If it’s currently “’tis the season” for having absolutely no idea which wine to choose for a co-worker, client or holiday party, THR is here to help ease the confusion with tips from industry experts.
Many highly sought-after wines are particularly hard to find right now. “Whether it’s because people drank through their cellars during lockdown or because of a general sense of impatience, we can’t offer enough library vintages for the demand,” says Vanessa Conlin, one of 53 masters of wine in the U.S. and head of wine for online retailer Wine Access (whose offerings include wine selections from Michelin-starred restaurants).
At the same time and likely thanks to inflation, inexpensive wines from overseas also are highly desirable. “People are being more budget-minded these days,” says Chris Lucchese, sommelier and co-owner of Wife and the Somm wine bar and restaurant in L.A.’s Glassell Park. “Everything that Planeta in Sicily makes is outstanding and most, if not all, of their wines are under $25.” (Selections can be found at wine.com.)
FOR HARD-TO-IMPRESS COLLECTORS
Choosing a vintage for those who are passionate about cellaring can be daunting, especially when the goal is to make an impact.
“Age-worthiness is the key, so look for iconic producers with a history of gaining complexity and improving over time,” says Conlin. Her primo picks include the hard-to-find 2017 Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore Magnum, which she calls “The Godfather of Tuscany” ($599, mywineplus.com), and the “timeless classic” 2010 Chateau Margaux Margaux ($1,250, wineaccess.com). Another extolled producer prized by collectors is Vega Sicilia from the Ribera del Duero region in Northern Spain; selections can be found at wallywine.com.
Lucchese and Roberto Facciolla, partner and sommelier at Brentwood’s Toscana restaurant, highly recommend Barolos as gifts. “Two Italian wineries that make outstanding versions are Marchesi [available at wine.com] and Bruna Grimaldi [also available at wine.com],” says Lucchese, adding that the latter “is a more modern, younger style, but still with that racy acid and tannic structure to age.” Facciolla is also a fan of Barolos from Gaja in Italy’s Piemonte region. (Gaja vintages can be found at totalwine.com.)
Phillip Dunn, wine director at Wally’s Beverly Hills, has three California recommendations: Screaming Eagle’s 2018 The Flight cabernet sauvignon ($1,200, wallywine.com); the 2019 Michel Rolland MR Red ($200, wallywine.com); and the 2019 Tor Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon ($375, wallywine.com). “Tor wines are big, they are concentrated, they have structured, they are balanced and they will age well,” says Dunn.
FOR THE HOLIDAY PARTY
“You can’t go wrong with a classic wine from a classic region,” says Lucchese. So look no further than bold offerings from L.A.’s own backyard. Enchanting California options include Sonoma’s 2018 Hamel Family Nuns Canyon; Healdsburg’s 2020 Aperture cabernet sauvignon by celebrated vintner Jesse Katz; Napa’s Robert Mondavi Winery 2017 Reserve To Kalon Vineyard fumé blanc ($170, robertmondaviwinery.com); and the 2019 Far Niente Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon.
Facciolla adds that entertainment-industry titans at Toscana are enamored with white wine varieties such as Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo and Falanghina from Campania near the Amalfi Coast. “They’re full bodied, very elegant and easy to drink,” he says. “Quintodecimo [from $60, klwines.com] is a more affordable producer of these varietals.” Size creates a statement, too.
Conlin suggests considering magnums for merrymaking. “They make any gathering an instant celebration,” she says. Agrees Dunn, “You can never go wrong with large format. As sommeliers, that’s something we always bring. I would do a Billecart rose magnum [$250, wallywine.com] or if you really wanted to impress, I have a 15-liter Bollinger [$3,900, wallywine.com] — that’s party.”
FOR THE DISCERNING
For friends with refined taste in vino, “think about small production wines with big reputations and up-and-coming stars,” says Conlin. She suggests the 2021 John Duval Shiraz Entity Barossa Valley from South Australia ($35, jjbuckley.com). “This is a limited production wine from the former winemaker of the most famous wine in Australia — Penfolds.” And connoisseurs are consistently taken with the 2011 Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Rioja Gran Reserva Especial ($180, lawineco.com).
Lucchese looks to Santa Barbara County for “really well-crafted wines” including the 2014 Feliz Noche Mi Pasión red wine ($100, feliznochecellars.com) by vineyard manager turned award-winning winemaker Felipe Hernandez; Happy Canyon’s 2017 Crown Point cabernet sauvignon ($150, crownpointvineyards.com), where Simon Faury, a native of Northern Rhone, is the lead winemaker; and Kings Carey by vintner James Sparks, who is also the winemaker for Liquid Farm winery. “I’m loving James’ wines,” says Lucchese, whose picks include Kings Carey’s single-varietal 2019 Grenache (right, $38, kingscarey.com).
Another great option: wines from the Buellton-based, Italian-born vintner Marco Lucchesi, the founder of Section Wines; his 2021 Arneis ($36, sectionwines.com) and 2018 Sangiovese ($80) have cult-worthy followings.
FOR THE BUDGET CONSCIOUS
Yes, many wines are worth the hefty numbers, but wallet-friendly choices also abound. To find some of the best, “lean toward wines from smaller regions in Europe, South Africa and Chile, where you can find heavyweights with tiny price tags,” says Lucchese. Conlin suggests looking for second wines, which are vintages, generally made by respected producers, from grapes grown on the same estate as their pricier counterparts. Her pick is Chateau La Gaffeliere’s 2019 Dame de Gaffeliere Saint Emilion Grand Cru Bordeaux ($45, wineaccess.com).
Lucchese says California also offers a treasure trove of options. “Hobo Wine Co.’s Folk Machine label makes some of the most affordable and impressive wines anywhere in the world,” he says. “They’re well made, low interventionist and exciting.” And many bottles are accessibly priced at $25 and below (hobowines.com). Also offering top-drawer varietals for less than $35 is Carhartt Family Wines with virtuoso winemaking team Chase and Brooke Carhartt (carharttfamilywines.com) and the newly opened Vega Vineyard & Farm where legendary winemaker Steve Clifton is crushing it. (Vega’s offerings include the 2021 Dolcetto, right; $34, vegavineyardandfarm.com.)
For those who love sparkling wines, Lucchese is a fan of cava. The Spanish wine made in the champagne method will “knock your socks off without hurting your wallet,” he says. Juve & Camps Gran Reserva ($23, wine.com) is his go-to, while Dunn has an Italian recommendation, Ferrari Brut ($24, wallywine.com).
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.