December 14, 2006


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Got milk?

Wine for horrible friends
What to give when you kinda care
By Tim Protzman

With friends like Linda, who needs enemies?

That’s what I’m thinking this time of year. Soon the holidays will be upon us. Advent has started. Hanukkah starts on Dec. 16 and Muslims celebrate Eid Al-Adha or the Feast of the Sacrifice on Dec. 31.

You’ve got Kwanzaa Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. There’s Boxing Day, St. Lucia Day, the Winter Solstice, Bohdi Day commemorating Buddha’s Enlightenment, Las Posadas (a Mexican holiday recognizing Joseph and Mary’s quest for a place to stay) and New Year’s Eve. And all these holidays are gift-appropriate.

Which brings me back to Linda.

Linda’s an old hometown friend. She lives in Massachusetts. She calls about once a month, usually when she’s in the mood to fight. The last time she called it was 9:30 p.m. on a weeknight. I understand she has young children and this is her only free time, but my day starts at 7 a.m. and usually includes 15 to 20 phone calls. So when I get home the last thing I want to do is talk. I listened patiently for 90 minutes and then told her I was going to bed. She kept talking. Ten more minutes passed. Finally, I said, “Hey old girl, I’ve listened to you enough tonight, I’m going to bed.”

“That is so rude!” she snapped. “I’m never calling you again.”

And she hung up.

If only I’d known it was that easy I’d have done it years ago. And right in time for the holidays, too. One fewer person to buy for. Sometimes friendships are like cheap wine — they go stale with age.

But the Friendship Deity was working overtime that week. The very next day I heard from someone who hadn’t spoken to me in five years. I had lost custody of her in a divorce.

That’s the best way to describe it. When a couple divorces, some of the friends go with the husband and some go with the wife. She invited me to her holiday gathering. One more person to buy for. Sometimes I think people invite me just because they think I’ll be giving them a fancy bottle of wine. This year some of them will be right. A very small some. Because this year I’ve tasted lots and lots of mediocre, one-dimensional, tannic, boring wines. And what a perfect gift for those marginal people in your life: an inexpensive little bottle that offends no one, but maybe just maybe puts a little bit of distance between you and the people you’re gifting.

For my ex-wife’s family members who have graciously invited me to dinners and gatherings, wanting nothing in return except to help them move or redo their résumés and write a cover letter, I’d give a German riesling. Even though they pride themselves on their Teutonic heritage none of them have ever tasted a riesling. This wine’s a little sweet with some good acidity, but most rieslings just don’t have the intellectual heft to hold their own. Just like my former in-laws! I’ll show up with a bottle or two of Valckenberg Madonna Auslese Riesling, $11.99. They’ll enjoy the hints of peaches and tart white grapefruit and I’ll insist on opening the bottle so I can have a glass. This way they can’t rewrap it and give it to someone else. And they’ll have tried another varietal besides chardonnay.

For the lady in the deli who made my sandwiches every day for two months until I stormed out after she wouldn’t open a 99-cent can of sauerkraut for my grilled Reuben, I’d get a Talus Cabernet Sauvignon, $5.99. This wine is nice, not a homecoming queen, but the price makes it a real bargain. At $5.99, it’s a steal for office parties and it’s cheap — like the deli lady. And it’s from Lodi, Calif., a city famous for grapes, bikers and rolling countryside and farms and which, until the wine boom made it an up and coming appellation, was the cabbage capital of California.

For my boss who always asks the same wine question over and over, and then doesn’t listen for the answer, I’d give a bottle of McWilliam’s Hanwood Estate Shiraz, $8.99. Although the bottle says “South Eastern Australia” the winemaker’s notes are like a battered old suitcase covered with destination stickers indicating where the grapes came from: 27 percent Limestone Coast grapes, 5.5 percen Riverina, 6.4 percent Barossa Valley. Then once more I’ll try to explain that shiraz is the same thing as syrah, but they’re both different from petit syrah.

For picky friends like Linda, who like to ask a lot of questions or insist on giving unsolicited advice, I’d give a pinot noir. It could be either a French Burgundy or from California, Oregon or New Zealand. The meaning would be that despite the discomfort, there’s always something to love and hate about pinot simultaneously. The fruit could be exquisite, but the tannins too acidic. The structure could be wonderful, but the fruit faded.

The wine could be nothing like one would expect from a pinot, but more like a zinfandel. Pinot noir is a high-maintenance wine that requires a lot of cold calls and rejection before you make the sale.

Suggested pinots to try your soul and illustrate that even though you’re a pain in the ass there’s something about you that keeps me from totally hating you:
• Anything from California’s Central Coast. These wines are well-balanced and moderately priced.
• Oregon — While more expensive than Californians, they have a pronounced “agony and ecstasy” factor.
• New Zealand — This pinot says if you generally weren’t so sweet and cloying we’d really dislike you especially since you run $10 higher than the Californians.
• Burgundy — You gotta love (or are extremely nauseated by) the person for when you spend $30-plus to give this wine. Then it’s a game of Russian roulette on whether you got a wine that comes from a fabled ancient vineyard that’s been compiled by a lazy sneering cigarette-smoking winemaker who says, “Who cares how it tastes? My terroir alone is worth the purchase price,” or a careful craftsperson whose vineyard is next to a battery factory. Either way the wine, like the person you’re giving it to, will disappoint you. Because for all the grapes in Burgundy, it’s only on rare occasion that soil, climate and winemaking craftsmanship unite in creating a work of art.

Tell Tim your wine stories. You can reach him at

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