Trying to decide what to get your wine lover for Christmas? Two great last-minute ideas are off-beat wine books or a membership in a wine club. Trying to give wine as a gift can be daunting, as you either have to fall back on a “standard” or risk down-the-nose disapproval for a bad choice. Books on pairing or wine culture are welcome, and the chance to try the offerings of a small producer can be fun as well.
My first recommendation is “Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor” by Francois Chartier. This book takes an in-depth look at the synergy between the molecules found in wines, and those founds in the foods likely to pair. Although Chartier’s writing is a bit self-aggrandizing, there’s some great information here for anyone who loves the minutia of creating perfect pairings.
Next up is “Wine Snobbery: An Expose” by Andrew Barr. This is not a how-to guide, but rather a real behind-the-scenes look at wines, winemaking, wine critics, wine tasting, and all the pretentiousness found in the wine world. This is an especially good book for a wine novice who’s intimated by all the pomposity and jargon thrown about at wine tastings and other events. It’s a real down-to-earth look at the whole mystique behind wine tasting.
Another favorite is “Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, The Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists” by wine economist Mike Veseth. The first couple chapters of this book are a little difficult to wade through, but the book takes a hard look at the economics of wine, how the market for wine operates, and an absolutely fascinating look at the impact that Trader Joe’s and Costo, along with other high-volume sellers, have on the wine market. It’s an excellent perspective on how pervasive marketing messages are in terms of our perception of the value of wine (and how misled we often are).
Another option for the wine-pairer is the venerable “What to Drink with What You Eat” by Andrew Dornenburg. This book is a veritable encyclopedia of food and wine pairing that Dorenburg crafted after interviewing dozens of sommeliers. The book is divided into two main sections. The first lists foods and the wines that match them – and by ‘lists’ I mean lengthy, detailed lists of every variation of food you can think of. The fish section runs on for pages, starting with fish in general, then down to specifics, like grilled salmon as opposed to smoked salmon. The depth of coverage is astounding. He also indicates the level of pairing, from just OK to stellar. The second section is a comprehensive list of wines, and the foods that pair with them. If you’re planning a menu, you can easily start from the food and pick the wine, or you can start with the wine and pick the food. Highly recommended.
What about a wine club? My favorites are the winery direct clubs. They offer (in my opinion) the best wines for the best value. Favorites include Shoestring Winery in Santa Barbara, California for Syrahs, Sangioveses and Merlots. Alta Colina in Paso Robles produces a delicious Syrah along with wonderful Rhone-type wines. Grgich Hills in Napa makes a variety of bio-dynamic wines; founder Mike Grgich is one of the patriarchs of the California wine industry. If your wine lover is adventurous, Tony Coturri, in Glen Ellen, offers a great selection of red wines that tend towards the deliciously eclectic.
If you're not comfortable with a single producer, you can always fall back to a catch-all club, like those offered by Zagat’s, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Food and Wine magazine (there are many, many others). But those clubs are all third-party ventures, so you have to consider that there are a lot of people who need to profit from the venture – the sponsor, the actual fulfiller, the shipper, the advertising company, and last (and usually least) the wine maker. Commercial club wines are not bad, but their usually not the best bargain for your buck. Vintner's Collective in Napa is a better option for a broader club. They represent a number of small, local producers and ship some very good wines.
One thing to watch with any wine club is shipping costs. The cost to ship wine from California to Florida is about $6.00 per bottle, which is where you will find the winery clubs. If the cost of shipping goes over $8 per bottle, you're probably better off at your local wine shop.