About three lifetimes ago—just before the pandemic—I was chasing down a wine at BevMo! when a woman stopped me in the aisle. Maybe because I looked like I knew what I was after, she asked, “Is there a chance you could help me find a bottle of good red wine? It’s for a host gift.” The enormity of her problem hit me as I calculated the rows of bottles, the long aisles and the sheer number of them. Wine can make a brilliant gift for the right people during the holidays, but which ones (the people and the wines)? How do you know what they like? And what would make it a personal gift?
We tapped two experts for their advice: Elaine Swann, who specializes in etiquette and founded the Swann School of Protocol, has been featured by the likes of The Washington Post and CNN and called “the Emily Post of the digital age” by The New York Times. (Her newest book is Let Crazy Be Crazy.) Alexandra Schrecengost, founder and CEO of the new event company Virtual with Us and WSET III certified, is in the business of curating wines for many people, for the experiences her company creates. Together they navigate the nuances of settling on great gift wines for the right candidates, including the etiquette involved. And we ran with their strategies, to recommend a few great bottles.
Who should we be thinking about on our gift lists as great candidates for a bottle of wine?
ELAINE: Anyone who considers themselves a foodie or someone who hosts often and could use a bottle to add to their collection.
ALEX: People who love food! Edible gifts are fun too, of course, but you can’t go wrong giving wine to someone who’s very enthusiastic about food. It’s a good rule of thumb to only cook with wine you’d drink and while you probably don’t want to cook with a very expensive wine, giving someone a bottle they can cook with and drink—or cook with while drinking—is thoughtful, useful and personal.
Any tricks for deciding what kind of wine would be perfect for each person?
ELAINE: The scenario: Tell them you’re making different types of meals for the week and ask them for wine-pairing advice—for lamb or steak, for instance. Beyond that, I like to pair any off-the-beaten-path wine with everyone.
ALEX: I approach it like I do a conversation—what do I know they already enjoy? If someone I know loves drinking an easy-to-find wine like Merlot, I might give them something less common, like a Grenache and explain their similarities. They learn something new about wine, maybe discover a new favorite and I show them I appreciate and share their interest. Conversely, I start by thinking about where in the world that person has enjoyed traveling to or living—a region they admire for its art, cuisine or films. A bottle Rioja would be a fantastic gift for a friend who loves Spain or a dry Riesling for a colleague who’s just binge-watched a German sci-fi thriller series. Maybe they’ll even open the bottle right then and there and share it with you.
How much is the right amount to spend on a bottle for someone?
ELAINE: Select a price that you’re comfortable with. When you purchase the wine, it should be about the gift you’re choosing as opposed to how close or not you are to someone. The bottom line is, don’t purchase wine based on the price. Sometimes people think expensive wine will be the best gift, but that’s often not the case.
ALEX: The right amount to spend on a bottle for someone is the amount you were going to spend on a tech gadget, kitchen tool, gift card or anything else you were thinking of giving that person. It’s relatively straightforward to find a rare or well-aged bottle at a specialty wine shop: Just call ahead and chat with your local merchant about the amount you’d like to spend. But keep in mind that a $40 bottle can deliver just as much enjoyment as a $200 bottle, while conveying the thought that you appreciate the recipient’s excellent taste just as well.
Are there any big mistakes you can make in choosing a bottle for someone?
ALEX: The biggest mistake I make is underestimating the classics. Everyone loves to see an iconic label on a bottle of wine they’ve gotten as a gift. These wineries are household names among wine drinkers for a multitude of good reasons and you can’t go wrong giving someone a bottle you’ve bought over and over again.
Is there any kind of wine you think makes a foolproof gift, absent any other information?
ALEX: Everyone loves Italian comfort food—spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmesan, lasagna, pasta Bolognese—so I tend to look at Italian reds that pair well with tomato-sauced dishes, with acidity that complements tomato’s acidity: Medium-bodied reds like Rosso di Montalcino, Nero D’Avola and Sangiovese (especially Chianti Classico).
When you give a bottle as a host gift at a party, should you suggest opening it on the spot?
ELAINE: No. When you bring a bottle of wine for a gathering, it is the host’s gift, and it’s up to that person to decide when to serve it.
A great culinary player for the foodie
Make it bubbly, the greatest food partner of all times (especially when it’s pink)! Champagne Leclerc Briant Brut Rosé ($81) adds a low dosage (read very dry) and complex textures to its food-pairing skills, along with fresh and vibrant apple and pear flavors from a large percentage of Chardonnay and hints of strawberry and cranberry from Pinot Noir.
A wine for the consummate host to cellar
The Mayacamas 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley is a powerful but elegant mountain gem, its great structure hung with expressive black and red fruit, florals, spice, graphite, leather and minerality.
A bottle perfect for cooking with and drinking at the same time
As W.C. Fields famously said, “I cook with wine; sometimes I even add it to the food.” With bright acidity and a combo of savory forest floor and sweeter baking-spice character, Pinot Noir is a brilliant wine to cook with. The Hilt 2018 Estate Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills hits all those notes, with a slightly wild nose of savory pine and a touch of cloves leading to vivid, juicy red fruit—cranberry, cherry, pomegranate—and spice, hanging on through a long finish. Just make sure more of this goes into your glass than whatever it is you’re cooking.
An off-the-beaten-path bottle
The Matt Morris Wine 2017 Tofanelli Vineyard Charbono Napa Valley can’t claim surprising provenance, but in Napa Charbono (a popular red in late-1800s California) is seriously off the beaten path now, with only a precious few acres still planted. This 2017 from Matt Morris (with Françoise Peschon of Araujo fame on winemaking duty) pulls you in with a foresty nose full of sage, spice, dark berry, violet aromas and crushed-rock minerality. Plush, dense and powerful, the palate layers dark cherry and raspberry with licorice and surprisingly firm tannins.
A superb Grenache to win over the Merlot lover
With lush textures approaching Merlot levels, the Belden Barns 2018 Epiphany Grenache Sonoma Mountain veers in the Rhône direction on the flavor front, with vivid strawberry and cherry wrapped in haunting florals, spice and resiny herbs (bay and mint), with an impressive underlying structure.
A welcome classic
Louis M. Martini Lot No. 1 was Napa’s pioneer in small-lot winemaking. The 2016 ($200) is a beauty—opening with complex layers of cassis, violets, graphite, espresso and savory herbs. A powerful structure is disguised in velvety tannins behind blueberry, dark cherry and spice flavors.
A lively Italian red
The Badia a Coltibuono 2016 Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva ($36), from vineyards that have been organic since 1995, is an especially good deal on a Chianti Classico Riserva. From a deep and somewhat brooding opening, savory earth, dark cherry, spice and chocolate notes emerge. Generous red fruit, crushed herbs and elegant tannins layer on a graceful palate.