Grape Expectations

The gift of wine can open any door

As wine becomes more popular in the Northwest, many people have discovered that a gift of the grape makes a potent statement. You're a low-level cube dweller? No problem. Give your wine-loving bosses a bottle that will make their heads spin—not because of the alcohol content but because they recognize it as a lust-worthy wine from a hard-to-find label. You'll have your own office in no time. Know people so deep into the stock market that it would take a tractor to pull them out? Demonstrate your sensitivity by bestowing upon them a wine whose value will rise over the years. Need to impress an A-type personality with your appreciation for detail? A wine crafted with excessively neurotic, hands-on care is just the ticket.

Forget the bouquet, the flavor, or how well it accompanies food: The real beauty of giving wine as a gift is that it can separate you from the rest of the groveling gift-giving pack.

A totem pole for anal compulsives

Giving a conventional gift to an A-type personality is fraught with danger. You think they want a gift that creates order out of chaos, but, no, what A-types appreciate most is proof that there are plenty of other people out there like them so they can delude themselves into believing their compulsions are perfectly normal. That's why a bottle of Chateau D'Yquem (1975 Sauternes, Premier Grand Cru, Bordeaux, $675)* is the perfect gift. This price tag is not for the faint of heart, but this wine is inimitable:

At Chateau D'Yquem in France's Sauternes region, they wait for a gentle fog to waft into the vineyards, hoping it will infect the grapes with a mold called botrytis cinerea. The mold, with a single-minded quest to continue living, sucks the juice out of the grapes, leaving behind shriveled, disgusting-looking fruit packed with sugar. Instead of whacking off entire grape clusters—which is how all other wineries harvest—the maniacs at D'Yquem make several passes through the vineyards, plucking on a grape-by-grape basis, looking for the most hideous fruit imaginable. When the grapes are finally pressed, they yield an intensely sweet, mind-bogglingly delicious wine. This is handcrafting and attention to detail that'll make the most rabid A-type feel like a slacker. Which is exactly what the sick bastard wants from a gift.

The harder to pronounce, the better the wine

We all know at least one person who has the grating habit of using words that are unfamiliar and comprised of at least six syllables. People like that deserve to be slapped. But some of them hold the key to your future, so a different strategy is called for. What you want to articulate with your gift is that you've got quite a vocabulary going for you but that you've got your ego in check and don't need to fill your conversation with incomprehensible prattlings. Who else but the Germans can deliver an object lesson this humiliating?

While many German wines bear names that are unpronounceable, you won't want to take any chances. Go straight for the Heribert Kerpen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese (call European Vine Selections at 323-3557 for details). There, that ought to do it.

Cheapskates and their incomprehensible psyches

You probably think the Velcro wallet set appreciates getting expensive gifts. Totally wrong. Receiving costly gifts serves only to remind them of their own inadequacies, and frankly, that's the wrong message to send. No, what you'll want to do is dazzle them with your skill at spotting values—in other words, a terrific wine at a good price. Fortunately, several wines fill the bill nicely.

Since most wine lovers consider champagne to be a real treat, let's focus our attention there. You'd like to buy something French, but that stuff's ridiculously expensive. So what you'll want to do is buy something that sounds expensive but isn't. At the top of my list is California's Roederer Estate sparkling wine ($19.49). It has the cachet of being named for its pricey French parent company yet is known by wine lovers to be affordable and capable of upstaging wines that cost three times more—a fact any tightwad can appreciate.

Blessed by the pope

There's a subset of wine lovers who live and die by the ratings in Wine Spectator magazine; they won't dare buy a wine that hasn't received a score of 90 or higher. Too bad, they miss out on a lot of great stuff.

Still, this odd lot is to be indulged, if not smirked at. With that in mind, your intrepid wine reporter offers these three gift suggestions sure to please any wine lover who requires wines blessed by the authorities. The first is the Bryant Family Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with a rating of 99. Next is the stunning Dalla Valley Maya red blend, which earned a score of 98. Last is the Lokoya Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon, also rating a 98. Problem is there are just enough cork dorks out there with copies of Wine Spectator in their sweaty fists to make finding these wines difficult. But we're here to make suggestions, not shop for you. (Note: If you can find them, then you can price them.)

The best wine on Wall Street

In these times of economic uncertainty, only a wine with growth potential will please the forward-thinking wine lover. In fact, many people in this category don't actually appreciate the effect wine has on their mood so much as they enjoy the effect it has on their portfolio. Which is why you need to pay off your credit card, march down to your better wine shop, clear your throat, and ask for a bottle of Chateau P鴲us ($400).

The mere fact that it can cost up to half your paycheck for a single bottle isn't what's important to your recipient. The crucial info is that within 10 years, it will likely be worth four times what you paid for it. Crazy, huh? But no wine you can buy helps you suck up to a CFO quite like this one.

*Note: Prices may vary. Hard-to-find wines can be ordered through your local specialty shop. Try Esquin, 2700 Fourth S, 682-7374 or Pike and Western Wine Merchants, 1934 Pike Place Market, 441-1307.

Dennis Globus is the wine writer at Seattle Weekly.

Read Before You Sip

The Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America

Edited by Bruce Cass and Jancis Robinson

(Oxford University Press, $45)

Hundreds of books about wine are published every year, but very few are any use to the average American wine bibber—the kind of person who has a few bottles set aside at home for a special occasion but buys mostly for immediate consumption, on the same trip to the market for the makings of this evening's dinner.

Most such wine drinkers would like to know more about what they're buying, but they know enough to have little use for one of those patronizing little manuals offering to turn the veriest yokel into an appalling wine snob in six easy lessons, while something like James Laube's doorstop-sized, vine-by-vine survey of The Wines of California is just way too much of a good thing.

Smack in the useful midrange of wine manuals is the new Oxford Companion to North American Wine. Written as much for English and Continental wine lovers trying to cope with the explosive growth in quality New World wine making in the last 20 years, the book offers an agreeably non-Americocentric view on the subject, with 14 introductory chapterlets introducing the reader to wine's 400 years of ups and downs in the Americas, to the incalculable contribution of Mexican braceros to the rise of California wine to world-class, to the astonishing progress in wine science that has turned even small wineries into laboratories for quality control. Plainly written, tersely edited, these one- and two-page essays by world experts in each field offer all but the most fanatical oenophiles all they'll ever want to know about the genetics, microbiology, demographics, and marketing of wine.

The remaining four-fifths of the Companion's 300-odd pages are devoted to an alphabetical survey of North American wineries, wine regions, and wine types, heavily cross-referenced for maximum convenience. Individual entries are the work of nine highly qualified independent specialists in the field, including Northwest wine pioneer Ron Irvine. All major wine-growing regions are exhaustively mapped and described, while entries devoted to the idiosyncratic vocabulary of wine growers, distributors, and collectors and such arcane subjects as shelf-talkers, skin soaks, and cellar-door sales make for entertaining browsing on their own.

Highly serviceable and refined as this index is, it conceals a significant gotcha: Cross-references to specifically North American subjects (indicated by keyword in small capital letters) are easy to locate. But you will seek in vain cross-references to more general subjects (grape varieties in use worldwide, for example, or wine-making techniques such as malolactic fermentation). One learns only from a close reading of the general editor's introduction that these references, indicated by a preceding asterisk, are to another book entirely: The Oxford Companion to Wine, now in its second edition (1999).

Many shoppers may think twice about spending $45 on a reference book that requires another 800-page, $65 book for full functionality. If you're among them, avoid even glancing at the 1999 master volume, edited by Jancis Robinson. It's the ink-and-print equivalent of a bowl of salted cashews: once dipped into, almost irresistible, a coffee-table book you will actually use for something more than an upscale coaster.

And what a sumptuous gift for any wine buff or foodie the pair together would make!

Roger Downey

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