For wine enthusiasts, who by definition are sharing people, this is the funnest time of the year. During the December holidays they like nothing more than to share their passion in giving ways, hoping to delight people in their lives, however peripheral, with a special bottle or two. We’re here to help their buying decisions.
When the holiday open house is relaxed and casual
Uvaggio 2013 Lodi Vermentino ($14): Guests will arrive no doubt expecting to be handed a glass of chardonnay to go with the deviled eggs and onion dip. Surprise them with something novel that delivers more flavor and zest. That would be Jim Moore’s bargain-priced vermentino, an interpretation more rich and complex than most interpretations of the varietal, but which nonetheless seizes the grape’s characteristic spunk, making it fitting for the hearty and varied foods of the traditional holiday soiree.
J. Lohr Estates 2015 Monterey Wildflower Valdiguie ($10): For a red wine on the buffet table, be similarly daring and skip the predictable cabernet sauvignon or merlot for J. Lohr’s lithe and spicy valdiguie. In addition to providing youthful and refreshing fruit on a slim build, the wine shows that California indeed can yield wines with the high value and animated vitality customarily associated principally with Europe, in this instance Beaujolais.
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When the dinner party is more serious and formal
Stony Hill 2013 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($45): Rare is the label that boasts that the grapes that yielded the bottle’s contents were grown 600 feet above the floor of Napa Valley. But that’s the proud claim of Stony Hill in announcing that this exquisite chardonnay was made with mountain fruit. Not surprisingly, the chardonnay is uncommonly focused, direct and lean, with, yes, a suggestion of stoniness running through fruit with the clarity and snap of lemons and apples. Stony Hill has been doing this for decades, earning a spot on the holiday table for its consistently assured way with chardonnay.
The Hess Collection 2013 Napa Valley Mount Veeder Estate 19 Block Mountain Cuvee ($38): Also from a mountain estate along the west side of Napa Valley, the 19 Block packs all the robust character that has come to be associated with the appellation’s red wines but delivers it with more immediate accessibility. With a tirelessly beckoning aroma, juicy flavors suggestive of blackberries and cherries, and tannins calmed through aging in French oak barrels, the wine is a creative blend of 61 percent malbec, 33 percent cabernet sauvignon, 3 percent petit verdot and 3 percent syrah. Given the wine’s opulence, layering and length, guests will think you paid at least twice this price.
For a casual ‘thank you’
Dry Creek Vineyard 2015 Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($18): Since 1972 the Stare family has had faith in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley as the ideal place for sauvignon blanc. Vintage after vintage they release versions of the varietal brimming with spirit and complexity. With their 2015 they’ve turned out their most layered and lengthy sauvignon blanc yet, thanks to such steps as blending in portions of sauvignon musque and sauvignon gris to add body and to intensify the wine’s floral, melony and citric aroma and flavor. They also fermented small portions of the wine in chestnut, acacia and oak barrels, blending those lots with wine fermented in stainless-steel tanks to produce a wine with both the kick of New Zealand-style sauvignon blanc and the amplitude of French takes on the varietal.
Dillian Wines 2014 Shenandoah Valley Syrah ($22): At the Amador County Fair commercial wine competition this summer, our panel tasted 27 syrahs, giving five of them gold medals. The Dillian, only now being released, was one of them, winning us over for its jammy fruit, peppery spice and silken texture. More than most entries in the class, it stood out for providing a sense of place through its abiding earthiness. You may have to make a quick trip to the winery’s tasting room along Steiner Road in Shenandoah Valley to get some (open only Friday, Saturday and Sunday), but that’s such a fetching drive consider it a gift to yourself.
For the person just starting to develop an interest in wine
Iron Hub 2014 Sierra Foothills Small Lot Chardonnay ($27): While in Shenandoah Valley, swing by Iron Hub, just up Steiner Road from Dillian. There, Tom Jones is turning out a chardonnay interpretation that combines assertiveness with grace so effortlessly the neophyte on your gift list will see by his or her first sip why it’s the nation’s most popular varietal wine. Its tropical fruit is refreshing, its aging in French oak barrels just enough to round out the body and introduce a note of vanilla. Jones had already developed an enthusiastic following for his chardonnays while he was winemaker at his family’s Lava Cap Winery in adjoining El Dorado County.
Shenandoah Vineyards 2013 Amador County Cabernet Franc ($18): Here’s your chance to show that cabernet franc need not be seen as a backwater cousin to noble cabernet sauvignon. Granted, a lot of disappointing cabernet franc is on the market, but this model of freshness and equilibrium isn’t one of them. Indeed, we awarded it best-of-show red at the Calaveras County Fair commercial wine competition this spring for its graceful integration of the varietal’s herbal notes with suggestions of cherries, berries and plums, all punctuated with a spiciness not always evident in cabernet franc. (The Calaveras judging is open to wines from throughout the Sierra foothills.)
For the wine geek who thinks he or she has had it all
Holly’s Hill Vineyards 2015 El Dorado Estate Carignane ($28): Anyone venturing into El Dorado County for a Christmas tree should detour to Holly’s Hill Vineyards in Pleasant Valley southeast of Placerville if they also are looking for stocking stuffers of unusual breeding and character. There, Santa’s bag is stuffed with all sorts of possibilities representing the traditions of France’s Rhone Valley – syrah, grenache, mourvedre and the winery’s flagship Patriarche, an earthy yet spirited blend. One of the family’s more unusual and forthright releases, however, is its fragrant and youthful 2015 carignane, which delivers suggestions of pomegranates and raspberries wrapped in herbal foil and tied with a smoky ribbon.
Corti Brothers 2015 Amador County Zinfandel ($25): From label to backstory, this is the most unusual and one of the more satisfying wines I had all year, and about which I wrote in this space a few weeks ago. In short, it’s a tribute wine inspired by the late Charles Myers, who as a home winemaker in 1965 made a zinfandel that led to the rediscovery of Amador County as a fine-wine region. Half a century later, Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti and Mark McKenna, then the winemaker at Andis Wines in Amador’s Shenandoah Valley, teamed up to produce this jaunty, lip-smacking zinfandel by following notes that Myers jotted down as he made his 1965 wine.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.