Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wines for Our Wedding

Well, I doubt that anyone still reads this blog, but if so, I'm getting married in two weeks. Of course, if you're a wine snob, then that means that you provide the wines for the wedding, and that's exactly what I'm doing.

Here's our wine list for the wedding:

Wine List

All of the wines on this list have special meaning to us. From our favorite French Chateauneuf du Pape, to wines from our friends Ted and Andrea Bechard in El Dorado County, each of these wines was selected because of some special meaning or memory it holds for us. We hope that you enjoy them as much as we have.

Sparkling Wine

  • Mumm Blanc de Noirs NV – Napa Valley

White Wines

  • Bechard Winery 2005 Sauvignon Blanc – Shenandoah Valley, CA
  • Clos du Bois 2005 Chardonnay “Calcaire” – Russian River Valley, CA
  • Domaine de la Terre Rouge 2006 “Enigma” – Sierra Foothills, CA
  • Holly’s Hill Vineyards 2007 Viognier – El Dorado, CA

Red Wines

  • Allegrini 2000 Palazzo della Torre – Veronese, Italy
  • Belle Glos 2005 Pinot Noir “Las Alturas Vineyard” – Santa Lucia Highlands, CA
  • Clos Saron 2003 “Black Pearl” – North Yuba, CA
  • Domaine de la Terre Rouge 2001 Syrah – Sierra Foothills, CA
  • E. Guigal 2001 Chateauneuf du Pape – Chateauneuf du Pape, France
  • Holly’s Hill 2005 “Patriarche” – El Dorado, CA
  • Jim Barry 2004 Shiraz “The Lodge Hill” – Clare Valley, Australia
  • Windwalker Vineyard 2003 “Lady in Red” – El Dorado, CA
There are a lot of Sierra Foothill wines on this list because it's our favorite place to go wine tasting, and we've make some great friends there. These are for the most part 'personal' wines. I took some high powered bottles of Napa Cabernet and French Bordeaux off this list because we'd never had them and they held no special memories for us. Everything that is left has a specific meaning or memory for us.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Blind Tasting the Blind

There's a new book out called "The Wine Trials" that says that most Americans can't tell the difference between Two Buck Chuck and Dom Perignon. Well, actually, that's not what it says. It says that Americans can tell the difference between Two Buck Chuck and Dom, and that they generally like the Two Buck Chuck better.

Being an America-hating liberal, my first reaction was "Typical. Americans are idiots. All hail the terrorists!"

However, "The Wine Trials" isn't an anti-American, pro-Obama screed. In fact, it's science in action. On second thought, that does make it anti-American.

What the authors of the book did was get a variety of wines, from the cheapest swill to the top French Bordeaux, put them in plain paper bags to hide their identity, serve them average Americans and wine experts alike, and then have these people blind taste and rate each wine. They had over 1500 people taste wines in cities all over the country.

In their tests, most people actually preferred the cheaper wines, or liked them just as well as the expensive stuff. The conclusion that the authors drew from this was that, for the average person, cheap wine is just as good as expensive wine.

My take was that if you’ve only eaten Velveeta, you're probably not going to like Gorgonzola. Just sayin'.

Anyway, I decided to test their hypothesis with my own blind tasting, so I invited friends, family, and a few homeless people over and served them six different full-bodied red wines, ranging in price from $1.99 to $45 a bottle, all disguised in brown paper bags to make us feel like genuine winos. With the exception of myself, no one in the group would publicly consider themselves to be a wine expert; for the most part people described themselves as either 'wine novices' or 'booze hounds'.

The results were enlightening. Easily the most popular wine overall was a 2005 Auriga Eldorado County Zinfandel ($25), a very fruit-forward, but decent zin. The least popular wine was the 2006 Trailer Trash South-Eastern Australia shiraz (I swear to God that I am not making that up). However, both my wife and daughter-in-law rated the Trailer Trash as their second favorite of the six, leading me to conclude that while my friends are OK, I might want to think about upgrading my family.

The rest were all somewhere in between. Here's the average ranking of all ten tasters:

  1. Auriga 2005 Eldorado Zinfandel ($25)
  2. Guigal 2001 Chateauneuf du Pape ($41)
  3. St. Clement 2004 Oroppas ($45)
  4. Terre Rouge 2001 Sentinel Oaks Syrah ($24)
  5. Charles Shaw 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($1.99)
  6. Trailer Trash 2006 Shiraz ($3.99)

If you compare the prices to the rankings, it seems clear that “The Wine Trials” is a crock of poo. The three most expensive wines were also the three highest rated wines. The Trailer Trash and the Two Buck Chuck came in dead last among the wines overall.

Unfortunately, even with the blatantly unqualified bunch of tasters that I had, there wasn’t a clear black and white verdict either way.

In fact, people were kind of all over the place with the wines. To my taste, the Terre Rouge syrah and the Guigal Chateauneuf du Pape were the two most similar wines. I ranked them first and second. But another taster ranked them last and first, respectively. Every wine but the Trailer Trash shiraz got at least one first place ranking among the ten tasters.

The comments were even more interesting. One taster said that the fancy French wine tasted like “robot vomit”, raising the disturbing question of how one would know what robot vomit tastes like. Another slammed the Charles Shaw for leaving “an asphalt-like coating on my tongue”. Descriptors like “urine & cleaning solution”, “hospitals”, “pencil shavings”, “ferocious”, and “gross” flowed like the wine.

The most divisive wine of the bunch was the Terre Rouge 2001 syrah. Five people rated it either first or second; four people rated it dead last. Comments ranged from “yummy”, “wow! juicy!”, and “very smooth, subtle” to “rubber, with a hint of vinyl factory”.

Despite the range of opinions, even among this group of drunkards, a pattern did emerge. In general, tasters could be divided into two distinct groups. The first group preferred more structured and complex wines, with some earthiness and moderate to well-developed fruitiness. The second group preferred simpler, fruitier wines, and strongly disliked earthier, “terroir-driven” wines.

The first group ranked the Terre Rouge syrah first overall and the Trailer Trash shiraz last. The second group ranked the Charles Shaw and the Trailer Trash tied for first overall and ranked the Terre Rouge dead last. Each group had essentially opposite tastes.

So, in a way, the authors of “The Wine Trials” got it right, or at least half right. Some Americans do prefer cheap wine to more expensive wine. But it’s also clear that some Americans like more expensive wines better.

In others words, some people like to drink good wine and some people like to drink crappy wine. But then, I didn’t need to do a fancy blind tasting to find that out, did I?

What I would take away from this is that if you like Charles Shaw, stick with it, because you’re wasting your money otherwise. But if you’re tired of the asphalt coating that Chuck leaves on your tongue, then you might want to think about spending a little more to get your wine fix.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Movin' On Down

I’ve been living on the fringes of Paradise for the past eight years. Now I’m moving. To Chico. Chico sucks.

Now, before all you “Chicoans” come after me with torches and pitchforks like the bitter small town Americans you are, let me explain.

I love Chico. I really do. I work in Chico, and I love the downtown area. I love the fact that we have actual restaurants. I love that there’s music and entertainment. I love Bidwell Park. I love the fact that we have a Trader Joe’s.

But housing in Chico is another matter. After spending nearly a month looking at houses in Chico it became very clear: most Chico homes consist of cheap tract houses (I’m not even going to mention apartments and student housing). Whether it’s 50’s ticky tacky or 80’s ticky tacky – bad, poorly constructed, ugly, cheap tract houses on microscopic lots account for the bulk of Chico homes. Sure, there’s “the avenues”, with their charming old craftsman homes. And there’s Canyon Oaks, as if I could afford to live there (who does live there??). But overall, Chico houses are…well, pretty bad.

I know it’s hard to accept criticism of your beloved Chico, but take a deep breath, put down your guns and bibles, and you’ll be okay.

Fortunately, the longer I looked in Chico, the more nice pockets I found hidden in cul-de-sacs, amongst the blocks of schlock. In the end, I found a very nice house in a very quiet neighborhood, and I’m very happy. But I was really surprised and disappointed at the quality of homes in Chico (Instead of being mad at me, maybe you should be mad at the developers who have filled your beautiful town with such crap. I’m just sayin’.).

So, what could all that dreadful and uncalled-for Chico-bashing possibly have to do with wine? Well, like I said, I’m moving. I’m a wine snob. Wine snobs have wine ‘cellars’ filled with wine bottles delicately aging in cool, dark, quiet places.

And wine (and here I’m talking here about things like my 1998 Chateauneuf du Papes, 2000 Bordeaux, and my bottle of 1983 Beaulieu Rutherford Valley cabernet, not your cases of Carlo Rossi Hearty Burgundy) doesn’t like to be moved.

Huh? Come on, it’s just booze, right? What’s the big deal?

Well, first of all, there’s what is called “bottle shock”. I’m not sure that Bottle Shock, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy don’t all live in the same house (if you get my drift), but many oenophiles swear that when wine is agitated (as is “shaken”, not as in “coming off it’s anti-psychotic meds”), it closes down and loses it’s flavor and character. Fortunately, bottle shock is only temporary, lasting only a week or two before the wine recovers. Maybe. I’m not convinced, but I do treat my bottles with care when moving them.

The bigger problem, particularly in the summer in Chico, is heat. Bottle shock may be iffy, but heat is a real killer of wine – even of your Carlo Rossi. In fact, many wine retailers won’t ship wine during hot weather. I’m sure there’s nothing like a semi full of $100 Napa cabs sitting at a truck stop in Yuma in July while the driver has a lunch of chicken fried steak with a side of mashed taters.

What exactly does heat do? It does what you’d think it does: it cooks the wine. I’ve actually had bottles leak because the heat caused the wine to expand and push past the cork. Not good. How long does it take to ruin a wine with heat? That depends, but if your wine gets up to 100° degrees, you’re probably doing damage to it. If it stays there, you’re definitely doing damage to it. And even 85° can potentially damage wine if it’s kept at that temperature for long periods.

The real problem with moving in the heat isn’t so much the 30 minute drive down the hill. If you take the wine in your personal vehicle instead of letting the gorillas in the moving van have it, you can always turn the AC to “Pre-global Warming Antarctica” in order to keep your wine cool. Leaving the wine in the trunk while you join the truck driver for lunch is probably not quite as smart.

The bigger problem is keeping it cool once you get it down the hill. Storing the wine in the garage while you move the rest of your stuff probably isn’t a good idea. That’s why for me, the wine will be one of the last things to get moved. I want to make sure that I have a cool house and a cool wine fridge to move it into.

I also don’t want a bunch of uncivilized, ticky tacky living Chicoans breaking into my garage and downing my collection. That would make me bitter and want to cling to my guns. On second thought, I think I’m going to fit right in.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Murphy's Law

March 7th Column {Josh - make sure the wines come out in bold so that they stand out}

A couple of weeks ago, my partner and I decided to get out of Dodge and do some wine tasting. So we headed to Murphys.

Murphys is an exceedingly cute, quaint little gold country town near Angels Camp (you know, of Mark Twain/Jumping Frog fame). It has also become an honest to God (Allah, Vishnu... take your pick) wine destination.

And for a number of good reasons.

First of all, as I said, it is an incredibly cute, tiny little town full of gold rush era buildings and country charm. Second, in an eight block area, it seemingly has more top quality restaurants than all of Chico . And third, that same eight block area contains over a dozen winery tasting rooms.

Where else can you go where you can visit a dozen wineries, eat at a fine restaurant, and then stagger back to your hotel room without having to hop in your Escalade and endanger the lives of all the peons on the road?

It's an ideal spot to spend a quick weekend wine tasting, and we had a wonderful time.

Ah, but what about the wines? I managed to taste – and take (often strangely illegible) notes on – 66 different wines in three days. Not bad. At that rate, I'll have my Certified Wino card in no time.

Sadly, I wasn't too impressed with the wines overall, though there were a few standouts. I was actually more impressed with the whites than the reds, an oddity that I'm at a loss to explain. The average score of all the wines I tasted was 2.6 stars, an emphatic “just OK”. No wine scored 4 stars or more, an indication of plenty of “room for improvement”.

Stevenot
For the most part, very worth missing, except for their 2006 Persuasion, made from the white Verdelho grape (a new one on me too). Very floral and buttery on the nose, with smooth, creamy, floral flavors that hint of sweetness. 3.25 stars.

Solomon
Overall, I'd have to say that this is one of the best wineries in the region, making some of the most interesting and complex wines I tasted. Solomon 2005 Seity Zinfandel - Clean, light, spicy cherry fruit on the nose with a hint of cinnamon. Nice smooth flavors, not too big or boozy. My kind of zin. 3.5 stars. Solomon 2004 Muse Mingle - A very simple, fun pizza wine. Extremely fruity, bubblegum and cherry aromas. Tons of cherry and berry flavors. Fun. 3.0 stars.

Milliare

Another of the many so-so wineries, but I was impressed by their 2006 Gew├╝rztraminer. Very floral, with tropical and papaya aromas. Very crisp with a light touch of sweetness on the tongue. 3.0 stars.

Newsome-Harlow
Very nice people and a pleasant place to taste, but again, with mostly "eh" wines, except for another white, their 2007 Sauvignon Blanc . Very complex citrus and floral elements on the nose, with citrus and apricot flavors and a very smooth, clean finish. 3.0 stars.

Lavender Ridge
This was the other winery that impressed me. Good selection of Rhone varieties, both red and white. 2006 Cotes de Calaveras Blanc - A blend white Rhone varieties, very perfumed aroma with hints of lemon. very light and refreshing with apricot and peach flavors. 3.0 stars. 2005 Mourvedre - complex and earthy on the nose, with bright red raspberry flavors. Good balance and smooth finish. 3.5 stars.

Hatcher
This place was hopping with huge crowds, all being served by the one man band of Sewell Hatcher. This place is worth a visit just to see him juggle bottles and tipsy customers. Overall, the wines here were a cut above average. 2006 Viognier - light with a hint of citrus on the nose, light and almost sweet on the tongue with hints of honey and nectarine. 3.0 stars. 2006 'Quinn the Eskimo' Ice Wine - All honey and apricots on the nose, with intensely sweet light flavors, hinting of clover honey and vanilla. Yummy! 3.75 stars.

Frog's Tooth
Run by Gary and Larry, this is a brand new winery and one of the most promising. Their 2005 Tempranillo was particularly notable with a complex, earthy nose, and clean, bright red fruit flavors. Tannins are a bit aggressive now, but it benefit from cellaring. 3.75 stars.

Ironstone
This place is clearly the Microsoft of Murphy's wineries. A couple of miles outside of downtown, this place is absolutely huge. Six stories of winery, tasting room, test kitchens, concert venues, jewelry shops and museums (including a 44 pound hunk of gold). You'd expect a place like this to have overtly simple and commercial wines, but actually many of them were better made than those at the boutique wineries. 2006 Verdelho – Light and tropical nose, with crisp lemon peel and grapefruit flavors. 3.0 stars. 2005 Reserve Cabernet Franc – Spicy, green pepper aromas, with bright red fruit flavors, with an undercurrent of earthy green veggies. 3.25 stars.

Overall, though it's no Napa Valley wine-wise, Murphys get's two solid wine glasses up as a place to visit. We had some great meals there, tasted some decent wines, and just had a good, and affordable time.

As Arnold would say, “ve'll be back”.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas Revisited

For the January 25th issue.

Well, we did it. We made it through Christmas. As you may recall, my family was going to attempt to get through Christmas by exchanging only local gifts, or (failing that) at least not getting anything made in China.

This was a decidedly mixed experience, although a highly educational one. For example, did you know that every single thing for sale in the United States is made in China? I bet you didn't know that, but I can attest that it's 99.999% true.

I spent the last four days before Christmas frantically shopping for anything that wasn't made in China. Sure, I got some local wines for my editor, but I couldn't do that for everyone. We did manage to score a couple of DVDs for the grandkids that were made in Mexico, and I found a pasta strainer that was made in Thailand, but the overall end result of Christmas was that we all ended up trading almonds and gift certificates to local stores (stores, by the way, which are mostly stocked with crap made in China).

Not the most satisfying Christmas in that respect. But I did learn that we are completely dependent on our Chinese overlords for everything we own and use. All hail our Chinese overlords! Sigh. I wish I was kidding.

However, I did score a couple of great wine gifts that I can consume in an attempt to forget that America is now made in - and owned by - China.

First, I got a bottle of 2003 Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve. Despite its French-sounding name, Beaulieu (or, more familiarly, "BV") is one of the oldest wineries in the Napa Valley. And aside from Inglenook (the real Inglenook, not that crappy box wine schlock), BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve is the wine that had the greatest impact in establishing California as a top wine-making region.

It's a wine with a long and fascinating history (and one my absolute favorites) but that's not the subject of this column. The subject of this column is the second wine gift I got: a gift certificate for Creekside Cellars.

My partner went way overboard and got me a $100 gift certificate. That's all great and everything except for the fact that we had agreed to keep things "under control" this year, and that, as a result, I only got her a $25 gift certificate to The Galley. Oops.

That will have to get straightened out later, after she lets me back in the house, but in the meantime I have $100 to spend on wine! Woohoo! There ain't nothin' as fun as buying wine... except of course drinking wine, but to do that you have to buy the wine first, so the way I figure it, it's a win-win situation all the way around.

The rules for using the gift certificate were the same as for Christmas: whatever I picked had to be from California. I could live with that.

My goal on this trip was to try to score a Cab and a Pinot, so right in the door at Creekside, I headed to the Cabernet rack. Silver Oak doesn't impress me, so I skipped that and went straight for the 2005 Caymus Special Selection, but at $170 a bottle it was way too rich for even my gift-certificated blood. Coming back to earth a bit, my eye was caught by the 2004 Justin Isosceles ($59.99) and the 2004 Larkmead Firebelle (meritage blend, $45.00).

Next, I moved to the Pinot Noir rack, which I would normally avoid since I think Pinots have gotten hugely over-priced in the past few years. But today, fortified with a gift certificate, I was attracted to several California Pinots, including the 2005 Belle Glos Las Alturas Vineyard $57.99), the 2005 Sea Smoke Southing ($51.99), and the 2005 Domaine Alfred Edna Valley Pinot ($41.99).

How did I finally decide? Like any smart shopper, I talked to the proprietor, Dennis McLaughlin. Now, my tastes and Dennis's don't always match, but I listened for characteristics I wanted to hear as he described each wine. For the Cabernet, I wanted big and smooth and accessible. Dennis's description of the Larkmead seemed to hit that pretty well. For the Pinot, I like lots of Pinot character, not too lean or subtle, and the Sea Smoke sounded like a full-bodied Pinot with plenty of complexity.

In the end I happily walked out with the Larkmead Firebelle, the Sea Smoke Point Noir and a bottle of 1999 Roederer Estate L'Hermitage Brut (Anderson Valley sparkling wine, $48.99). Of course, that's about $50 more wine than my gift certificate was worth, but hey, I needed the bubbly for New Year's Eve anyway.

Take aways: China sucks. Local stores rock. Gift certificates really are the perfect gift.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The "It" Wine Experience

Column for Feb 8th.


Last Thanksgiving, my partner and I visited our parents in southern California. As the resident "wine expert", I was told to bring the wine for Thanksgiving dinner (a nice festive Mumm Blanc de Noirs).

Unfortunately, I didn't plan for dinner the day after Thanksgiving. We were going to one of my father's favorite Italian restaurants and I didn't have a bottle on hand – an embarrassing predicament for any resident wine expert.

Fortunately, I was sent out on an errand to purchase a lock to replace the one we were going to cut off of King Tut's tomb (AKA my mother-in-law’s 10x30 foot storage locker, the inside of which no one had seen for a quarter of a century and which you really don't want to get me started on because of the boxes of paper napkins stacked to the ceiling, not to mention 25 years of dust, sofas, Pittsburgh phone books and God only knows what else.).

Luckily, there was a high-end bottle shop next to the hardware store. After perusing their very nice selection for an hour or two, I picked a bottle of 2001 Rodney Strong Symmetry. I've always liked Rodney Strong's entry level Cabernet; it’s a pretty solid wine for the price. But I didn't really know anything about the Symmetry. It was just a lucky pick.

I'll skip over the whole deal with the rude waiter, but at least he opened the bottle and gave me a taste before pouring for everyone. That first taste told me that this wine was a cut above average, and as it developed in the glass, I began to realize that I was having the proverbial "it" wine experience.

What is the "it" wine experience? To your ordinary wino, it's that first taste of Thunderbird that convinces them that they could be happy spending the rest of their life living in an alley begging for enough spare change to buy their next bottle. To your extra-ordinary wine snob, on the other hand, it's usually that one glass or bottle that blew their mind and really turned them on to fine wine.

This bottle definitely blew my mind. Unfortunately, there's really no way to describe it. I've drunk a lot of wine in my life, but nothing like this. The Cabernets and Bordeaux I've been able to afford up until now pale in comparison, with ghostly faint suggestions of fruit and thin, spindly structures.

The Symmetry absolutely lived up to it's name, not only with incredibly dense dark flavors of blackberry, black cherry, chocolate, mocha and spices, but also with a wonderful balance, silky smooth tannins and a finish that seemed to go on for minutes. Every sip set off a cascade of stunning revelations.

It was a religious experience, and I could swear I felt the rapture quickly approaching.

Sadly, a bottle of wine split between five people only gives you one short glass to savor, and all too soon the experience was over. I was left like a penniless heroin addict, craving more, more, more. I went into withdrawal almost immediately, and was pale, shivering and incoherent by the end of dinner.

I went back to rob the shop where I got the bottle, but discovered that there was no more. I shot up the place in a rage and left. Then I stole a car and raced back to Chico, avoiding the law at every turn. I searched for the wine online, only to find it nearly impossible to find or incredibly expensive when I did find it. I started stealing TVs and car stereos to pay for my addiction, but to little avail. Eventually, I was caught robbing a liquor store (go figure) and sentenced to 3-5 years.

Or so it sometimes seems. Strange as it is to say, that one bottle of wine really changed my life – and not for the better. No longer does a “decent” bottle of wine suffice for Wednesday night dinner. Every bottle I drink, I compare to that 2001 Symmetry. It doesn’t matter what it is, a $10 Zinfandel or a $70 Napa Cabernet. It gets compared to that one bottle and inevitably comes up wanting.

Like an oenophilic adrenalin junkie, I’m now on a perpetual search for another “it” wine experience, spending hundreds of dollars in just the past couple of weeks on various Napa cabs and Bordeaux.

I thought having an “it” wine experience would be a good thing, but all it’s done is raise my taste beyond the reach of my checkbook. I think the only cure is to “recalibrate” my palate, and the only way to do that is with a bottle of Thunderbird. So, if you see me in an alley somewhere, be kind and toss me some change.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Think Globally by Shopping Locally

Last year, I grudgingly succumbed to the consumerism of the season and wrote a column on gifts for the wine snob in your life. Personally, I've never been a big believer that "the Christmas spirit" = "a frenzy of consumption", but I'm pretty much alone on that one.

In the intervening year, we've had revelation after revelation about the unintended consequences of global consumerism, particularly with respect to the waves of unsafe Chinese goods flooding this country. Fortunately for our health, China is not a wine exporting nation. God only knows what they'd put in wine to cut costs.

To me, this rude awakening of American consumers to the impact of importing goods from far-flung corners of the world (where health, safety and environmental controls are almost non-existent) is a darn good thing.

Maybe it will make us re-examine the meaning of Christmas. Maybe. Maybe it will make us re-examine our obsession with consumption. Doubtful. At the very least, it (and the cost of transportation) may refocus our priorities toward consuming more locally, where we have greater control over freshness, quality and safety.

This Christmas, our family has decided to begin moving in that direction.

We've agreed that all gifts are going to be local in nature. Gift cards will be to local stores instead of global chains (e.g., Lyon Books instead of Barnes & Nobles). Gifts will be from local makers, or at least from California. Nothing from China will be bought or exchanged.

That will be pretty tough on gifts for the grandchildren, since China makes three-quarters of the world's toys. But for the adults it's less problematic. Sure, there won't be any consumer electronics being exchanged, but what about the cornucopia of great foods that come out of the Sacramento Valley? There are wonderful local walnuts, almonds and olives available. And Chico has more than one great local bakery.

Walnuts instead of a Nintendo Wii? Yes, there's no doubt that it will take a little re-thinking of what to give at Christmas, and of what makes a great Christmas gift. But to me, the eternal Christmas curmudgeon, that's exactly what we need to do anyway.

Of course, there's a practical limit to how local we are going to get this year. We've agreed on California as our definition of "local", so we won't be limited to just almonds and walnuts.

Fortunately for me, California just happens to be the premier wine producing region on the entire continent. That made it real easy to say, "Sure, honey, only buying stuff from California for Christmas sounds like a great idea," instead of, "Honey, have you gone completely crackers?!? They don't make HDTVs in California!"

For you, it might be a bit more difficult, but if you want to keep gas prices down, discourage child and slave labor, mitigate environmental damage, and boost our local economy, you might just give it a thought. Or you can go on being a big fat ugly American pig. It's up to you.

So, what do I recommend you get for the wine lover in your life this year?

How about some local wines? In my last column, I rated over a dozen local wines. In general terms, I can recommend a bottle of pretty much anything from either New Clairvaux or Bertagna Son Kissed Vineyards. I'm consistently impressed with New Clairvaux's whites, particularly the Viognier and the Albari├▒o, and the Bertagna Barbara is one of the best local wines being produced.

How about a wine club membership at one of our local wineries? I know that New Clairvaux, Grey Fox and Quilici all have wine clubs.

Failing that, how about a gift certificate at Creekside Cellars, Vino 100 or Monks? Yes, yes, Vino 100 is a chain, but it's a franchise, so most of their income stays here. Of course, you'll only be buying California wines with those gift certificates, right?

Beyond the strictly local, there are literally thousands of California wines to choose from as gifts. I can't imagine that I really need to list any, but here's a couple of personal favorites worth thinking about.

Mumm Napa Blanc de Noirs
A lightly salmon-colored sparkling wine from the Napa Valley (duh), this non-vintage Blanc de Noirs is a quintessential Christmas and New Year's bubbly. About $14. 4 stars.

La Crema 2005 Sonoma County Pinot Noir
For less than $20, this is one of the best Pinot Noirs I've tasted. 4.25 stars.