Wine suggestions
November 26, 2005 7:06 PM   Subscribe

WineFilter: A few professors of mine have written me recommendations and I'd like to get them a bottle of wine for about $15-20. The problem is that I know nothing about it.

One of the professors knows a huge deal about wine, and I'd like to get him a bottle that would impress even the pickiest wine maven.

The only analogy I can think of is with watches. People give each other expensive rolexes, but a watch collector would be impressed only by a finely crafted watch that "real" collectors respect.

What kind of wine would a wine expert like to receive? Something distinct, non-commercial (assuming that's a bad quality?) and special.

posted by null terminated to Food & Drink (41 answers total)
Just about any bottle of wine that costs between $15--20 will be something pretty special. What you should decide on is where the wine is from, and you really can't go wrong with French wine. Especially in that price range.
posted by interrobang at 7:12 PM on November 26, 2005

...and if one of the professors knows a great deal about wine, why not feel him out by subtly asking questions? That could provide you with an extra surprise, where you get him something that he really likes.
posted by interrobang at 7:13 PM on November 26, 2005

Response by poster: I don't trust myself to walk down a wine isle and good by just by going by price. I'd prefer specific suggestions. Thanks though.
posted by null terminated at 7:16 PM on November 26, 2005

Response by poster: *and pick out a good wine just by going by price. Don't know how I messed that up so badly.
posted by null terminated at 7:17 PM on November 26, 2005

Response by poster: And by isle I of course mean aisle. I need to stop sampling these wines!
posted by null terminated at 7:19 PM on November 26, 2005

90+ point wines under $20. Don't say I never did nuthin' for ya.
posted by drpynchon at 7:24 PM on November 26, 2005

Response by poster: drpynchon: I was thinking of going by something like that but was hoping to find something a little more esoteric. Do wine buffs scoff at these rating systems?
posted by null terminated at 7:27 PM on November 26, 2005

I highly recommend the Lion's Peak Lionnesse Red Bordeaux Blend. It's a little more expensive than your stated price range, but well worth it.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 7:28 PM on November 26, 2005

Ugh... so many options.

For the one(s) who are not oenophiles, I would suggest the following extremely crude breakdown: $20 should get you a pretty decent bottle of Californian or Australian wine, but a run-of-the-mill or even bad French or Italian bottle. European wines still tend to be priced at a premium in relation to the quality you get, even after the "revolution" in the 70s (where American wine and by extension Australian became acceptable). Of course that's just my 2 cents about quality-to-price ratios; there's just as much of a chance they'd be more impressed with seeing "Bordeaux" on the label than tasting a nice domestic Cabernet in the bottle.

For the expert, it's too hard to say. There are actually lots of threads of expertise that are totally incompatible. For instance, some would regard my previous paragraph with utter contempt and insist to the death that European wines are the only "real" wines out there. Some follow Robert Palmer's scoring system as if it was gospel; some think it's the work of satan. Some like Reisling, some like tawny Port. It's just a huge field.

How do you know he's an expert? Have you seen his cellar? Does he talk about it a lot? If so, glean his preferences from those observations. One specific suggestion, unless he really hates domestics and/or whites, is Grgich Hills Chardonnay. This is widely regarded as one of the best whites to come out of California, and it has some significance in wine history because of its association with Mike Grgich, who was part of the original team that got an all-French judging panel to pick their Californian wine back in 1976. That's all I got, though. It might be $30 out on the east coast, too.

On checking your location, you could also just pop into a nicer wine shop in New Haven or Hartford and put this question to the owner/manager.
posted by rkent at 7:31 PM on November 26, 2005

Wine is a very subjective topic and it really depends on what your professor likes. I've had many wines that were considered very good, but I didn't really care for them. As mentioned before, feeling out your professor for what he likes wouidn't be a bad idea.

After that, I'd consult your local wine shop clerk. Most people I've met in shops will take the time to help you out, but it's important to have a style in mind before entering the store.

Good luck!
posted by randy_stewart at 7:32 PM on November 26, 2005

A little bit over your budget at $27.99 but an excellent wine, which I have enjoyed on many occassions - Two Hands Angel's Share Shiraz.

An excellent example of an Australian Shiraz from a small producer that is making some very special wines.

Robert Parker gives it 95 points and the following review.

"The 2004 Shiraz Angel’s Share is a hedonistic effort. A deep ruby/purple color is accompanied by a fruit-filled wine with a gorgeously complex nose of lead pencil shavings, charcoal, blackberries, and cassis. Medium to full-bodied, with admirable purity, balance, and the tell-tale opulence and voluptuous texture this estate’s wines all seem to possess, it should be enjoyed over the next 7-8 years."

This will show that you actually have thought about your choice and not just chosen a French wine with a fancy label and the words 'Grand Vin'.
posted by xoe26 at 7:33 PM on November 26, 2005

Response by poster: It's actually the (female) professor's husband who's the expert. I was lying to simplify things. I know he's an expert because she once told me the story of a time he went to France and impressed the owners of a great French restaurant by ordering a wine that none of the waiters at the restaurant would probably be able to taste in their lifetimes and sharing the bottle with the staff.
posted by null terminated at 7:35 PM on November 26, 2005

I have to disagree with interrobang. If the professor is a wine expert, there are definitely wines in that price range that he would think are subpar. And we do pay a premium, at least in the states, on French wine. I think you're more likely to find a better new world wine for any given price than a French one.

My preferences usually match up fairly well with Robert Parker's. One thing I do when I'm looking for new wines to try I just look for the ones, within the category and price range I'm interested in, that he gave high scores to. Online wine stores often show his ratings for the wines they sell, usually for the ones scoring over 88 or so.

You can read about his and other groups' scoring systems here. Dr. Pynchon's link includes wines with scores over 90 from any of these systems.
posted by shoos at 7:36 PM on November 26, 2005

Go to a upscale wine seller and ask for suggestions.
posted by gramcracker at 7:48 PM on November 26, 2005

I have to disagree with interrobang. If the professor is a wine expert, there are definitely wines in that price range that he would think are subpar.

Well, then, I'll reiterate: why not ask the professor what they like, and then go from there?
posted by interrobang at 7:53 PM on November 26, 2005

Go to a upscale wine seller and ask for suggestions.

Not everyone has this in their city. I went to an upscale restaurant last night (yes, we have them, even here in Kan "intelligent design" sas), and they had been putting the red wine in a refrigerator (!). You can't always trust the people working at a liquor store.
posted by interrobang at 7:55 PM on November 26, 2005

Two possibilities: Narrow down to a general type and price and pick the best-designed label in the category.

Or, pick something agrobiologique - organically produced. It's a growing trend.
posted by zadcat at 8:03 PM on November 26, 2005

I agree with gramcracker. As interrobang said, not everyone has this luxury, but even if it's a short trip it will be worth it. Just three days ago I went into one such place and essentially said "I have $x to spend, I know nothing about wine, but I would like to buy a bottle". The guy who served me was extremely helpful and knowledgeable, and since it wasn't any old liquor store he even picked out a bottle and knocked down the price to fit my spending range.
posted by teem at 8:13 PM on November 26, 2005

There have been a whole bunch of AskMe questions about profs and recommendations, many answered by profs (such as myself). And while the following isn't your question...
...there seemed to be a pretty clear consensus from us professors that recommendation writing is very definitely part of our job, and that gifts like this are neither expected, encouraged, nor common.
What is incumbent upon you is to let the professor know the results of the recommendation (whether you got the position).

I hate to be a party pooper. If somebody liked me and wanted to get me a bottle of wine, I'd enjoy it gratefully. But I would feel vaguely uncomfortable hearing that it was tied to a recommendation.
posted by Aknaton at 8:24 PM on November 26, 2005

Aknaton - thank you! I had a panicked moment of "wait, shit, I have to get them a bottle of wine? But I'm broke!"
posted by kalimac at 8:55 PM on November 26, 2005

Response by poster: I'm not getting it for the recommendation, but more for the amount of schools for which they had to individually fill out forms (15).
posted by null terminated at 9:03 PM on November 26, 2005

Did they fill out the forms? Or did their assistants? This might actually have been a task for an administrative assistant in many departments. Not that a bottle of wine might not be a nice gesture, but you may want to investigate who should really get it if a form-filling thank you is what you're after.
posted by dness2 at 9:10 PM on November 26, 2005

Response by poster: The professors filled them out individually. I know the wine isn't required or expected, but each of these professors have been much more helpful they what they're job requires, and I want to say thanks. The suggestions so far have been very good, any more are wecome.
posted by null terminated at 9:14 PM on November 26, 2005

Response by poster: *their, welcome. I need to start proofreading.
posted by null terminated at 9:25 PM on November 26, 2005

This isn't what you asked, but it is inappropriate to give them a gift if you are not at the point where you will never need to ask them for reccomendations ever again (plan on getting another job one day? might you transfer grad schools? etc). You are essentially bribing them for future reccomendations. Most (not all) Professors I know regularly turn down gifts for this reason. A brief note or less gift is more appropriate. In fact, a few words about how they have inspired you, or something like that, is what teachers live for and will be more welcomed than wine.
posted by about_time at 9:25 PM on November 26, 2005

Response by poster: No, it's not what I asked.
posted by null terminated at 9:33 PM on November 26, 2005

Well then, following on Aknaton's vaguely uncomfortable feeling which I would share (I'm a professor too), consider waiting until the application and acceptance period is done and totally over before bearing gifts. After you have accepted somewhere, let the professors know and then give your thank you. It wouldn't be right to give your wine now, then need a couple more letters, or if the schools call your references for follow-up. It's too close to being buttered up when the process is still going. While it may seem to you that the thank you clock is ticking, academics know that the admissions period is still active for awhile, so you have time.
That said, no more than $20, think something unusual rather than rich. Students aren't supposed to have much money. A region that is relevant to you or your studies would be good, or even a label that is school or study related. They will remember the story behind the choice longer than they will the taste, so I would go symbolic.
posted by dness2 at 9:35 PM on November 26, 2005

Response by poster: dness2: I'm planning on waiting until I've been accepted to a school I plan to attend. I'm also taking a class with one of the professors, and I will wait until I graduate to do anything for him.

I understand the hesitation, but I have very special relationships with these professors (two have offered me housing of winter breaks after I was kicked out of my house) and know how to act appropriately, namely by not giving any gifts if the professor can still have some influence on my career or reputation.
posted by null terminated at 9:47 PM on November 26, 2005

This is pretty provincial of me but an Oregon Willamette Valley pinot noir, like Erath, would fit the bill. . . .Willamette wines have a certain cachet these days among wine cognoscenti. Decent ones are in that price range.
posted by Danf at 10:00 PM on November 26, 2005

I know he's an expert because she once told me the story of a time he went to France and impressed the owners of a great French restaurant by ordering a wine that none of the waiters at the restaurant would probably be able to taste in their lifetimes and sharing the bottle with the staff.

That doesn't take expertise, it takes money. That's all that's keeping the waiters from trying it themselves, after all, they can't afford it.
posted by mendel at 10:07 PM on November 26, 2005

what others have said - it's largely about either price (unless you're unlucky, you get what you pay for) and personal preference. if there really were a bottle of wine that was terribly good, but low priced, then the company selling it would be crazy not to to raise the price. that doesn't mean there aren't small variations, or that individuals don't have their own favourites (i drink more than i should of a particular cheap syrah just because the faults i can live with for the price, for example), but it does mean there's no secret that applies to everyone.

also, if they're used to buying stupidly expensive french wines, anything in the range you consider is unlikely to be super-special in itself. i don't mean that you shouldn't do it - i think it's a great idea - but that you should relax a bit; you're probably buying them a decent wine they'll have with a meal, but not something they'll keep for a really special occassion. which is perfect, but takes the heat off you to produce something that only an expert could know about.

having written all that, if i were in their position, and if what i guess above is correct, i'd appreciate you buying something a bit different - something i may not have tried before. if you want to do that, best thing to do is describe your plan to a shop owner, as they will know what is a big company and what is a smaller operation, or special import. a lot of the pleasure in drinking wine isn't just in the quality, but also in the variety.

if you want a specific suggestion, last night i just polished off a bottle of 2004 carmenere reserva by gracia de chile. it was pretty good, and i would guess in your price range (decent but not high-end). also, a carmenere is a little bit unusual. but i have no idea whether you'll find it locally.

[hmmm. searching around, maybe it's lower than your price range! it's available for 6 pounds in the uk and was recommended by malcolm gluck, a respected wine journo - if so, then i may have my relative prices wrong and you're buying a very nice wine indeed!]
posted by andrew cooke at 3:52 AM on November 27, 2005

What discipline do you work in?

If you're a political scientist or a lawyer, maybe Church and State Wines is the ticket. It's a winery in Victoria BC that uses grapes from vineyards there and across in the Okanagan Valley.

Another way to look at it is based on where you get the job, whether it's teaching, a post-doc, or spot in a good program. If you are accepted to a university in Washington State, then something from there would be best. If it's Washington DC, then something from Virginia would be fun. In the US there are pockets of wineries all over the place, and with modern production methods and consultants, the wines are not likely to be terrible - I'm sure they'd be pretty tasty in a full-bodied kind of way.

The point is that if there is a true wine snob around this whole thing, very little that you could buy in your price range is going to impress in the way that you're thinking. Even worse if there's a FAKE wine snob who doesn't really know jack but who just looks at the name/price to decide.

Note that by "little... is going to impress" I do NOT mean that the wine won't be good, even very good. I just mean that since the quality in the bottle is in general quite good compared to some years ago (brought about by commercialization, though that has come with over-standardization, many would say), it's probably better to take good quality as a given and concentrate on a bottle that will be meaningful based on where it was produced or something like that.
posted by mikel at 5:34 AM on November 27, 2005

What andrew cooke said. The following is ridiculous:

Just about any bottle of wine that costs between $15--20 will be something pretty special.

Special to a grad student, maybe. No bottle of wine in that price range will impress anyone who cares a lot about wine and has dazzled waiters in French restaurants. This is not a knock on moderately priced wine (hell, I don't even let myself pay $15 these days and I find plenty of perfectly drinkable wines for less) or a snobbish kowtowing before the glories of French wines (some are superb, a lot are mediocre or worse), it's simply a statement of fact. I've done the wine-tasting, anecdote-swapping thing ("Let me tell you about the bottle of '78 Domain St-Jacques from Duval I had a few years ago—it had been open for a week and it was still the best Burgundy I ever tasted..."), I know what wine mavens are like, and trust me, you're not going to impress them with a $17.95 special from the wine store down the block. Unless (and this is why I think andrew cooke is a genius) you get something they're not likely to have tried, a low-volume specialty wine the buyer for the wine store happens to know about. (Making friends with a knowledgeable person at a good wine store is half the secret to a happy wine-drinking life.) This is absolutely true:

a lot of the pleasure in drinking wine isn't just in the quality, but also in the variety.
posted by languagehat at 6:10 AM on November 27, 2005

I hardly consider myself a wine expert, but I've been drinking wines for a few years now, and have kept track of what I liked and what I didn't like. Before I get to specific recommendations, a few general comments:
  • I agree with what languagehat said about what you're going to find in your price range. There's plenty of good-to-very-good wines in the $15-to-$20 range. You won't find one of the best wines your professor's husband has ever had, probably.
  • I agree with rkent and shoos, and disagree with interrobang, on French wines. I've had several French wines in your price range I was disappointed in, and I think you pay a premium just because "French" is on the label. In my experience, a $20 French wine is likely to be no better than a $10 New World1 wine.
  • Although I've listed the vintage that I tasted and enjoyed here, most of these are New World wines and the vintage is less important for these than it is for Old World wines--they tend to be fairly consistent from year to year. If the 2002 was good, the 2003 probably is too.
  • This is what I've liked, which may or may not bear any correlation to what's objectively considered good, if there even is such a thing as "objectively good" in wine.
That said, here's what I've liked enough in your approximate price range that I would consider them "good enough to serve to guests," along with the price I paid:
  • 2000 Benziger Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma County) $16
  • 2002 Chateau Ste. Michelle Horse Heaven Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley) $14
  • 1999 Chateau Ste. Michelle Reserve Syrah (Columbia Valley) $20
  • 2000 and 2001 Cousiño-Macul Antiguas Reservas Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley) $18 and $15, respectively
  • 1999 Fife Old Vines Zinfandel2 (Napa Valley) $22
  • 2000 Glen Carlou Chardonnay (Paarl) $14
  • 2002 Lange Yamhill Vineyards Reserve Pinot Gris (Willamette Valley) $20
  • 2002 R.H. Phillips Toasted Head Chardonnay (Dunnigan Hills) $14
  • 1999 R.H. Phillips Toasted Head Estate Malbec (Dunnigan Hills) $15
  • 2002 Rosemount Estate Hill of Gold Estate Bottled Shiraz (Mudgee) $18
1"Old World" and "New World" have somewhat different meanings when referring to wine than their common non-wine meanings. "Old World" is Europe (possibly even excluding eastern Europe, depending on who you ask); "New World" is everything else.
2Though many wine experts turn up their noses at White Zinfandel (and I don't like it myself), White Zinfandel shouldn't be confused with ordinary (red) Zinfandel, which is a perfectly respectable wine.

posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:05 AM on November 27, 2005

andrew cooke and languagehat are right, and I can add a few pointers.

It's a well known fact that half of the taste of a wine is its story: where it comes from, how it is done, who recommended it to you, name it: a story. So, first, you have to have a story to tell. You already have the beginning of a story: "I asked in MeFi - explain what MeFi is - and people from all over the world came to the rescue..."

Finding a good, expensive wine is easy: you just need money. Finding a good, inexpensive wine is the real sport. Every wine amateur knows this. Just telling this in your story shows that not only you know this, but that you cared enough to practice the sport.

The sport: you won't find good, inexpensive wines from highly known regions like Bordeaux or Bourgogne or Napa, etc. You'll have to look for peripheral or new wine producing regions like Washington, New York State, or old ones where new winemakers are producing quality wines like Languedoc, Madiran, even Touraine or Cahors in France. And we just touched another point: to have an inexpensive, good, new wine and a story, there is nothing like an individual, a person who grows his own grapes and makes his own wine: look for somebody who puts his name on the label.

Finally, it all depends on where you live and what kind of wine store you have in your area. I know mainly French wines fitting this description, and you can find them all with Google. They are available in New York City in the $15-$20 range, but I don't know elsewhere:
Anything from Mas Jullien (Languedoc)
Domaine Lerys (Fitou)
Clos de la Briderie (Touraine)
Le Mas des Chimères (Languedoc).
And if you find any of these, I can tell you a story or two about them.

In brief: new or less known region, individual grape grower and winemaker, original grapes don't hurt either (far from cabernet-sauvignon and merlot, things like cinsault, mourverdre, carignan , gamay, syrah, etc.)

Looking for wine is fun. When you have found your ideal gift, buy one for yourself. Enjoy.
posted by bru at 8:15 AM on November 27, 2005

Ask people for recommendations to a good wine shop. Doesn't have to be snobby; around here, one of the best places to buy wine, and get great recommendations, is a redemption center (returnable bottle/can redemption - return bottles, buy more). Spend some time writing a great note of thanks, and say why you admire them as a professor. They had to spend time finding things about you to recommend, after all.
posted by theora55 at 9:16 AM on November 27, 2005

That said, no more than $20, think something unusual rather than rich.

It's a well known fact that half of the taste of a wine is its story

Those two nuggets give you the answer right there.
posted by gimonca at 11:31 AM on November 27, 2005

"2002 R.H. Phillips Toasted Head Chardonnay (Dunnigan Hills) $14" posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:05 AM PST on November 27 [!]

Excellent for the price. I drink this pretty often and it's one of my personal favorites. I recently purchased a Toasted Head Magnum for a small party (14.99 u.s.) and it was great! Nice graphics too BTW! (A big bear spitting fire!)
More here.
posted by snsranch at 3:17 PM on November 27, 2005

If your professors are that nice, they know it's the thought that counts. Enjoy the search and don't get wound up. Even If they don't like what you selected, nice people will not think less of you.

Another thought, applicable to all gifts for conoisseurs, is to buy an accessory rather than the thing itself. Wine has a huge amount of paraphernalia. Maybe a really ergonomic corkscrew or a chilly-bag for picnics or a guide to the wines of Portugal would put you on safer ground.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:28 PM on November 27, 2005

They're flirting with $30, but a bottle from Limerick Lane or A. Rafanelli would be fine examples of well-made, small-production California zinfandels that would almost certainly be a notch above everyday. Otherwise, I find 'unfiltered' wines to my liking, and generally indicative of a quality product.
posted by Triode at 5:33 PM on November 27, 2005

Response by poster: There are too many good answers here to mark each one with a best answer. Thank you all for your input! I'll let you know what I decide and how the gift goes over.

posted by null terminated at 9:01 AM on November 30, 2005

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