It is, of course, the thought that counts. And the thought should go something like this: "What a creative present! What an interesting person [the gift giver] is. Why don't we ever think of ideas like this?" Properly practiced, the art of gift giving is the art of one-upmanship. Success requires that the recipient be happy, but also that he be thoroughly impressed and ever-so-slightly humbled. That's why an outrageously expensive gift doesn't quite work. While you do upstage the recipient nicely, he is perfectly content to be beaten, because he's getting the Bose stereo system. (The other problem with these gifts is that they're outrageously expensive.) Now, you could pretend that you are above this competitive altruism, but you would be missing out on the Christmas spirit. Wine is the perfect gift. Most people are insecure about wine. They know a little and think they should know more. They bluff about what they know. Most important, while they repeat the old cliché endlessly--"I don't know much about it, but I know what I like"--in fact the opposite is true. Most people don't know what they like or what they should like. It's a scenario ripe for the intimidating gift. But in order for it to work, you must know your opponent--sorry, recipient--and put him into a category.
For the truly uninterested: Someone who doesn't know much about wine and really couldn't care is difficult to impress. But try nonetheless. An easy way out is champagne. The problem with most wines--for both giver and receiver--is that they don't signal that all-important piece of information, the price. How many times have you been given a bottle of red wine by a friend and wondered whether it was a $5 plonk for everyday drinking or a $30 bottle to be saved for a special occasion? But almost everyone over 25 has bought a bottle of champagne at some point, so everyone knows roughly how much it costs (at least $18 for French champagne, which is the only kind of champagne that can actually be labeled as such. Besides, it has the air of glamour, and people like it. (For more on champagnes, see the "Debunk" sidebar in my last column.)
For the guy who pretends to know about wine but really doesn't (and it's always a guy, isn't it?): The wine you choose must seem exclusive and expensive, but not really be so. (If you just buy him something that seems expensive because it is, there's no sport left!) One possibility is a wine that is labeled "special reserve" or some such thing. In fact, there are few rules governing these terms for American wines, so the claims are, in fact, utterly meaningless. But he doesn't know that. Find one of those $7 wines in the bargain baskets, but make sure it has words like "special reserve" or "proprietor's blend" handsomely scripted on the label. One step up, for someone with a smattering of knowledge, Château Duhart-Milon-Rothschild is the perfect buy. Everyone knows the Rothschild family makes very great and very pricey wines. That reputation actually derives from only two châteaux, Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild. Duhart-Milon is a moderately priced wine of middling quality. But in a brand-conscious world, you can't beat the name Rothschild.
F or the true wine lover: This is a real challenge. An unusual wine that he may not have tried is your best bet. Ask your store manager. For instance, if your recipient likes chocolates, the perfect wine pairing with chocolate is a semisweet wine made in southern France called Domaine du Mas Blanc Banyuls. Banyuls is a "vin doux naturelle" made from mainly Grenache grapes and--if you can ever find it--reasonably priced. Dr. Parce of the Domaine du Mas Blanc is regarded as the greatest maker of this wine in the world. If your friend doesn't like chocolates, go down another path. The perfect seasonal wine is an Italian white called Lachryma Christi, i.e., "the tears of Christ." Could you ask for a better conversation piece over Christmas dinner? It's not a very good wine, but who cares? The wine lover's got lots of good wine anyway. (Now, if you know a Jewish wine lover who doesn't like chocolate, you have me beat.) For the wine snob: Most difficult, because this guy goes on and on about wine, has a large and varied collection, and patronizes novices like you. The wine snob's natural inclination will be to smile benevolently at anything you give, implying either that he has your gift already or that it is a dud. You need to surprise and impress him with something that is unusual, but also slightly exotic. It must acknowledge his expertise and yet show him that there are things he doesn't have (again, merely getting an expensive wine is cheating, as he probably has it or thinks it's no value for money). There is only one option: a pair of port tongs. When opening a bottle of vintage port that is more than 40 years old, these are indispensable. The cork will have fused with the glass, so corkscrews are useless. The procedure is as follows: The port tongs are placed in the fire (Where? In the dining-room fireplace, of course), and after a good two hours, they are red-hot. Then the tongs are placed on the neck of the bottle, below the cork. The bottle is rotated so that the tongs sear a circular line around the bottleneck. An ice cube is run across this line. The glass cracks absolutely cleanly, and the top of the bottle is simply removed and the port decanted--to general applause. Irresistible for a wine snob.
For the person who has everything: Like the investment banker who shops from catalogs until he has everything one could possibly want. Do not give him wine; he either has it or doesn't want it. Try glass instead. Riedel, an Austrian firm, makes exquisite, very expensive glassware specially designed for wine (one shape for Bordeaux, one for Burgundy, etc.) in several price ranges. It is fair to assume that your friend has Riedel glasses, probably in several shapes. He is also rich enough to buy the best ones, the Sommeliers series. To one-up him, you have to get something offbeat--the Riedel Sommeliers Moscato glasses. These are specially designed, handblown crystal glasses made to maximize the colors, bouquet, and taste of ... Moscato. Moscato is a cheap Italian summer wine, light, sweet, and effervescent, a lovely quaffing wine, best consumed in large quantities while lolling about in the sun. It is difficult to find the wine for more than $20. The glasses, on the other hand, cost $50 to $60 each. There is something deliciously absurd about drinking cheap summer wine in specially designed, handblown crystal that is three times as expensive as the wine itself. There is only one problem with this gift. A set of six will not be cheap. But remember, it's the thought that counts.