Wine 101: Holiday Service: Finding the Right Bottle for the Holidays

This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by J Vineyards and Winery, makers of fine sparkling wine. Today’s topic is wine for the holidays. Think disco balls, twinkling lights, and look down — what’s in your glass? J sparkling wine. It could be J Cuvee 20 with zesty notes of lemon or J Brut Rosé that’s blushing with hints of strawberry. Either way, J sparkling wine is exquisite and completes nearly any holiday gift. To order J Sparkling wine for the holidays, follow the link in the episode description to

On this episode of “Wine 101,” host Keith Beavers is joined by VinePair editor and fellow pod producer Katie Brown to chat about gifting wine for the holidays.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and wine lovers, this is the last episode of Season 3 of “Wine 101.” Man, we’ve come a long way.

What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair podcasting network, this is “Wine 101” and my name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. Hey, what’s happening? No matter the holiday, there’s always going to be food around the big ones. What do you do? How do you holiday gift wine? Well, I had someone come in to help me out.

Hey, wine lovers. What’s happening? Last episode of Season 3? Wow. Just crazy. How much have we learned? How much have we learned? Okay, I digress. This year, VinePair has published its inaugural holiday gift guide. As you know, VinePair is a third, a third, and a third wine, beer, and spirits. We have a gift guide for all three of those and more. It’s amazing. Go online; check it out. It’s very cool.

The person that was responsible for making it all happen or the person that led this whole thing was Katie Brown of our editorial staff. I thought, “Why don’t I bring her on and talk about holiday gifting with wine?” I had a wine shop, as you guys know, but it was on a case-by-case basis. I was trying to think of a lot of stuff and I was like, “You know what, Katie, why don’t you come and just ask me questions and I could answer them and we can just jive?” She’s like, “Totally cool.”

She came by, we chatted in the VinePair podcast studios and this is what happened. It’s really awesome. Get ready. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

Katie Brown: Hey, I love that this is on the record.

Keith: It’s all on the record. It’s all on record. Katie, you have created the inaugural gift guide for VinePair. Is that right?

Katie: That is right. That’s true.

Keith: What does that mean actually?

Katie: This year, we did our first gift guide package for the holidays which came out in mid-November. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out. We did guides for spirits lovers, beer lovers, lifestyle gifts, and then, of course, we have our gifts for wine lovers as well, which is probably what these listeners are most excited about.

Keith: They’re going to want to go and check that out. Don’t do it yet. Listen to this episode. Okay. But when you’re done listening to this episode, go and check them all out because this gift guide is, I’m going to say, it’s massive. I’m going to say it’s huge, multifaceted, many different categories. Each category is filled with a bunch of fun stuff. How stressful is it to buy gifts for people in general? That’s tough to do.

When I had my wine shop, I did it all the time during the holidays. It doesn’t matter the holiday, whether it’s Christmas or a birthday or Valentine’s Day or whatever, people would come into my wine shop and I would help them out. I did it for seven years and I loved it but it was on a case-by-case basis.

Katie: Yes, I think with gifting, what’s tough is you want to get somebody something that they’re actually going to like but also something that feels thoughtful. What I think this gift guide does really well is [that] these are all gifts that were actually suggested by people on our staff. People that have these things or have seen these things and would like to receive them themselves. Everything on this list is something that the VinePair staff would like to receive. I think that’s a really good place to start.

As you mentioned, everybody’s different. Every holiday is different but I think for holiday gifts it’s really about thinking about the person and also thinking about, “Okay, if this person is a wine lover, I’m a wine lover, is this something that I would also like to receive?”

Keith: What kind of questions would you ask me? Because I was on a case-by-case basis. For some reason, I have so many ideas in my head about wine and gifting and all that stuff. If you were to do a gift guide for wine and you needed to figure out, like if you needed to ask questions about it, what would you ask?

If you’re like, “Hey, Keith. I’m doing this wine guide,” not tchotchkes and cool stuff like that, but actual wine, what would you ask me? This is how I’m going to help the listeners do that. If you ask me questions and it’s easier for me to just answer them and I can riff on them because it’s hard to generalize too much if I’m all by myself. I need another voice here to help me out.

Katie: Of course. First of all, I think wine is such a good last-minute gift. Especially if you’re headed to someone’s house, you realize that you didn’t have anything that you were going to bring them. I feel like a hostess gift or a colleague, that kind of thing. I think buying a last-minute bottle’s great. I think there are a few different types of bottles that you’re probably going to be wanting to buy during this time. First is like, let’s say I’m on my way to this party. I want to get a bottle that is thoughtful and nice, but not going to break the bank. What’s a great way to find a budget bottle for the holidays?

Keith: For parties?

Katie: Yes.

Keith: Parties are great because, for parties, some people like to bring magnums because there’s so much wine in them, but not a lot of people want to lug around a magnum or you can get a box of wine, which is a lot of fun for parties. But if you want to go for a bottle, you’re going to give a bottle and you’re going to put it on a party table with a bunch of other bottles or something like that. You don’t want to go too expensive. You don’t want to, like, blow out. I’m talking about no more than $30 because you don’t know who’s going to drink it. You don’t know how fast it’s going to be consumed, but you want to contribute.

This is where you get the light and fruity, easy-drinking, affordable wines. I’m talking about European wines in the $10 to $15 to $20 if you could. A lot of those wines come from co-ops in Europe. The quality’s awesome. It’s inexpensive on the American market and they often come in screw caps, which is great for parties as well. Another thing about parties, you probably want to bring a wine that has a screw cap.

These days, most wines that have screw caps are meant to be consumed now. If you have a wine merchant, this is the best time to talk to your wine merchant because you can go to any shop and buy a fun, easy-drinking, inexpensive bottle of wine but if you want to impress with it, you want to talk to somebody about it.

If you’re on your own, like, say you’re in a supermarket or a wine shop that doesn’t have the staff that helps, you’re going to buy a bottle of wine at a certain price on a screw cap and you’re going to bring it and it’s going to be what it is. That’s totally fine. I almost think that party wine is something you don’t even have to think about too much. Just maybe the rule is screw cap and go.

Katie: Amazing. I think what’s interesting is like, you don’t want to spend too much, and you also don’t want your bottle to be the one that’s still sitting there completely full because it’s shitty.

Keith: That’s true. You don’t want shitty, of course.

Katie: I totally agree. I think that’s a great place to start. What if I’m going to a more high-end thing? I want to bring someone a gift, maybe we’re not going to be drinking at the party. It’s something that they could put in the cellar, could drink later with their friends or family. What’s a baller bottle I could get for somebody?

Keith: I would stay away from Bordeaux and I would stay away from Burgundy and I would stay away from Champagne. Those three places make incredibly spectacular wine, but they’re very complex wine regions. They’ve been around for a long time and they’re not easy to understand. Not a lot of wine regions are, but these are people who listen to “Wine 101,” so they know stuff.

I guess what I’m saying is … I think Italian red wine — good expensive, Italian red wine.

Katie: What varieties are we looking at?

Keith: I’m thinking the region of Barolo or Barbaresco, which listeners, I do have episodes on those. You can check them out. Made from the Nebbiolo grape. I think the reason why is that the Nebbiolo grape in Barolo and Barbaresco are not only age-worthy varieties and age-worthy wines. They can age for 30, 40, or 50 years, sometimes on the level of Bordeaux or sometimes even further but they’re widely available. They have high acid, they have incredible tannin structure, they have incredible fruit, and they are wines that you can throw down right now or lay down.

I think Barolo and Barbaresco are awesome and the prices start between, for a good Barolo, it starts at $50. It’s the same price if you’re starting with non-vintage Champagne. Instead of spending $50 on that nonvintage Champagne, spend it on a Nebbiolo, a Barolo, or a Barbaresco. Bring it to the party. I promise you, if people don’t even know what these wines are, the minute it hits their palate, they’re going to lose their minds.

Katie: That’s awesome. Anyone who’s listening, and if you need to get Keith a holiday gift, you know what he wants. Obviously, you and I are both people that love wine. Sometimes when people want to get a wine lover a gift, the first thing that people think of is the wine subscription option. You’re sent wine once a month or however often. What do you think of that as a gift option?

Keith: Oh man. Wine subscriptions. We don’t know where anybody is on their wine journey. What I will say about wine subscriptions is there are a lot of them out there. There was a time before the pandemic, there was major competition for wine subscriptions. It was a big deal. Everyone was coming out with a wine subscription.

The issue with wine subscriptions, it’s not a bad thing or a good thing, but something to think about is that you don’t know where the wines are coming from. You have to trust that the people that are sending you the wine on a monthly basis are doing the work to help you learn more because wine subscriptions aren’t just to get wine in your house, which you could do in a retail shop.

The wine subscriptions are not only to get wine in your house but to force you to be exploratory and every month it’s something different and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is from here. This is from this.” The thing is the quality — I’m just going to say it  — because this is true. You don’t know what the quality of the wines is going to be. If you’re somebody who wants to learn about wine, subscriptions may not be the way to go.

A good way to do this would be to, if you’re going to buy a subscription for a friend, you’re going to spend some money. Take that money instead, go to a wine shop and have somebody curate a case for you. Not once a month, but just once, just as a gift. In the case of curated, quality wine, the person you give it to will enjoy all those bottles because they were curated for this person and that will give them a better idea of diversity in wine than a subscription service where you don’t really know where wines are coming from.

Let’s be honest, some of these wines coming from subscription services are scaled. Meaning there’s a lot of it being made and there’s nothing wrong with scaling. Some people call it mass-produced. There’s nothing wrong with that wine. It’s just when a wine is scaled or made at a mass-production level, complexity diminishes. You want to get wines that have some complexity to them that you can actually enjoy and say, “Oh wow. Okay. Oh, this is wine.” I don’t think subscription services do that unless, hey, if you’re listening and you’re part of it, if you’re a subscription service and you think I’m wrong, hit me up. My DMs are open but that’s what I would suggest.

Katie: Be nice.

That’s a really good point. I think that, if there’s somebody in your life that maybe is a beginner in the wine world and you know they want to get more into wine, that’s probably a really great way to get them into wines that they’re actually going to like and be able to buy again.

Keith: There’s also wine clubs, completely different thing, but it’s also, it’s mail stuff. If you love a specific winery or producer, and you’re like, “I know that my friend will love this.” You can sign them up for the wine club for the winery, but you’re not going to get a diverse sampling of wines, you’re going to get incredible wines from that winery.

Katie: If they’re like a fanboy or fangirl of a certain winery, that might be a great place to start as well.

Keith: Yes.

Katie: Okay. Awesome. We’ve gone through the gifting part. Now, I want to talk about how to pick wines for yourself to drink during the holidays because yes, I’m picky.

I feel like, for my family, a big part of the holidays is cooking, sitting around the fire, drinking wine while we’re doing those things, and just hanging out. I feel like a lot of time holiday wines, when I think of them, they’re a little bit bigger reds or whatever to go with the holiday proteins. What is a good wine? Or what are some examples of wines that we could be drinking during the day that still feel festive, but we don’t need to pair with food?

Keith: Yes. If we’re talking about having fun in the kitchen, cooking dinner, and enjoying ourselves, you don’t really want a high-alcohol wine because you’re cooking and enjoying yourself, and the high alcohol, the more sturdy wines, are probably going to be on the dinner table. Wines to hang out with, I would say low-alcohol wines, that means Prosecco, a Crémant, a Bourgogne, if you want to do that.

In California and other places in the United States, we’re getting a lot of these carbonically macerated red wines that are fun. Just be careful, because the natural wine thing blends into that. Obviously, I like Italian wine, so for me, I like Barbera, I like Dolcetto. You’re trying to keep the alcohol low and the fun up. When you’re talking to somebody about it, that’s what you want to do. If you have a low-alcohol red or white wine, we can all cook and sip it before we hit the table. Those are the wines you’re going to come across.

Katie: Love it. Okay, now we’re sitting down for our holiday meal. We got all our rich, decadent food in front of us. What are we sipping?

Keith: You know the holiday table’s nuts. There’s so much going on because whether it’s Thanksgiving or anything after that, up until New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day dinner or whatever, there’s so much going on the table. It’s very hard. You want to have a really good sense of it; we just did a Thanksgiving list, and that list can be used not only for Thanksgiving but for all holidays with a big bunch of foods on the table.

I think anything really goes, but try to keep the acidity level up a little bit, like big red California Cabs that come in at 16 percent, 15 percent alcohol. They’re big and bold, and you would think they would go with all the stuff because if there’s a lot of stuff that’s happening; that’s not necessarily the case. You need something with a little more acidity to it. A really well-done California Merlot

Cab Franc you could do like a Chinon because it has a peppery note, it has a meaty, fruit note and it has good acidity, so it cuts through all the palate heftiness and just elevates the wine and the food.

Katie: What’s the go-to in the Beavers’ household?

Keith: Barolo. I keep on going back to Nebbiolo. Barolo, Barbaresco, it’s honestly my favorite red wine because you can drink it at cellar temperature, which is a little bit cold. You can drink it at room temperature and it’s just fine. It goes well. It has enough acidity. It goes well with potatoes, but it goes well with dark meat too. It goes well with white meat. Nebbiolo is such a great and amazing grape. It’s always crazy when people ask wine people, “What’s your favorite wine?” I have an answer. It’s Nebbiolo.

Katie: Yes, that’s rare. I feel like certain people would be like, that’s like choosing my favorite child.

Keith: I know, it’s crazy. These wines are expensive, but the thing is, you’re having a holiday meal, so maybe you ball out. It’s not really baller. You’re going to spend $50, $60, $70 on a Barolo or a Barbaresco, and you’re pretty much guaranteed an amazing bottle of wine and it’s going to hang out through the entire meal, but also Beaujolais. I would go for a crus, like a nice focused Beaujolais. Beaujolais has 10 communes and there are these areas around all those 10 communes called Villages, and this is a little bit lower level. It’s not that it’s bad quality. It’s just like they can source grapes from other areas.

The crus like Morgon and Fleurie. All these crus, they’re very focused on their Gamay. Each one is so different. Like the Fleurie is a little bit floral, Morgon has more heft. The cool thing about Beaujolais, actually you could do a bunch of like three or four crus because the cool thing about Beaujolais and Gamay and Beaujolais is that it actually has awesome acidity. It’s awesome chilled, it’s awesome not chilled. It has great fruit. Every commune has that in different proportions.

You could have a Morgon, it’s going to be a little bit heavier, but it still has that crazy acidity and awesome fruit. A Fleurie is going to have less fruit, but it’s going to have all this floral and aromatic nature to it. Does that answer your question?

Katie: Yes, I think it does. Okay. For me though, I’m a vegetarian, which is during the holidays, a bit of a character flaw and I know that about myself, but sometimes that means the wine that’s on the table doesn’t really pair with my food because I’m not eating the meat, I’m eating all the sides. If you’re having a vegetarian to your holiday party, what can you bring for them to make sure that they’re drinking something that actually pairs well with what they’re eating?

Keith: I think the lighter reds we talked about would help. Like the Beaujolais, if you’re sitting down, you want a nice bottle of wine, but never discount white wine. White wine and sides are awesome. A good, not necessarily an oaky Chardonnay, but a nice deep Sonoma Chardonnay would be really cool. Riesling is great for the sides. Any wine, red wine you can chill, which listeners just heard an episode about that so they know what they can chill.

You want to have wines that have a good amount of acidity and nice focused fruit, but not a lot else. You don’t want a lot of tannin in the red wines. You don’t want a lot of oak in the white wines. You want right down the middle. I’m going to be really honest here. I think the number one white wine for any holiday party, for sides, or whatever, is Gruner Veltliner. It is by far one of the most versatile white wines that nobody talks about enough. Often, more often than not, they’re sold in liter bottles with screw caps.

Katie: Genius party wine.

Keith: It’s a genius party wine. Also, the beauty of Gruner Veltliner is that not only is it in Vienna, it’s the, I don’t know what bistros are called in Vienna, but it’s the bistro wine of Vienna. They’re often sold in liter bottles that’s why we get them here because it’s fun. The thing about Gruner Veltliner is it’s very fun. It’s so fun. The thing is, Gruner Veltliner also makes very focused, age-worthy white wine.

You can actually, if you’re the vegetarian, get yourself a liter bottle of Gruner Veltliner, put it in the fridge, don’t share it, just have it up by yourself. Then when you sit down to dinner, make sure you bought an age-worthy bottle or a focused Gruner Veltliner because then you’re going to get white pepper and you’re going to get like some herbs and you’re going to get a good round fruit. You’re going to get like a burst of acidity. It’s going to be very refreshing, but it’s going to be textured.

I think Gruner Veltliner is the best, honestly the best. If you’re a vegetarian, you’re just eating sides. Even if there’s like a meal for you, like a portobello meal or something like that, Gruner Veltliner.

Katie: Amazing. Okay, I have a couple of curve balls for you.

Keith: Oh, boy.

Katie: Okay. Classic on Christmas. I’m Jewish, so that means we have Chinese food at Christmas. What should we pair with it?

Keith: Oh, my God.

Katie: I like spicy, very tongue-tingly Chinese food.

Keith: I love Chinese food at Christmas.

Katie: Me too.

Keith: It’s the best. Living in New York City, so many friends. Christmas is just awesome. It’s just… 

Katie: One of the best traditions of our people.

Keith: It is. I’m honored to be part of it over the year. I loved it so much. Actually, Adam Teeter, CEO of VinePair, and Josh and I, it was an annual thing we did. We would go down to Chinatown every year with a bunch of people. Actually, Tim came to one of them. It was incredible. We all just brought wine and we brought Riesling. Champagne. Imagine that. An awesome blanc de blancs, a 100 percent Chardonnay. Beautiful, round, pillowy, bubbly with that savory, angular, peppery food.

The Champagne, and specifically Champagne. They don’t have as much atmospheric pressure in them, so they come off as a little bit softer, a little smoother, which is totally awesome. Champagne has more atmospheric pressure in the bottle and it has more aggressiveness to it. When you’re eating Chinese food, that aggressiveness of the bubbles and the high acid from what the base wine was and that wild brioche-ness wrapped around it will just literally pair with every little thing on your palate. The acidity is going to accentuate the food. The bubbles are going to excite the palate. The brioche is going to calm the heat. It’s perfect.

Katie: Yum.

Keith: If you don’t want to throw down on a Champagne, Prosecco. Prosecco is between what, $8 and $20? So definitely. If you want to get yourself a blanc de blancs, I think, a blanc de blancs, 100 percent Chardonnay Champagne. I want to do that right now.

Katie: I was going to say, can we do that after this?

Keith: Can we go?

Katie: After this recording?

Keith: It’s delicious.

Katie: At the same time, I also wanted to ask about — Hanukkah starts, I think, on the 18th of December. My favorite thing about that is that we always make homemade latkes, which are basically, if you don’t know, potato pancakes fried up.

Keith: Delicious.

Katie: So good.

Keith: Apple sauce and sour cream.

Katie: What is the best thing to drink with them or other fried foods you might be eating during this holiday?

Keith: Everything I said before would work: Champagne, Prosecco. I want you guys to really get into this. I feel like these wines need our love on the American market and we need to fall in love with them more and more so that more and more of them come to our market. Lambrusco, sparkling red wine from Emilia-Romagna. A lot of the Lambrusco we have in the United States today, it’s Lambrusco, but it also has a grape called Ancelootta. That variety is very sweet.

Not, unfortunately, it just happens to be a fact that we fell in love with Lambrusco on the American market through Riunite. Riunite was very sweet. All we understand about Lambrusco is the sweetness. Lambrusco’s not sweet. These wines are made from different styles of the Lambrusco grape and it’s often dry, crispy, herbal, and refreshing af.

Katie: Yum.

Keith: It’s hard to explain how wonderful and beautiful they are until you actually experience one. When you go looking for them, the only downside is you got to demand that it’s not sweet. Demand it. If you say, “I don’t want a sweet Lambrusco,” you’re going to get a sweet Lambrusco. You have to say, “Look, I want a Lambrusco that’s dry, herby, and just refreshing as hell.” Then they’ll find it. If it’s not available, it’s not available. If it’s not available, try it anyway, but latkes with Lambrusco, oh my God.

Katie: Mind-blowing.

Keith: That’s amazing.

Katie: A lot of people make sufganiyot, which are jelly donuts made from scratch. I feel like that would go so well with the Lambrusco as well.

Keith: I think so too.

Katie: Yum.

Keith: Just that dry, dry, dry, dry beautiful Lambrusco. I wish I had them. I don’t have any brands on the top of my head right now on wine producers, but they’re out there. You just got to ask. You got to go to wine shops that —

Katie: We have some nice lists on our site that list some of our favorite sparkling reds, including some Lambrusco. So go check them out.

Keith: Actually. Yes. Just go on to VinePair and search Lambrusco. They’ll all pop up.

Katie: There you go. Do you have any certain food traditions that you guys do every year during the holidays?

Keith: No. I’m half-Italian, half-hillbilly, and we would do the traditional stuff, which fits the hillbilly side. Then my mom is Italian, so always Italian food. If we had Thanksgiving, Christmas, whatever, big meal. If there was a turkey or some bird and trimmings around it, there was lasagna and there were meatballs and there was pasta. It’s like you would have —

Katie: There’s never a wrong time to eat lasagna.

Keith: No, there’s not. We would always have even more food because we would always have the traditional stuff because we had to, but then the Italian side was like, “Well, don’t forget about the meatballs. Don’t forget about the lasagna. What you doing?”

Katie: Do you still have the traditional lasagna every year?

Keith: I’m making it this year.

Katie: What are you going to pair with it?

Keith: Chianti.

Katie: There you go.

Keith: I just love it so much, because Chianti is another beautiful, amazing, and actually you know what? Chianti can run through all these questions as well

Katie: Don’t sleep on Chianti.

Keith: Don’t sleep on Chianti because a good bright Chianti will go well with a latke — no it won’t. I’m lying.

Katie: He’s like, “I went too far.”

Keith: Yes, I went too far. Chianti in lasagna and in pasta and meatballs are just like, oh, it’s amazing.

Katie: I heard the half-Italian just come out.

Keith: Yes, I know. I was even gesturing.

Okay, wine lovers. I really hope this helped you guys out for the holidays and I’m really thankful for Katie coming on. Katie’s a very busy person. It’s just so nice that she came on. Thank you, Katie, for coming on.

Katie: Of course. I’m happy to come back whenever you need any gifting advice.

Keith: Dope. Maybe next year. Guys, this is the last episode of Season 3 of “Wine 101.” I’ll catch y’all in Season 4.

Katie: Bye.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there. 

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.