Every year folks tell me they’re too intimidated to buy actual wine for the wine geek in their lives. Since that wine geek is often me, I always tell them that I love getting wine from literally anyone, but I also caution against some of the fancy wine paraphernalia commonly marketed to the Pimped-Out Kitchen crowd. Some popular products don’t actually work very well; others are simply superfluous.
Taken from the Williams-Sonoma holiday catalogue, here are five products no one really needs, followed by a few actually useful suggestions to level up your holiday shopping.
Vinturi Aerator, $29.95
This little sucker has been haunting me since my first bartending days, when we were instructed to use these things with every wine pour and thus had to clean, sanitize, and dry them between uses. Did it really make a difference?, I’d wonder during a hectic Friday night shift. One night I did an experiment: I ran wine through the Vinturi into one glass, then poured the same wine into another glass of the same shape and emptied it back and forth into a third glass three times to aerate it. My personal (unvoiced) opinion was that the “manually aerated” wine showed more flavor, and my customers unanimously said the same. This is probably why I don’t know a single wine industry professional who uses them. Furthermore, cleaning the Vinturi is a pain in the ass, and if you don’t clean it you might as well dump drain residue into your wine.
What they really want: a decanter
They vary in price, but your decanter needn’t be hewn of the finest crystal to serve its triple purpose: Decanters aerate wine by increasing the surface area exposed to open air, separate out sediment that might be hanging out in the bottom of an older bottle, and look cool, all while minimizing the drinker’s “active time” (as opposed to the Vinturi, which takes up both your hands for several seconds per pour—a busy host’s nightmare). The wine lover in your life probably already has at least one decanter, but it’s helpful to have multiple different ones when you’re hosting wine tastings.
“Rabbit,” electric wine opener, other nonsense; $30 to over $100
Nothing kills my buzz faster than an overly fussy wine opener. Some of these things cost more than a case of wine and they’re of absolutely no help if an old cork breaks—or if you actually want to learn how to open a bottle of wine in any setting like a pro.
This is one of the many instances where mechanical operation is superior. With a basic waiter’s corkscrew (as usual, look to restaurant kitchens to find the most efficient and inexpensive solution) you get a sense of how to gently uncork a bottle while navigating obstacles like crumbly corks and tight foil. I take pride in my ability to save broken corks and open difficult bottles without needing fancy equipment, and it’s because I’ve used waiter’s corkscrews my whole life. (I’m happy to offer a video chat guide to opening wine bottles for anyone who could use some help in this arena.)
On that note, you don’t need a foil cutter, either. These additions are often part of a wine opener set, and guess what? Most foil capsules come off the bottle with no more than a firm grip-and-twist. Those that don’t can be cut with the handy blade that almost every waiter’s corkscrew contains.
What they really want: a bottle of wine*
No, seriously, no wine geek worth your friendship is too pretentious to appreciate a bottle you took time and effort to pick out. And if, worst-case scenario, it’s a brand we know and hate? Fear not—we have parties, too.
Wine journal, $20-$45
I’m sure there are people who want to get into wine via expensive moleskine wine notebooks that have fields to fill in for every possible aspect of the wine experience. But most wine lovers record their favorite bottles with an app like Delectable or Cellartracker, which allows for social sharing, editing, updating, and photo storage without the cumbersome nature of a huge journal to lug around. I love the tactile sensation of a physical book as much as anyone (see below) but this is simply a gift no one needs.
What they really want: good books about wine
For the friend who’s looking to get into wine as a novice, you can hardly do better than the genial Oz Clarke: his Introducing Wine was my go-to resource in my early years. A more comprehensive volume is Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible, a must in any wine lover’s library.
More seasoned wine enthusiasts will have read these volumes; get them a great wine story such as Jon Bonne’s The New California Wine, Evan Dawson’s Summer in a Glass, Wine and War by Donald and Petie Kladstrup, George Taber’s Judgement of Paris, or Benjamin Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar. I’m hearing great things about Thirsty Dragon, but as a onetime China scholar I’m morally opposed to buying a book about China with the word “dragon” in the title.
Chilling wands, chilling pourers, or other last-minute chill hacks; $25-$40
Oh, for the love of Bacchus, Williams-Sonoma! You can get the same result by wetting a paper towel, wrapping it around the bottle, and sticking it in the fridge for ten minutes. Plus, easy cleanup.
What they really want: a fancy-looking ice bucket and interesting towel
Again, most advanced wine drinkers will already own this, but it never hurts to have a selection, and we love pretty things. I personally would be highly interested in a bucket and towel set with a sloth or elephant on it. Ahem.
Fancy bottle stoppers, $5-15
Wine geeks spend too much time dealing with empty wine bottles around the house to care about fancy stoppers; we either shove the cork back in the bottle or empty it the same night. These stoppers don’t do anything to preserve a wine once opened, so they’re of no use to us.
What they really want: Vacu Vin pump and stoppers
Pumping extra air out of the bottle means the wine will take longer to oxidate. That buys you an extra day, maybe two, and that’s not nothing. I always recommend the Vacu Vin pump and stopper design to novice wine drinkers. (Note: only because it’s the original and the cheapest. Naturally, Williams-Sonoma makes its own version, and it’s $25.)
* If you need a wine-shopping Phone-a-Friend lifeline, tweet or email me. I taste hundreds of wines a month and I love giving recommendations.