IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Picking the perfect hostess gift

Goldberg: A holiday party isn’t complete without the right gift for your host
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Whether you’re heading over to grandma’s house or a friend’s apartment for the holidays, a housewarming gift is a must. A gift for the host or hostess should be something they would not buy for themselves but that won’t end up in the recycle or “re-gifting” bin.

A bottle of wine makes the perfect gift. The good news for shoppers like me, who often rely on salespeople to tell us what’s chic, is Food and Wine magazine just published its top picks for the year 2003. Twenty six judges sampled thousands of wine and came up with a list of this year’s best American wines for less than $20.

And what’s better than an American wine for Thanksgiving? The winners are: 2001 Cakebread Cellars Napa Valley sauvignon blanc, 2001 Geyser Peak Sonoma County chardonnay, 2001 Smith-Madrone Napa Valley riesling, 1999 Hogue Cellars Genesis Columbia Valley merlot, 2001 A to Z Willamette Valley pinot noir, 2001 Seghesio Family Vineyards Sonoma County zinfandel, 2000 Qupé Central Coast syrah and 1999 Hess Select California cabernet sauvignon.

“I like the (Food and Wine magazine) list because it offers a lot of different varieties for different tastes,” says John Roesch, wine director of pjwine.com, a Manhattan-based wine shop on the Web. Food and Wine magazine’s picks are from “tried and true established wineries in the Pacific Northwest,” says Roesch, which he says is important. Consumers have to trust the winery first and foremost.

Chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot are safe choices for the holidays. But zinfandel is the classic choice for Thanksgiving. “It’s the only wine that Americans like to call their own,” says Roesch, who explains zinfandel may have its roots in California. The “inherently spicy variety” also easily mixes with all the different flavors on the Thanksgiving table, he adds. He also encourages consumers to experiment with riesling and syrah, which are both quite trendy these days.

Roesch puts together his own picks at pjwine.com. Every other month, about 12 “value-priced” wines land on John’s Super Value Wine list, which is then posted on the Web site. The current selections range from $8.99 to $17.49.

Fun with FoodSmarts
Not all hosts or hostesses drink wine but many — if not all — have an interest in food. A great housewarming gift for the first-time turkey chef or the sophisticated foodie is a new product called FoodSmarts. Nope, it’s not a book about the latest diet craze. It is, however, filled with flavorful food facts minus the calories.

FoodSmarts, a new game released this month by San Francisco-based smartsco.com, follows on the heels of WineSmarts, introduced in 2002. Both card games contain 100 multiple choice or true-false questions and answers, which test players’ knowledge of the culinary or wine world, respectively.

The FoodSmarts deck is divided into four categories: ingredients, cuisine, lingo and wild card (and we’re not talking about the Marlins here.) Don’t bother using the game’s score card, just dig in. Anyone can participate. There’s a question to stump them all. For example, did you know Julia Child worked for an American spy organization in Sri Lanka before she became a culinary master? OK, you didn’t get that one. Here’s any easy one: True or False: Pancetta is a sweet Italian cake. Not actually. Panettone or panforte are sweet Italian cakes and pancetta is “a cut of salted pork belly that resembles bacon.” Pancetta is also a key ingredient in the Italian dish pasta alla carbonara.

FoodSmarts is currently available at napastyle.com ($25) and wishingfish.com ($24.95). Also look for FoodSmarts at brick-and-mortar retailers, such as the wine store chain Best Cellars bestcellars.com, upscale cookware shop Sur la Table and CB2, a new concept store from Crate and Barrel.

Once you’ve played FoodSmarts several times, its does get stale. But Jennifer Elias and Julie Tucker, the games’ creators, plan to roll out SexSmarts (the name may change) and ChocolateSmarts in the spring, and SushiSmarts and BubblySmarts (champagnes and sparkling wines) next summer.

Sophisticated soaps and lotions
Looking for something a little more personal but still for the home? Canadian company fruits-passion.com makes a line of soaps, lotions and creams designed specially for the kitchen.

Cucina products not only contain common kitchen ingredients but also are packaged in containers that naturally fit in with the kitchen’s decor. The hand cream comes in a stoneware jar with a hand pump usually reserved for mustard. Some soap is housed in hand-crafted cheese baskets, designed to hold small wheels of cheese. Other soaps are packaged in tins typically used to store preserves.

Most Cucina products contain olive oil and/or its derivatives. Pure olive oil is used as a moisturizer in the hand creams. Olive leaf extract in the cream helps heal minor cuts and burns. Other products contain ingredients with healing properties, such as flakes of coriander seeds, or with pleasing scents, such as sage, rosemary or thyme.

Cucina products are available at fruit-passions.com. All the prices are listed in Canadian dollars. U.S.-based brick-and-mortar stores that stock the Cucina line include Nordstrom and anthropologie.com.

Cyber bubble shop ebubbles.com has a great selection of Cucina products online, and prices are in American dollars. Both the hand care duo, priced at $32, and the soap and kitchen spray set, $26, make exceptionally nice gifts.

Crabtree & Evelyn also makes a hand wash and hand cream set for the kitchen, available in citrus and sage and cucumber, available in sage and cucumber, and citrus. Sage, watercress and carrot extracts are used as cleansers in the hand wash. The hand lotion contains honey, molasses and mango butter. The combo comes in a nickel-plated caddy and sells for $28 at store.crabtree-evelyn.com. The crabtreeandevelyn.com caddy has been spotted on the kitchen countertop of MTV’s “Newlyweds” Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson.

Practical and fun
Now how about something practical but a little more fun? Brooklyn-based designers Jennifer LoRusso and Joel Glickman of plydesign.com just added some relatively inexpensive bowls to its upscale collection of home and personal accessories. The name might not grab you but the product will. Called plyFOLD3, the set of three flat plastic surfaces with metal snaps transforms into nesting bowls. The bowls, which only take shape when you assemble them, can be used to stash small home or office products such as spare change, keys or paper clips.

The bowls are available in orange, lime and frost or translucent plastic, which are “retro Christmas colors,” explains LoRusso. The set is available in multi-colored packs or all one color. The smallest bowl measures 4.5-by-4.5 inches, and the largest is 5.5-by-5.5 inches.

PlyFOLD3 is sold in museum shops, design shops and specialty boutiques nationwide, from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to Rocks Paper Scissors in Charlottesville, VA. Use the online store locator to find a brick and mortar store near you. The bowls are also sold online at plydesign.com or Cambridge, Mass.-based blisshome.com for $16.50.

Teri Goldberg is MSNBC.com’s shopping writer. Write to her at personalshopper@msnbc.com