The Sip

The new rules for holiday wine shopping.

Tenuta delle Terre Nere employee Marco Ciancio studies the winery's prized Don Peppino vineyard atop Sicily's Mount Etna. —Courtesy Sam Decker

For the vast majority of winemaking history — roughly 8,000 years — the height of a winemaker’s ambition was to make wine that wouldn’t poison his family. No one was thinking about jammy fruit or minerality. A precipitous slope here or sea-blown cliff there might have yielded particularly harmonious results, but few drinkers had the luxury of stopping to notice. Wine was primarily a vehicle for calories, and at its best, spiritual rejuvenation (i.e. splendid drunkenness).

By the 1960s — a heartbeat ago in the grand scheme of things — advances in technology had translated wine stability into a dependable set of equations, freeing the industry to embark upon a quest for greatness based on a well-defined archetype. This was the era of cellar gadgetry and overmanipulation — anything to accentuate wine’s positive attributes, which increasingly were seen as ripeness and power. Ironically, this era’s destiny would be to deliver the inverse of greatness — mediocrity — with startling success: The age of industrial wine was born.

We are currently living in wine’s golden age: Deliciousness is the starting place and authenticity is the holy grail. It’s the era of somewhereness, wherein a great wine is judged not by its polish or conformity to an international style, but rather by its distinctiveness — its ability to speak honestly of the place from which it comes. This, it turns out, had been wine’s higher calling all along; we only had to stand back and pay attention. It’s what sets wine apart from, say, orange juice: It can transmit the nuances of a place in a manner that is pleasing to the most primitive sectors of our brains. Beneath its beauty, wine has a zip code.

Which brings us to the matter at hand.

When advising consumers on how best to select wine for a holiday gathering, most experts resort to a tired calculous that recycles two main criteria: value and versatility. The holidays are not a time to overthink it, they counsel in glassy-eyed unison. Choose something inexpensive and agreeable.

Considering that we are all blessed to be living in the single most exciting moment in wine-drinking history, this shows an alarming lack of zest and imagination. Wine has evolved, our tastes have evolved — it’s about time that our mindset for holiday wine shopping came along for the ride.

And let’s not disregard one other important fact: There are only two or three meals a year when the rest of the world appreciates the ritual of dining as the source of spiritual enlightenment that restaurant folks and wine geeks do on a regular basis. We have a rapt audience — let’s not waste it on value and versatility right when people are actually paying attention.

Here are five new rules for holiday wine shopping:

Bring knowledge. With this era of place-specific wine comes a more curious and educated generation of drinkers. A little information dispensed at the right moment goes a long way toward enhancing the enjoyment of your friends and family. Backstory about the grape variety, the winemaker, or the region from which the wine originated are all pertinent. Read your audience — if guests are not fully engaged, keep it short. Your excitement alone will be infectious, heightening the perceptions of those around you.

Bring bubbles. Simply put, sparkling wine is fun to drink. At the top of the quality pyramid is Champagne: With its bright tension and mineral verve it is unmatched in its ability to invigorate both our palates and our moods. But Champagne isn’t your only option. Franciacorta, Italy’s only rival to Champagne, is great, and similarly priced. Try Prosecco from Cartizze, the region’s unofficial grand cru. For value try Cava, which is produced in the same manner as Champagne using grapes indigenous to Penedès in Northeast Spain.

Bring something unexpected. Swap out red Burgundy for Etna Rosso, a tense, wild-fruited red from Sicily’s active volcano. Substitute Sancerre with a bracingly saline Assyrtiko from Santorini. By choosing the unexpected over the familiar, you’re setting the stage for a memorable experience. But a celebratory gathering might warrant more creative thinking. To the uninitiated, Fino Sherry (a dry, fortified white from Spain’s Andalusia region) is one of the weirdest inventions of the wine world. A first encounter is like listening to heavy metal for the first time: It’s utterly thrilling and jarring at the same time. Yet when placed in the right context — raw oysters! — its lip-smacking salinity becomes revelatory. Similarly, a well-timed bottle of port — a fortified red wine from the Douro region of Portugal — at the end of a long meal can inspire fervent, if groggy, praise. Try Late Bottled Vintage Port, which offers some of Vintage Port’s depth and complexity at a fraction of the cost. Both sherry and port have fascinating stories to tell, and, as with virtually all fortified wine, are grossly overlooked.

If it’s special, bring two. Don’t bring a single bottle of your new favorite wine only to spend the entire night carefully rationing it out to those you think are capable of appreciating it. Instead, bring two bottles, and give everyone a chance to understand what makes it special. Much of wine’s popularity stems from the fact that nearly everyone can distinguish bad from very bad and exceptional from merely good, even if one can’t fully articulate why this is so. Great wine tastes great to everyone. Just because Uncle Chester, who happens to be manning the grill with a cigarette in his mouth, is gulping your Conterno Barbera d’Alba Cascina Francia from a water glass doesn’t mean he’s not appreciating it. Take a deep breath and relax: Your work is done. By bringing two bottles, you’ve made a statement: This is special — and like any special thing, it’s best experienced together with those you love.