Pouring on the presents
This has been the Year of the Aerator.
Winery tasting rooms, wine festivals and retail stores are touting nifty little gizmos that promise to take the guesswork out of when to drink your wine. No more decanting hours before dinner to let a wine "breathe": Aerators promise instant gratification and, of course, the possibility of a perfect gift for that special wine lover.
Intellectually, it makes sense. Many wines taste better after being exposed to air. They can take 10 minutes or several hours to really strut their stuff. If you've ever fallen in love with a wine on the last sip, you know what I mean. You've been aerating the wine as you repeatedly tipped the bottle to pour. Aerators offer the chance to capture that improvement with the very first sip.
Aerators come in various formats and styles. The Soiree ($25) is a glass bubble that resembles a turban and fits into the bottle's neck. The Vinturi ($40) is a plastic tube that sucks air into the wine as you pour through it. And there's the Wine Swirl ($150), a decanter that uses a magnetic field to create a tornado-like vortex in the wine; after 10 minutes, the wine is supposed to be at its peak.
Each of these has practical disadvantages. The Soiree requires the bottle to be turned upside down to pour properly, which makes for great theatrics in a winery tasting room but can be dangerous at a crowded dinner table. The Vinturi must be held over your glass (though it does fit in a decanter mouth), and it produces an unpleasant sound that might make you wonder what the dog is doing on the kitchen floor. The Wine Swirl uses a small lozenge-shaped doodad to create its vortex; lose that piece and you're stuck with an expensive tacky decanter and a useless magnetic base.
Yet people swear by aerators. I tried each of these, and, yes, wine poured through an aerator tastes different from the same wine that has not been aerated. But it does not always taste better. And I'm skeptical for other reasons: Wine is not about instant gratification (well, except for that first glass of champagne). Wine is best when savored and enjoyed over the course of a meal. And I don't like wines that are over-manipulated in a winery, so why would I want to manipulate them at home?
One gizmo I rather like is the Ravi wine chiller ($40), a popsicle-like contraption you keep in your freezer. It fits into the bottle's mouth, and as you pour through it into your glass, it chills the wine. The idea behind the Ravi is that we drink red wines too warm, accenting the alcohol and diminishing the fruit. But the Ravi doesn't do anything that 20 minutes in an ice bucket or the door of the fridge wouldn't do.
And then there is the Breathable Glass. Produced by the Eisch glassware company in Germany, it is available in different shapes online or at Bed Bath & Beyond stores for $28 to $45 per stem. The Breathable Glass has received an "oxygenizing" treatment that supposedly accelerates the wine's interaction with oxygen so that after two or three minutes in the glass, a wine will taste like it had been decanted for two or three hours. That seems like an "Emperor's New Clothes" situation, in which enlightened drinkers will taste the difference while the rest of us shake our heads. Comparing wine in the Breathable Glass with the same wine in a similarly shaped stem, I did notice a difference after about five minutes, but 15 minutes later, the glasses tasted the same. In any event, Eisch makes a very nice wine glass.
So what to give your wine-loving friend this holiday season? You can't go wrong with a good corkscrew. Too many households are still making do with clumsy angel-wing cork pullers or digging at corks with small, plastic contraptions that lack heft or leverage. A Screwpull or rabbit-style cork puller is always useful, as are traditional waiter's corkscrews. I have nine of those in my kitchen drawer, three on my dresser and one in each of my suitcases so I don't have to remember to pack them. A wine geek without a corkscrew is like a journalist without a pen.
And if you're still not sure what to buy your wine-loving friend, remember: There's always wine.