The Giving Vine: Mastering the Art of Wine Gifts

#136 – July 25, 2010

Anyone who has ever bought a gift for someone else knows the difficulty and amount of thought required to procuring an appropriate gift that will not be met by BSD (a term coined by Mark Oldman which stands for the “Barely Concealed Displeasure” expressed by a gift recipient when presented with an unwanted or inappropriate gift). It is a tough skill to achieve but, as anyone who has successfully presented that perfect gift and been met by true appreciation and thanks can attest too, one well worth the effort to perfect. As difficult as finding an appropriate gift may be, such difficulty is magnified many times over when it comes to providing a bottle of wine or other wine-related gift. As you all know, many folks view the word of wine as a snobby and intimidating environment in which they are sometimes at a complete loss. Making matters worse, a bottle of wine has become the de rigueur gift when invited for a meal (Shabbat or otherwise) and many people feel ill equipped to pick the right bottle, even more so when the host is someone they know to enjoy or appreciate wine.

In the event that you decide to bring a bottle of wine as a gift, there are a few things to keep in mind. First [warning – shameless plug coming], you have hundreds of recommendations available to you at any and every price point from my newsletters. I don’t write about wines that I don’t like so any wine mentioned on these pages is probably a safe bet. Another guaranteed success is not to ever, under any circumstance, buy the blue-bottled abomination that is Bartanura Moscato D’Asti. It’s actually better to come empty-handed than to bring a bottle of that (or a white zinfandel). Even if the hosts want such a wine, a little paternalistic/big-brother action is in order to save them from themselves.

The best type of wine gift for the casual wine drinker is something interesting but not too adventurous or niche. Before attempting to introduce someone to the lychee flavors of a Gewürztraminer I’d aim for a nice, crisply dry Rose or a sophisticated yet approachable dessert wine which are two, less common, types of wine. Some other good choices would be a deliciously creamy Viognier, a number of which were recommended a few weeks ago, or a well-made Zinfandel like the one Hagafen makes in its Prix series. A good Zinfandel can provide the same big wine feel as a bold Cabernet Sauvignon but in a different package. Any good, Muscat-based, dessert wine like the Golan Height Winery’s Moscato will quickly and efficiently erase any thought of the blue-bottle from anyone’s mind. Another nice choice would be a sparkling wine. While most people still associate Champagne as a celebratory wine to be opened solely on special occasions, we all know that its extreme versatility and food-friendliness make it a great “anytime” wine and bringing it as a gift is a great way to spread the gospel on this.

Dressing the wine in a nice bag or other stylish wrapping is a nice touch. Providing a “note” on the wine, either a detailed tasting note of your own or from Daniel Rogov, myself or anyone else together with a recommended time frame for consumption a fun but classy touch as well.

One of the important things to keep in mind when gifting a bottle of wine is that you shouldn’t expect your host to share the bottle with you. It’s not like bringing a dessert to a potluck dinner – the bottle is a gift for the host, not for you. All that said, if you are the host, it’s the gracious thing to do and shows admirable generosity (especially if it is obvious that significant time and expense was put into choosing the bottle at hand).

If the thought of bring a bottle which will not be shared is too much to bear, there are many other wine-related gifts that will fulfill the job quite nicely. One of my favorite gifts to give is a membership in a wine club. It is one of the best way to introduce people to new types of wine on a regular basis and will typically assist in enhancing the recipient’s wine appreciation. Wine related toys are can also make cool gifts. Some good suggestions are a top-notch corkscrew or aerator. In recent years there has been an explosion of various gadgets whose purpose is to “open-up” a bottle of wine providing the same result as you get when decanting or simply leaving the wine to open up on it’s own or in your glass. While I personally prefer the more old-fashioned method of time; I have it on good authority that some of these gadgets work as promised and provide the ability to ready a tight wine for drinking quickly when time is short.

When visiting a more serious wine connoisseur the challenge is much greater. While it does happen from time-to-time, in the world of kosher wine it is sometimes difficult to find a previously unknown wine that nobody had heard of. That said, new kosher wineries are opening all the time so the opportunity to provide your host with an undiscovered “wow” wine is growing. In lieu of bringing a special bottle of wine, buying a large-format bottle of a good wine is always a surefire path to success. Impressive looking, stately and very practical for larger meals, large-format bottles (Magnums – equal to two regular sized bottles – the most common), provide a lively conversation piece. One of the main benefits to a large-format bottle is, given the reduction in the wine-to-air ratio, the increase in the wine’s potential longevity.

Another cool gift is a bottle from a meaningful vintage year (i.e. from a couple’s anniversary, year of their first child or similar life-events). Unfortunately, the world of quality kosher wine is still in it’s infancy and it is impossible to find a bottle of kosher wine alive that was born prior to 1987 so birth year wines for grown-ups is still a difficult task – the 1990 Katzrin is probably your oldest safe bet today. Thankfully, from the way things are currently looking, 20 years from now this will be a much easier endeavor than it is today. Another cool gift is to provide a thoughtful wine and food pairing (hard cheese or a well-matched dessert with the appropriate bottle of wine). If you are in the mood to splurge, an awesome gift is an actual wine-barrel, which can be used as a side table or ornament and are über-cool.

Below are some recent tasting notes from a number of wines currently available in Magnum size – all worth seeking out.

Capcanes, Peraj Ha’abib, Monsant, 2005: This is probably my favorite non-Israeli wine of all times and is an incredible wine – hands down!! The usual blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and three Spanish varieties of grapes, this wine is a full bodied, complex, elegant and layered wine, consistently excellent, year after year. One to drink slowly and taste how the flavors change in the glass over the course of 10 minutes to half an hour. Flavors and aromas of black forest fruit and berries, coffee, oak and vanilla with toasty wood notes and then more blueberries and herbs on mid-palate. The wine finishes with a flourish leading into an extremely long and slightly minty finish. An absolute and unmitigated pleasure and one that will probably be around for another decade or so in Magnum format.

Bustan, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2003: The sound bite I would use to describe this winery would be “understated elegance with a unique winemaking style. Having enjoyed a regular sized bottle over Pessach, I was excited to see how it’s Magnum sibling was holding up and boy was I well rewarded. As with the regular bottle the wine is eminently drinkable right now but will probably continue to improve for another year or so and will keep nicely for another 4-5. A full-bodied wine that is soft, round and delicious with well integrated tannins and a significant dose of wood that manages to enhance the blackberries, currants and gooseberries on a spicy background with hints of chocolate and smells of autumn. A bottle that reinforced why Bustan continues to be an old favorite to which I find myself continuously returning.

Castel, Grand Vin, 2006: While I prefer a slightly different style, the Grand Vin continues to be one of the very best Israeli wines available today and the 2006 is one of their best ever. An excellent Bordeaux-type wine with a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, serves up a distinctly different wine than most versions of Israeli Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine provides a delightful experience wrapped in a full-bodied, rich, supremely elegant and complex wine. A silky smooth wine with velvety tannins coating the palate and opening up in the black forest fruits, plums and a spicy underlay. Give the wine a few minutes and you will be rewarded with plums, wet forest floor, along with Mediterranean herbs and some green pepper backing them up. A very long finish that carries a hint of mint along with the earthy overtones and some bitterness. The magnum bottle helps alleviate the Achilles heel of this winery – lack of long-term cellarability, and the 2006 vintage was a pretty good one. Give the wine at least 6-7 years that are 3-4 more than the regular bottle.