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Berger: Wines for your holiday gift list


Five of us visited the home of a beloved food editor some decades ago, and she asked if we'd like a glass of wine — and then realized her faux pas.

Turning to me, she said, "Uh, sorry, all I have is white zinfandel ... and it's been open a week."

Clearly not all foodies are also "winies," and this story came back to me as I began to muse about what wines to give as holiday gifts. In most cases, unless you know a person extremely well and know what sort of wine will be appreciated, giving wine is a bad idea.

Case in point: The food editor above would immediately have thought of re-gifting had I gotten her a bottle of chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon. Too dry. Not what she liked.

If you know a real wine collector, giving wine randomly is usually going to turn out less than great since what you like and what the gift-receiver likes are often kilometers apart. And most non-collectors are unaware of vintage and producer subtleties.

But there are wines that are good for giving to some collectors and these don't have to cost a lot. The secret is to find wines that few collectors ever consider buying, but which would make a nice addition to their cellar.

One is sparkling wine. No one dislikes a well-made bottle of bubbly, and California makes many that are priced reasonably. One of the best is the Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs (about $22, often seen for less than $20).

More reasonably priced is Italian Prosecco, and this year some producers have come out with magnums. Magnums usually run less than $25.

Another wine that usually pleases as a gift is a dessert wine. Quady Winery in Madera makes a wide array of such wines, and its nonvintage Elysium (about $20) is a dramatic Black Muscat that's perfect for serving with almost any dessert.

Also, almost any wine designated late-harvest (from riesling to chardonnay) is a nice gift since these are usually wines that everyone, from casual sippers to wine lovers, appreciate but rarely buy. And since the 2011 vintage in California lent itself to dessert wines, store shelves should have many.

However, for me the best wine gift is a bottle of sherry, and for a number of reasons.

First, sherry may be the best value quality wine on the shelf today. Few sherries are very expensive, and collectors almost never buy any for themselves, even though they are perfect wines for moments when no other wine will work.

A quality sherry should be in every wine lover's cache because they are excellent before dinner as an aperitif (with nuts and cheese); many are excellent after dinner with chocolate nibbles, and a dash of sherry enhances most soups (from French onion to bisques).

Moreover, when saut?ng onions and mushrooms, a tablespoon of a quality sherry added to the pan changes the dish from the mundane into the sublime.

<b>Wines of the Week: </b>

<b>Bone Dry Fino Sherry: Hidalgo La Guitana Manzanilla (about $15 for a 500-ml bottle):</b> This light, pale and very dry wine is best consumed young and chilled. Shop where there is fresh stock and rapid turnover.

<b>Dry Sherry: Gonzales Byass Dry Oloroso, "Alfonso" (about $21):</b> This sublime Olosoro has an aroma of toasted nuts and sort of dulce de leche character. This is close to the perfect dry sherry.

<b>Palo Cortado: Gonzales Byass Palo Cortado, "Leonor" (about $23):</b> Slightly more delicate than the prior wine and ideal for sipping at cool (not cold) temperatures.

<b>Cream Sherry: Emilio Lustau DeLuxe Cream Sherry, "Capataz Andre" (about $19):</b> Rich and sweet, but well balanced and not at all cloying.

<i>Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes "Vintage Experiences," a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.</i>