For The Union Democrat

Every year at the holidays I come face to face with customers who look like deer in the headlights as they roam our wine department.

In a panic and, in some cases, totally stressed out, they are non-wine-drinkers having to deal with finding a gift they have no clue about. Words out that their boss loves Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and the office staff sent them out to find one. Or they were assigned to find a gift for their wine-snob uncle or a special bottle for the big Christmas Day dinner at their house.

In all cases, it is greatly appreciated when you help them resolve it quickly and show them compassion for what they were sent to accomplish. And, in some cases, it is a one-two punch because a week later they are back hunting down a sparkling wine for a New Year’s Eve event.

When it comes to holiday gift giving, a wine from Napa Valley does have a special ring to it. The region can boost it’s truly California’s premier region for producing wine from this low-production grape. But customers tend to have a preconceived notion that it will cost an arm and a leg to buy one. Wine publications and reviewers don’t help the cause either. A popular food and wine magazine recently ran an article on Napa wineries and mentioned favorite Cabernets, touting one by Napa standards as a bargain at $80!

There are a number of small producers who need serious dollars to cover a big investment or overpaid consultants, and possibly some bigger properties with established reputations that somehow think that they can still justify $200 for a bottle of wine. But, surprisingly, there are a number of Napa labels that are a result of wineries that have extra fruit and create a second label or perhaps sell their juice to a company that markets the wine under its own label but do not have an actual winery. Some might be hard to find up in our foothills neck of the woods but are worth a look.

I am always quick to encourage shoppers to support their local wineries and try something different as a gift — a foothill Tempranillo or Barbera or a Lodi Zinfandel or Syrah. But when it “has to be Napa Valley and I am on a budget,” then I turn to solid examples of Cabernets from Textbook Winery, Educated Guess Wines, Ca Momi Winery, Avalon Winery or Twenty Row Winery. All of these Napa reds retail for less than $25 and are solid brands.

Another gift alternative are the seasonal craft brews that are in limited supply this time of year. A number of brewers come out with “anniversary” or limited-production brews this time of year. Think Firestone Brewery Anniversary beer, Goose Island Bourbon Barrel Stout, or an interesting and limited four pack from Stone Brewing that features four 22 ounce bottles of “Liquid Arrogance.” Think oak aged or infused with espresso beans in two of them.

Next week I will discuss bubbles for New Year’s Eve and some fun party food matches. Have a great holiday!

Sonora-area resident Tom Bender has taught classes on wine in Columbia College’s Culinary Arts program since 1979 and manages a wine bar at a Modesto specialty market. He is also a wine maker. Contact him at .