I once held a party for a milestone birthday, and in contrast to the current fashion for “presence is present enough,” I requested actual presents. I had just started this blog, and I wanted some unusual wines. But I knew people needed a little more guidance than that. So I was very specific.
I said to please go into a wine shop, go up to a clerk and tell them exactly this: “Hello. I have a friend who writes a blog about unusual wines, and he has a birthday. He asked me to come into a wine shop, and ask an employee to help me find an unusual wine that costs $15 or less. Could you help me pick something out that he’ll like?”
It sounds simple, doesn’t it? And yet only perhaps two or three people actually did what I requested. The rest quailed in apparent terror at the thought of going to a wine shop and speaking with someone, and so they brought vodka or wine-themed napkins or, in one case, a corkscrew.
A corkscrew? Are you f’ing kidding me? I have a wine blog. What do you think I’ve been using to open the bottles I’ve been reviewing? My teeth?
I mentioned this story recently to a therapist friend of mine, and bursting into laughter, she exclaimed, “No one is ever going to buy you wine!” But why, I asked, since that’s the only thing I requested, and I told people exactly what to do? “Ha ha! It doesn’t matter! They’re afraid they’ll get it wrong, and then you’ll judge them and shame them.” Oh dear.
Of course. I was bumping up against the deathless stereotype of the obnoxious French sommelier who looks down on anyone who doesn’t know their Yellow Tail from their Yquem. Many civilians (non-wine geeks) seem to think that anyone passionate about the nitty-gritty of wine might be like that horrible person. And certainly, I’ve met the occasional blowhard at the Wine Bloggers Conference — sorry, Wine Media Conference — that is more interested in tooting his own vinous horn (it’s almost always a him) than in connecting with his fellow wine writers. That attitude comes from a place of fear and lack of self-esteem (see here for more on that). Remember that fact, should you ever encounter this unfortunate sort of person.
Few wine geeks I know, however, resemble anything like that archetypal French sommelier. We’re just people passionately interested in wine, and we want to try lots of new, delicious bottlings.
So let’s make a deal. Because wine geeks are, in fact, ridiculously easy to shop for. We just want wine. Not wine accessories, not wine-themed merchandise… just wine.
Here’s how to pick out the perfect wine:
Go to a wine shop — not a grocery store — find an employee, and say something like the following: “Hi, I’m shopping for my friend who loves wine, and he/she is especially interested in _________. I’d like to spend about _______. Do you have anything like that?”
I understand that it’s scary — it must be, judging by what happened at that birthday party — but 99.9% of wine shop employees and owners will love to hear you say something like that, because it makes you easy to help. It’s in their interest to be friendly, rather than judgmental. (Though, of course, you do occasionally get a bad apple.) Don’t worry if your budget isn’t very high. Most wine shops carry bottles at a wide range of prices. In Fine Spirits, one of my favorite wine shops in Chicago, has some perfectly lovely bottles for around $10. And if you’re not willing to spend that on your friend, perhaps you shouldn’t bother getting them a gift at all.
If you don’t know what kind of wine your friend enjoys, ask their significant other, or if that doesn’t work, just get some sparkling wine. Almost everyone likes sparkling wine. If your friend doesn’t, feel free to tell them that Odd Bacchus thinks they’re weird.
And wine geeks! Your part of the bargain is that you will not, under any circumstances, make judgmental noises about a wine that someone has given you. Even if someone gives you something rather less than exciting, you can always turn it into sangria or, if the season is right, Feuerzangenbowle. If we want people to be unafraid to give us wine, we have to make it safe for people to do so. If we act judgmental about a wine gift, verbally or non-verbally, we’re telling the person who gave us the wine that they did something wrong, and being told you’re wrong feels terrible. Wine, it’s easy for us to forget, is kind of scary for a lot of people. That fear is irrational, yes, but it’s real nevertheless.
So do we all have a deal?
Merry Christmas, everyone! Here’s my Christmas list: Wine. Happy shopping!