives of the world's most influential wine critic but the entire rise of 100-point wine scores and the inner workings of the wine business that once made Parker's voice so crucial — and, in the end, so singularly powerful.
Equally compelling is Don and Petie Kladstrup's "Champagne" ($24, Morrow). The Kladstrups, both former journalists, narrow in on a topic covered in their previous book, "Wine and War": how wineries survive through the perils of politics and battle. This time, they focus on Champagne's glorious grand houses, tracing the bloody history of this corner of eastern France back to Roman times. The book meticulously recounts how Champagne (the wine and the region) has been tangled in nearly every major European conflict — most notably World War I, when Reims endured an endless siege and the Champenois lived for years in underground cellars. And the Kladstrups don't skimp on colorful detail, like the vignette about how Charles Hiedsieck's winery escaped financial ruin after the Civil War because its adventuresome founder held land deeds that comprised a large chunk of what would become Denver.
For the truly studious, George Tabor's "Judgment of Paris" ($26, Scribner) puts into perspective a more recent vine-related skirmish: the now infamous 1976 tasting that put the New World on the map. The French were flabbergasterd when California wines swept away their competition from Bordeaux and Burgundy, and Tabor, then a writer for Time magazine, was the only journalist to cover the Paris tasting. He revisits it in detail. As with McCoy's book, "Judgement's" true value is its explanation of how the wine world of the 1970s morphed into today's very different industry.
If you'd rather something less serious, there's "Untrodden Grapes" ($35, Harcourt, reviewed ) Ralph Steadman's sequel to his original coffeetable wine tome, "The Grapes of Ralph." Hunter S. Thompson's one-time illustrator has long been a wine aficionado, amateur winemaker and label designer. At his best, Steadman is rapturously poetic about wine, and this time his illustrated travelogues include quirky takes on South Africa, Sicily and Alsace.
Finally, not quite a book but Jonathan Nossiter's "Mondovino" ($30, Velocity/ThinkFilm, reviewed ), a polemic warts-and-all documentary about the globalization of wine, is available on DVD. Nossiter does his best to skewer a lot of big names — including Parker — and makes an intriguing case about what's wrong with the wine biz, even if he scores more than a few cheap shots. The DVD includes audio commentary and a segment from Nossiter's intended 10-part TV expansion of "Mondovino."
Wine clubsToo many wine clubs simply recycle the same obvious choices or pander to their customers, a trend that reached its pinnacle this year with the movie-themed Sideways Wine Club.
But some great deals exist — with West Coast retailers offering some of the best. Venerable Berkeley, Calif., importer Kermit Lynch currently offers a $164 one-case "Meet KLWM" gift sampler, including wines like a 2003 Rasteau from Château du Trignon and a 2003 Dolcetto d’Alba from Guido Porro. Dan Philips of the Grateful Palate has gotten praise for his grenache-of-the-month club; for $20 to $60 per month, he sends members a different take on that grape's many worldwide variations. (He also has a Champagne-of-the-month club.) And Bay Area retailer K&L Wines offers some great deals through its three wine clubs, starting at $17.95 per month, each a mix of domestic and foreign.
If you're keen on a domestic theme — and want unusual picks for your lucky recipient — the well-established California Wine Club mixes smaller producers into its shipments, such as Mendocino's Handley Cellars or Madroña Vineyards in El Dorado County. Fans of Northwest wines might appreciate the New Discoveries club from Avalon Wine in Corvallis, Ore., which for $50 a month offers up two bottles of finds like Lone Canary Winery's Rosso, from Spokane, or cult Oregon pinots like Medici.
That special bottle
Every wine lover has a few bottles they dream about. Wines they lovingly gaze at in the wine shop as it sits locked inside the collectibles case, like that perfect diamond solitaire. Wines they're always quietly hunting online, one alt-tab away from the spreadsheet they're supposed to be working on.
Why not buy it for them?
With that, here's my top 10 most coveted wines of the year. Not necessarily the very best, but the ones I would spend endless hours to track down — and occasionally have.
10) Quirky, masterful Oregon blend of syrah and pinot noir.
9) Eric et Joel Durand 2001 Cornas (Weygandt-Metzler, $33): Big, spicy, rich northern Rhone syrah at a relative bargain price.
8) Fitz-Ritter 2003 gewürztraminer spätlese Pfalz (Winesellers Ltd., $17): Gorgeous, delicate German gewürz.
7) Edmunds St. John 2004 "Bone-Jolly" Witters Vineyard gamay noir ($17): Steve Edmunds' obsession with conjuring Beaujolais on these shores is nearly as refreshing as his results.
6) A very rare beast — Muscadet as rich as white Burgundy.
5) Betz 2003 Columbia Valley syrah "La Serenne" ($47): Washington syrah at its best, made by a Master of Wine. Literally.
4) Fabrice Gasnier 2003 Chinon Cuvée Vielles Vignes (Fleet Street, $16): Classic Cabernet franc from the Loire, with all those smoky notes.
3) Launois brut blanc de blancs Champagne Cuvée Reserve (Premier Wine Co., $26): Lush, rich all-chardonnay grand cru Champagne with amazing pedigree and an even more amazing price tag.
2) : (The Miller Portfolio, price n/a): Sublime Côte de Nuits Burgundy with amazing depth. Now if only it was more frequently found on these shores.
1) Bartolo Mascarello 2003 barbera (Robert Chadderdon Selections, $25): The now-departed (in March) maestro of Barolo and his daughter embraced all the great grapes of Piedmont. Here's a chance to taste the brilliance of a classic old-school winemaker for a fraction of the price of his even more stunning Barolos.