Upgrading your wine for the holidays

image You ?re pretty confident about wine, as far as it goes. You know a good $10 or $12 bottle from a not-so-good one, and if one of your friends needs a recommendation for a decent red wine to take to someone ?s house for dinner, you can offer two or three suggestions.

But there ?s a holiday coming up, and so it seems like the right time to spend a bit more ? whether it ?s as a gift for the significant person in your life or to treat yourself. But if all you know is $10 wine, what do you do?

Consider the following:

? Find out if the $10 wine you like has a more expensive label. Bogle, one of the best $10 wineries, does a couple: The Phantom, a red blend, and a Russian Rover pinot noir, both around $17.

? Buy a less expensive bottle from a winery that makes high-end wines. Ridge and Newton are both expensive and well-regarded California names. But Ridge ?s Three Valleys, a red blend featuring zinfandel, is a steal at about $23. Newton ?s Claret, made with mostly merlot in the Bordeaux style, is another terrific $25 wine.

? Buy a nicer wine from a region that you like. New Zealand is famous for its $16 sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs. So why not try something like Cloudy Bay, whose prices are closer to $30?

? Upgrade your grocery store favorite. Most offer not only a basic line, but one or even two more at higher prices and, usually, better quality. Kendall-Jackson, for instance, sells its vintner ?s reserve wines for $12 to $18. The next step up is the grand reserve, where prices run from $20 to $35.

Lots more wine on the shelf

Thought you saw a lot of new wines on store shelves this year? You weren ?t seeing things. Wine companies launched 423 brands in 2006, with more expected this year, according to a report from the Nielsen Co.

What ?s the reason for all of these new labels? Cheap grapes, especially in California, said the report, as well as marketers trying to cash in on wine ?s health benefits ? perceived or otherwise. Perhaps the most significant finding is that grocery store wine sales showed strong growth, doubling the increase in liquor store sales.

The study also found that:

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White zinfandel and high-end cabernet

A fellow walked into a wine shop the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and asked if they had any Silver Oak, a big-time Napa wine that leaves wine snobs weak in the knees. Nope, all gone, said the employee. Well, then how about B.R. Cohn (another pricey cab)? Nope, but I do have Andrew Geoffrey, said the employee (yet another $100 Napa cab).

The customer looked askance at her, shook his head no, and walked out. Which led me to wonder: What’s the difference between that customer, whose palate is restricted to not just $100 wines, but specific $100 wines, and the white zinfandel drinker, who won’t touch anything else?

None at all.

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Wine of the week: McPherson Cellars viognier

I like Kim McPherson. He’s funny, he tells a good story, and he always returns my phone calls. But I’d recommend this wine even if he wasn’t any of those things.

His viognier (about $13) is one of the best examples of what Texas wine can be. It has viognier character, which means it’s a white wine with crisp apple and pear flavors that isn’t as heavy as chardonnay or as citrusy as sauvignon blanc. But the wine doesn’t taste like it was made in California or France, either. It’s lighter and more fruit forward, and it’s easy to drink. Note to wine snobs: Easy to drink is not a crime, but a goal that well-made wine should aspire to.

Serve this with white wine dishes or on its own, chilled to about 55 degrees.

Randall Grahm strikes again

2005 Ca Del Solo Sangiovese Last year, when Randall Grahm sold his Big House brand, those of us who appreciated unpretentious, good value, everyday wine waited for the other shoe to drop. Would his new venture, freed from what he called the golden handcuffs of success, live up to the reputation of the $10 Big House red, white and pink?

Yes, as it turns out. Grahm has released three wines under the Ca del Solo label ? a sangiovese, a muscat, and an albarino, each for about $15. In fact, these may be better than Big House (even allowing for the higher price). The sangiovese, with lots of dark fruit and a touch of Italian style not often found in California, is one of the best sangioveses made in this country, regardless of price. The albarino, made with the Spanish grape, is cleaner and more interesting than many Spanish albarinos I ?ve tasted, while the muscat has a wonderful balance between sweetness and acid and very bright orange fruit.

One caveat: Availability is spotty, mostly because Grahm made just 8,000 cases total, or just 1/50th of the old Big House production. He is apparently truly terrified of those golden handcuffs.

What do young people want?

Forget all that media-inspired spin about hot cocktails and a surge in wine drinking by younger consumers. They’re still drinking beer.

That’s the conclusion of a Nielsen study released this week, tracking the drinking habits of what the report calls Millenials — the 70-million 21- to 30-year-olds in the United States.  That’s the second largest demographic group in the U.S. after the Baby Boomers, and larger than Generation X.

Yes, the study shows that Millenials are drinking more wine and that they want to learn more about wine. (Shameless plug: Check out Two Wine Guys, all you Millenials.) But the key numbers: Beer accounts for almost half of all their alcohol purchases by dollar, and it accounts for 83 percent of their purchases by volume.

Which means that 8 out of 10 times a Millenial walks up to the bar or goes into a liquor store, he or she is buying beer. The dollar figure is lower since beer costs less than wine or booze. Which also means that wine producers need to do more than put cute labels and catchy names on their bottles. They need to reach out to these consumers, and explain why beer is more fun to drink than wine.

Merry Edwards and direct shipping

  Merry Edwards, one of the leading pinot nor and sauvignon blanc winemakers in the world, doesn ?t sell her wine to retailers. You can buy it in a restaurant (mostly of the fine dining variety), or you can buy it directly from her, though there is a wait to get on her mailing list. Otherwise, you ?re out of luck.

Edwards has been doing this since her first vintage in 1997, and sees it as something completely logical for small wineries like hers, which make less than 10,000 cases a year. When Edwards was in Dallas, we talked about her distribution model (as the guys in suits call it), which is unusual. Most small wineries still want a distributor, who sells their wine to retailers.

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