This is a re-post from a few years ago, but it’s (sigh) still relevant. Hope this helps. For other gift ideas, check out our friend Krista Lamb Davis’ blog Upkeep: Wine, Body and Soul.
It’s holiday gift giving time and one of the biggest problems with all the elitism and snobbery surrounding the world of wine is that it makes the simple gesture of offering a gift of wine so fraught with terror. And it’s so very unfair and unnecessary.
Wine geeks that we are, we have gotten our fair share of kindly-meant white zinfandel (and if you’re not a wine person and don’t know why this is not a good thing to do, relax, you’ve hit the right page). Yet we have not mocked anyone who has ever done so, nor have we cut said people off or thought less of them. But then, we try to be nice and accept the gift as an attempt to respect who we are.
At the same time, we recognize that there might be a boss, a future in-law or just somebody you would like to know better and you’d like to please and/or impress said person and you know this person likes wine. And the sad truth is, this person may also be a wine snob.
The problem is, there are wines that are pretty “safe,” in that almost anybody who likes wine will be reasonably impressed with a bottle of, say, a cabernet sauvignon from Silver Oak winery. But you’re talking about wine that can get pretty pricey. And, truth be told, there are those who think Silver Oak is trading on its label, so you’re still not safe, as it were.
So the first thing to do, if you’re not a wine drinker or know much about wines, is give up on the notion that you’re going to be able to convince a real wine snob that you “know” wines. Because no one knows wine like a wine snob does, unless that person happens to agree with said snob often enough. And that includes people like us who make wine and know what “fine” wine tastes like. That’s what a snob is and why we generally don’t cater to such people. We get that said snob may have a son you’re planning on marrying or may be the manager you’re hoping will promote you. We’re just pointing out that you’re not likely to get on said snob’s good side by trying to impress this person with knowledge you don’t have (and you can’t have it because the only knowledge this person counts as valid is his or her own).
That doesn’t mean you can’t give this person a gift of wine that shows some thought and care in the giving. After all, it’s the thought that counts and while you don’t want to send the message that you weren’t thinking, the vast majority of people out there, including wine snobs, are willing to accept that you made an effort on their behalf. As long as it’s clear that you made the effort. Again, we recognize that there are some people willing to attribute the worst motives to you no matter what you do, and at that point you may want to start looking for another job or settle in for a rocky relationship with the in-laws or re-think the potential relationship. But the following tips should help you with the vast majority of folks.
So when you don’t have knowledge, sometimes the easiest thing to do is ask. If you really, really want to keep it a surprise, you can try framing the question as a request for another friend who likes wine. But simply saying you don’t really know that much about wine and want to learn will generally warm the cockles of even the grinchiest of hearts because there are few things wine snobs love to do more than pontificate about their preferences. You might try asking where a good place to get wine is or what’s a good wine for someone who’s really into wine.
Now, if said snob responds with several different preferred wine shops and asks about budget, or asks what your friend likes, then you’re probably not dealing with a true wine snob. Which means you can go to yet another wine store and ask the person behind the counter to guide you to a good bottle of something unusual. If said snob says things, “Well, the only place to go is…” or “Obviously, your friend will only want….” then you are, in fact, dealing with a snob, and it might be time to check out that tie or purse.
You can also respond with the “Gee, I’m not sure what my friend likes. What do you like?” Listen carefully, because your target snob will give you plenty to go on. As soon as you feasibly can, write down anything you remember. Then you’ve got two options. If your budget is wide open, then you can go to said snob’s preferred store and ask the sales person to help you. Most are pretty cool and get it. Sometimes you’ll run into a fellow snob, but then you can walk and shop elsewhere.
Any decent wine store will have someone willing to help a newbie purchase a bottle for someone else. And the good ones won’t make the noob feel like an idiot. Because you’re not an idiot. You’re trying to please someone with a bottle of wine and it really shouldn’t be this complicated. And it shouldn’t break the bank, either, because there are lots and lots of great wines for under $20 and several under $10. If you get a really obscure label from a truly tiny producer, you can also proclaim it a boutique wine, which might forestall some lip curling.
Now, you’ll note we’re not recommending any specific wines here. Why? Because there are far, far too many to list and every time we read one of these lists, we find we have a heck of a time finding a given label – which doesn’t help when you’re looking at the rows and rows of bottles without a clue what to buy.
So worse case scenario? You don’t know what the target snob likes, just that he or she likes wine. Go with a Bordeaux red, if the person tends toward stuffiness, go with a premium California cab sauv if the person loves labels and status, go with a red made from something unusual, such as negrette or tempranillo, if your giftee likes taking chances and adventure. And, again, try and ask your friendly wine store employee for suggestions. They can offer you ideas even we haven’t thought of.
The only hard and fast rule (unless you know for a fact otherwise) is never, never buy white zinfandel for a wine snob. As a wine, it tends to be just dreadful, sick sweet stuff, which is why we don’t like it. There may be good ones out there and you might even like it, which is cool. But most people who like wine don’t tend to like white zin.
Oh, and for the record, there’s a reason we’re the OddBallGrape. We love trying stuff we’ve never heard of.