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Giving Gifts to Wine Lovers: My Advice

3135349141_0732fd9e01.jpgHere we are in the Holidaze. A time I enjoy and dread with equal measure. I love Winter as a season, and the festive atmosphere that surrounds the holidays, but have always cringed at the massive consumer frenzy and the psychological pressure of gift giving. Finding the right presents to get everyone is right up there with getting a root canal. Don't get me wrong. I love giving people gifts, but the process of trying to decide what to get them and then shopping for it drives me a little batty. In some ways I can't wait to be an old man, whereupon I believe I will be able to simply hand out cash to all the people younger than me who are getting gifts and be done with it. Now that will be some good times.

Part of the anxiety that surrounds gift giving for most of us comes from the conflict between wanting to get something for someone that they will really enjoy, and not knowing exactly what that thing is. Those lucky enough to have close family members or children willing to make lists of things they want have it quite easy. The rest of us get to fret over people we know that tend to buy all the things they really want for themselves; people who will never admit to wanting anything; those who we don't know well enough to know what they want, but still need to get gifts from us; and countless other people that offer unique challenges in the gift buying department.

Wine lovers are a particularly thorny group of recipients. And I don't mean people who just happen to drink wine and enjoy it. Those folks will be happy to get a bottle of anything. I'm talking about the wine geeks, the wine collectors, the wine obsessives, and yes, even the wine snobs in your life.

These folks are tough nuts to crack, especially if you're looking to get them a really meaningful gift that they're really going to love. They tend to have the gear they need already (glasses, corkscrews, decanters, etc.) and they tend to be pretty opinionated about the wines they love, which means it's fairly easy for you to get a wine that misses the mark.

Oh sure, they'll be gracious about it, and you may never know that the bottle you struggled so hard to pick out was the one they chose to bring to that potluck at the neighbors' house instead of savoring the way you had hoped they would.

With these perils in mind, here is my advice for (I won't say foolproof) successful gift giving to the serious wine lover in your life.

First we have to start with dividing these winos into two camps. Those that you know really well, and those that you don't.

What I mean by knowing them well is that you know them well enough to know things like the brand of wine glass they own, what kind of corkscrews they have, and a good deal about their wine tastes, even to the point of knowing specific wines or producers that are their favorites.

These folks are the easy ones. You know them well enough to buy them a wine that you're fairly sure they'll enjoy. You get the California Syrah lover a Hermitage, or a nice Brunello for the one that dreams of her times in Tuscany.

If they drink a lot of wine and you know they don't happen to have a rabbit corkscrew, you get them one of those.

Do they tend to have a lot of bottles open at a time at their house, and invariably a few more stuffed in the refrigerator? Get them some inert gas wine preserver to keep those precious remains fresh as long as possible. Or if they really merit spending the big bucks, you get them a whole wine preservation system">preservation system.

Know someone whose collection of wines has gone from simple to serious, but hasn't graduated to proper storage? You can get them a wine fridge
, or pay for their storage fees at some local wine storage facility.

I tend to warn people off the most typically recommended gifts of the season: wine books (yawn), Laguiole corkscrews (lots of fakes out there), and all the horrible wine gadgets like aerators and stoppers and such that just clutter up drawers.

Sure, if you happen to know which wine books someone owns, you can always check my list of the wine books that every wine lover should own, but I only really suggest buying one of these if you're positive that someone doesn't own it, has never read it, and is likely to read it (i.e. they like reading about wine as well as drinking it).

But, if you find yourself wavering, not being entirely sure that you know the wine lover in question quite as well as you thought, or not certain that they'll really love that $50 bottle you're sending away for, then it's probably best to treat them like the second type of recipient.

So here's the controversial part of my advice, that people love to yell at me about if they ever hear me giving it: don't buy these people wine, and definitely don't buy them wine gear.

If these folks really are truly passionate about wine, and you are committed to getting them something that will actually be meaningful (as opposed to just ticking a box that you actually got them something after all), then you run the risk of failing in your goal by buying something at random. Will it be the end of the world? Of course not. Will they continue to invite you over to their house for dinner? Probably, unless they're real jerks.

But the goal, of course, would be to please people, to watch their eyes light up with pleasure as they rip the wrapping paper off, and get that genuine heart-felt, "Thank you!" that makes the gift giving so fun.

And that's hard to do buying stuff for wine lovers you don't know well. So I say don't buy stuff for them.

Here's some ideas of what to do instead:

1. Buy them really good food. Most wine lovers also like to eat, and we tend to know a bit more about our friends' and family members' gustatory habits than their particular predilections for wine. Get them some amazing artisan cheeses, or fancy imported olive oil, or a dinner at a really great restaurant.

2. Buy them a trip. If they happen to live near a wine region, buy them a chauffeur for a day to go wine tasting, so they can enjoy themselves and not have to worry about driving.

3. Buy them a gift certificate to a really great wine store online, or near them. Everyone seems to consider gift certificates a cop-out gift. I think I understand the psychology behind this, but when compared to the prospect of buying someone a wine they really won't enjoy drinking, I think gift certificates are a great idea for wine lovers, especially if they can be from a classy wine store that the recipient patronizes or at least respects.

I know that I've certainly received my share of wines, even expensive ones, that I really wish someone hadn't gone to the trouble of buying me. It's not that I'm ungrateful in the slightest. It's just hard to see someone spending a good chunk of change on something that you know you won't enjoy. They say "it's the thought that counts," and that's certainly true, but just ask any woman about how she feels when her husband or boyfriend buys her an expensive piece of jewelry she wouldn't be caught dead wearing. It's a bittersweet appreciation, to say the least.

So I say why not give your favorite wine lover a little shopping spree? We're all perpetually coveting wines that we know we shouldn't be spending money on. And of course, if this particular wine lover happens to be in your household, well then so much the better, as you may get to enjoy the fruits of their little buying spree.

Finally, just in case my wife happens to read this, and mistakes it for a thinly veiled, self-referential request for my own holiday gift, let me be clear: honey, we really don't need any more wine.

Good luck, and make sure you drink while you shop, if at all possible. I know I will be.

Image courtesy of Sunfrog1.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson Wine Grapes The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson to cork or not to cork by George Taber reading between the vines by Terry Theise adventures on the wine route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud