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Wine Gifts – A Practical and Pragmatic Guide

December 10, 2014 9 comments

Happy Holidays Wine Gifts. I see a smirk on your face – come on, there are millions of advice shared already, by millions of people – aren’t we had enough? Yes, I hear you – but before you click away, give me a few seconds to explain myself.

I generally resist the urge to write holiday wine recommendations and wine-related gift guides, primarily for the reason that I’m sure the plentiful advice is available, coming from all possible sources – wine catalogs, wine writers, bloggers, magazine columns and so on. And I also often think “I already wrote about it – why again?”. To my surprise, it appears that I have never written a Wine Gifts post in this blog. I swear I had it in my head numerous number of times – but apparently, it never made it out of it. So that gives me a justification to write this post, and share my views on the wine gifts. That and an upcoming Off The Vine Radio talk show segment with yours truly, where we will be talking exactly about the subject of wine gifts on Friday, December 19th.

Before we get to the details of my view on the wine gifts, let me make a few things clear. First of all, if you just need a random wine present for the person you only have to get the gift for, but don’t care about for real, you can stop reading this post right now – I’m sharing my personal viewpoint on the gifts for the wine lovers you actually care about. Now, with that disclaimer in mind, did you notice the words which appear in the title – “pragmatic” and “practical”? I really mean it, so again, please allow me to explain. Let’s start with “pragmatic“, and let me give you an example. I don’t know how many of you aware of Laguiole steak knives, but they are beautifully designed and perfect for the job of both enhancing the aesthetic pleasure of dinner and actually cutting the meat. If you buy them from the catalog, you will pay in the US roughly $200 for the set of 6. If you go to the Home Goods store in the US, you can find (yes, you have to look for them, they are not always available) the same knives for under $20. Did you get my point? No, I’m not asking you to be frugal with your dear friends – if you can afford to present someone with the bottle of Screaming Eagle, by all means, go ahead and do it. But at the very least, you have to know what you are paying for and you should go after the good quality at the price which makes sense to you, not at the price you think you need to pay to feel good about your present.

Now, the second word, “practical“, is probably even more important. You will make the best present if you will have an idea of what your gift recipient actually wants, or at the very least, needs. Nobody needs the 15th bottle opener, 56th cork stopper or an Estate Bottle Opener which will force the gift recipient to make a decision – keep a microwave in the kitchen or through it out to install that Estate Opener thingy on that counter. Also, to make the gift practical, measure it up for yourself – would you like to receive it? If you don’t believe that bottle icicle is a good idea, don’t give it to someone only because you don’t have any better ideas. Make it practical, make it useful. Capeesh? Now, let’s talk about wine gifts.

Ahh, sorry, one more note – I don’t want to make this post super-long, so instead of trying to sketch it and somehow lump all together, I will split it out into a series of a few posts. Now we are done with all the disclaimers, so let’s get to it.

Wine Isle

Let’s start with the most obvious – Wine. This is the most obvious, but not a straightforward present. All depends on your budget and the taste of the recipient. If someone hates Chardonnay, you better know about it in advance. If someone is dreaming about that special Burgundy bottle, you better know about it. Knowledge is power, as you will be able to make the best gift. Wine is actually one of the few presents where you don’t need to worry if the person already has the same bottle – two bottles of Chateau Lafite are always better than one. But even if you don’t know exactly what the other person want, don’t despair – there are a few strategies you can use. Let’s look at your choices again.

  1. Wine, when you know what the other person wants. The easiest case, as we said. If current vintage of the wine is readily available, go to the store and buy it. If the vintage is not current or the wine is not available, start from the wine-searcher – it will help you to locate your wine at one of the online retailers. If you are looking for the collectible or an old wine, your best bet is a reputable retailer. I wouldn’t buy it on eBay, but rather look online at the store like Benchmark Wine Company (you can find all the relevant links on my site in the section “buying wine”. Or ask the person at your local store – you never know what you can find in your local store – remember that not all the wines are put out on the shelf. Don’t be afraid to ask.
  2. When you don’t know the exact wine the other person wants. Now, if you know general preferences, do your research online or go to your local store. Don’t be afraid to surprise the person. If someone likes Cabernet Sauvignon wines, you don’t have to buy only California or only Bordeaux. Look for the other regions and countries – Argentina, Australia, Chile, South Africa, sometimes Italy and even Spain can be a source of wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon wines. However, if you don’t want to take the risk of gifting the wrong bottle, there are still more options.
    1. Go by the special date. Know a person’s birth year? Anniversary date? The date the kids were born? Aware of any other date which has a special meaning for the recipient? This might be your best solution! Wine-searcher might be a great tool for you, as you can simply type in just the vintage and hit search – you will get a full list of what wines are available, and where. This will not work for the current vintages, of course, but if you will put in something like 1984 or 1995, your selection will be quite manageable. And – don’t be afraid to miss the mark – an old wine will serve more as a memento, and even if it doesn’t taste amazing, it will still be greatly appreciated. But again, don’t be afraid – you will be surprised how good some of the old wines are. I recently had 1966 Pinot Noir from California, and it was outstanding…
    2. Buy a mixed set. Within your budget, get a few different bottles. Get creative – go for the different regions, do a mixed case of white and red, buy a few different wines from the same producer. With the mixed set, first of all, I’m sure the recipient will greatly appreciate the thought, and there is a good chance that the person will like at least some of the wines. But – beware of the pre-packaged wine gift sets. If you know the wines in the set – go for it. If you just see a random set in the store, don’t get it without the recommendation of the store clerk you know and trust. Very often, wineries would package together wines which sell well and the wines which don’t sell at all.
    3. Get a gift set from the winery. Have your favorite winery? Check if they are offering the gift sets with the direct delivery to the recipient – I know that a lot of wineries in California, and I’m sure other states, are offering beautifully packaged special wine sets. It might be a touch expensive, but if you are willing to pay, this might be a present which will be remembered for a long time.
    4. Give a gift of the Wine Clubs. If you don’t know what the other person wants, give a gift of the wine club! Many wine clubs, like an International Wine of the Month Club, will allow you to get a fixed duration subscription – not sure about 1 month, but you can do a three-month subscription. There are of course many other choices – again, do the research online. But – I don’t recommend the newspaper clubs, like Wall Street Journal, New York Times and so on – their wine selection generally sub-par. Don’t forget that many wineries are offering their club subscriptions, and so do many wine stores and online retailers.
    5. The Wine Store Gift Certificate. This sounds like a last resort, but it might be an excellent choice too! Unless you are strictly against giving money as a gift for the holidays, a gift certificate will allow the recipient to enjoy your gift twice – first time when receiving it, and then the second time when using it to buy the wines of her choice.

If the wine itself is your gift, I hope I gave you some useful choices, so let me stop now. But – we are not done. There are plenty more wine-related gifts to be considered, therefore, I’m not saying good bye. To be continued…

Do You Wine Club?

September 9, 2014 14 comments

International Wine of The Month ClubWhat do you think of the Wine Clubs? Do you belong to one, or two or five? Have you in the past? Would you recommend a wine club membership to your friends?

Yes, I know, the subject of the wine clubs was well discussed in the past, and it is hard to say something new here. However, a few months ago, I was asked if I would be interested in receiving a sample from the International Wine of the Month Club, which I accepted with the usual condition – I will write about the wines only if I like them. I tasted the wines a while back, and yes, I liked them – only now I finally found the time to write about it. But – I don’t want just to share the tasting notes and be done with it – I would like to take this opportunity to ponder at the subject of the wine clubs (beer and spirits too for that matter).

My love for the [wine] clubs started the way back, in the middle of 1990s, when I subscribed for the first time to the Beer Across America monthly club. To begin with, the club had a great story of two friends quitting their IT jobs, coming up with the concept and trying to (unsuccessfully) start the business, then literally with the last of their savings creating leaflets and going in Chicago neighborhood door to door, leaving those leaflets in the mailboxes of people in time for the holidays – and seeing the business to pick up. Every month UPS would deliver a box to my doorstep with two six packs of beer – not just any beer, but only microbrewery products, coming from all over the country. Today any wine store carries literally hundreds of selections – but this was 20 years back, and microbreweries very hard to find. Every shipment would also include information about microbrewery, about the particular beer we received, recipes  and lots more. I was definitely looking forward to those shipments – you would never know where the next beer would be coming from, and what the story might be behind it, so it was definitely fun.

I think I stayed with that club for about two years – the club changed the concept slightly at some point and went from the regular 0.33 beer bottles to the large format, 22 oz, and those started to accumulate, so I had to stop it as the whole process became somewhat boring.

Since that time I had a few other club experiences. For about year and a half, I was in the D&M Scotch club – this was great, very unique selections, but I just don’t drink enough Scotch, so it started to pile up, and I had to stop it; to be entirely honest, if I would be able to reduce the frequency of the shipments, I would still continue it. A few years back (say 6-7, to be more precise), many newspapers started their wine clubs. I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal wine club, but that experience wore off very quickly, as out of the case of wine, only 3-4 bottles would be somewhat drinkable, so paying about $180 for 4 “okay” bottles was not my idea of the bargain. I wouldn’t recommend the newspaper wine club – the selection there is simply not good.

All in all, I think all the wine clubs are different, and some of them have their place. For majority of the cases, you get a great deal of information with your wine club shipment – and I really like that. Also, for those few bottles which you will be receiving, you get two additional [oenophile-specific] benefits – you don’t need to chose anything, and you have an element of surprise with every “mystery” box you receive. As it was the case with the my sample shipment from the International Wine of the Month Club.

This club offers three different levels of membership – Premier, Masters and Collectors. The difference between the levels is in the price of wine you will be receiving – otherwise, each shipment contains 2 bottles of wine, which can be red and white, or just two reds. The sample I received contained the 2011 Bellingham The Bernard Series Small Barrel S.M.V. from the Masters series, and 2012 Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc form the Collectors series, both wines from South Africa.

2011 Bellingham The Bernard Series Small Barrel S.M.V. South Africa (14% ABV, 75% Shiraz, 22% Mourvèdre, 3% Viognier) took one day to open up. Dark, Concentrated, with raspberries and blackberries on the nose, touch of tobacco and earthiness. On the palate, the wine was firm, structured, with cherries and lavender, touch of espresso, good acidity, hint of eucalyptus and sage, well balanced. Long finish with tobacco aftertaste. Drinkability: 8-

2012 Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc Estate Wine, South Africa (13.5% ABV, 89% Sauvignon Blanc, 11% Semillon) is produced by the famed Klein Constantia, makers of the iconic Vin de Constance, favorite wine of Napoleon. This Sauvignon Blanc had gooseberry, fresh grass and lemon on the nose, with touch of sweetness. On the palate, the wine had nice zippy acidity, lemon zest, lemon and a touch of freshly cut grass and mineral complexity. It is interesting that this wine also required a day to open up and to develop a balance – from the pop and pour, the wine a was a bit disjointed and sharp, and it became soft, balanced and cohesive on the second day. I believe this wine can age, and it would be interesting to see what would happen with in a few years. Drinkability: 8

Remember I started this post with the question? How about a simple poll – I’m just curious what you think about wine clubs, so here are two questions for you. First, just tell me if you ever belonged to the wine club:

And now, if you did (or still do), how often do you get your shipments?

So, what do you think? Is there a wine club for you out there? Oh yes, before I will forget – wine clubs make perfect gift! I heard the holidays are coming… Cheers!

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