NOT MANY people have noticed a subtle change in St. Nicholas these past few years, but there are those who claim the twinkle in his eye and the red glow in his cheeks have come back stronger than ever since the old man began carrying a corkscrew on his Christmas Eve rounds.
No one is quite sure when he stopped smoking his pipe and hand wine racks installed in his sleigh, but each year he has been delivering increasing amounts of wine and wine accessories in this country. This year the choice of gift packages and samplers he is contemplating is almost overwhelming. Then there are books, decanters, holders, tools for opening (and even recorking) bottles, winery T-shirts and memberships in various wine appreciation societies. There is even talk of selling empty bottles of older vintages from famous chateaux as works of art. (Whether the recipient would simply display the bottle, or refill and recork it with another wine wasn't discussed.)
The place to begin your shopping is with wine itself.The variety and range of price is almost beyond compare. There are single bottles, outsized bottles and cases.
The most important question to ask yourself in selecting wine as a gift (after deciding how much you are willing to spend) is when is the recipient likely to drink it.
Most people want wines for current cunsumption. For them consider, among others, Beaujolais from the excellent 1978 vintage or California white wines from the 1977 and 1978 vintages. Among red wines, there are some fine 1976 Burgundies available (at very high prices), 1971, '73 and '74 Bordeaux and California reds from 1974, '75 and '76. The '74 California cabernets are big, rich wines that originally overshadowed the '75s. Now the '75s are beginning to come into their own and are attractive wines with, in some instances, attractive prices.
Buying wine for collectors is more complicated. There is considerable excitement about the 1978 French reds, but those wines are not yet on sale. There are Rhone wines of 1976 of high quality that can be laid away, Bordeaux of 1975 and (if you can find them) 1970, German auslese quality wines of 1976 and 1975, California chardonnay of 1976, '77 and '78, Italian Barolos of 1974.
For the new or occasional wine drinker one of the most useful gifts would be a mixed case. Choose a theme (for example: dry white of France and California, Zinfandel, petits chateaux of Bordeaux) and work with a store's wine adviser to select a dozen different bottles or three bottles each of four different wines or whatever combination suits you. The recipient can taste and compare at leisure, learn about the wines and perhaps find a favorite.
Most of the gift boxes available at various stores are beautifully packaged, and several have clever twists that add to their appeal. Beringer, the Napa Valley winery, has placed three bottles of cabernet or chardonnay and a mix of chablis, rose and burgundy in wooden containers that can be stacked and reused as a wine rack. A package of our vintage of Bordeaux's Chateau Citran comes with tasting notes. The form of Carl Jos. Hock has packaged six German wines of the 1977 vintage with a recorded commentary, maps and tasting sheets in a self-contained "German Wine-Tasting Party."
A tour of Woodley Wines and Liquor earlier this week revealed several prizes that I would be pleased to give or receive this Christmas. All of them should be available at other stores as well. The prices, however, are Woodley's Lanson black label champagne ($7.95), Domaine Chandon California sparking wine ($6.95), 1978 Chateau de la Chaize Beaujolais in a kingly magnum container ($13.95), a magnum of 1963 Warre's port ($29.95), Sandeman's Royal Esmeralda, an aged dessert sherry, for $8.95. At the low end of the price spectrum, consider Moreau Blanc, a non-vintage white from France, at $2.79 or the Chilean cabernet sauvignon of Valdivieso ($3.29). Two California wineries whose products offer good value for money are Sonoma Vineyards and San Martin. The latter has only recently gone into wide distribution in the area and produces several "soft" (low alcohol) wines.
As always there are French wines from famous producers of fine vintages at prices ranging up to and over $100 a bottle. But for a luxury gift you consider the most expensive, non-antique California cabernet sauvignon to sell her yet: A bottle of Robert Mondavi's magnificent 1974 reserve caberent is $29.95.
If you are going away for the holidays or have relatives coming here from other parts of the country, you might consider giving a bottle or two from one of our "local" wineries. Virginia's Meredyth and Maryland's Montraby, Boordy and Provenza can be found at various wine shops.
This has not been a stellar year for wine books. One that will attract considerable attention and presents a spectrum of the world's wines and wineries is "Drinking Wine" by David Peppercorn, Brian Cooper and Elwyn Blacker (Harbor House, $12.95). Among older works, there is the updated, seventh edition of "Frank Schoolmaker's Encyclopedia of Wine" (Hastings House, $12.95), Hugh Johnson's "Wine and "The World Atlas of Wine" (both Simon and Schuster) and Alexis Bespaloff's "Fireside Book of Wine" ($12.95, Simon and Schuster).
Instead of a book, you might consider buying a subscription to a wine newsletter. There are several handfuls on the market, but here are three good ones with different personalities. Robert Finigan's Private Guide to Wines ($24 if ordered by Dec. 31 from 100 Bush St., San Francisco, Ca. 14104) is a month evaluation of European and California wines, personalized and pungent. The Wine Advocate ($15 for six issues a year from 1002 Hillside View, Parkton, Md., 21120) features exhaustive, evaluation by editor Robert M. Parker Jr. of wines by type as well as best buys and wine shop profiles. The only publication to examine the local (Washington and Baltimore) wine scene in such detail. Moody's Wine Review ($20 for 12 issues a year from 1307 Post Oak Park Drive, Houston, Tex. 77027. Edited by Denman Moody, Jr.). A well-written and informative publication for the serious wine collector.