SELLING WINE is mostly easy. People who want to spend 50, 40, or even 30 bucks on a bottle of wine know what they want. You don't have to sell them anything.
But next time you walk into New Seasons or Whole Foods and ask the wine steward, "What do you have in a good pinot noir under $10?" watch for a wince. If I had a nickel for every time a friend offered wine with the caveat: "I'm sorry, all I have is this $7 bottle of red," I'd have a fully stocked wine cellar, instead of a box in the basement with two bottles in it.
The hardest work a wine salesperson does is talk you into spending five extra bucks on wine you won't have to apologize for. This time of year, you want a trick up your sleeve for holiday feasts, for gifts that impress, and for hiding a bottle and glass in the bathroom so you can drink in peace while your family descends into squabbling or singing. Here are 10 bottles worth the extra three or four dollars this holiday season:
Palamà, Arcangelo Salice Salentino, $12
This beauty smells like the freshly split skin of a clean plum, spraying and dripping dark juice. There's plenty of spice and a warm, almost mulled-fruit flavor that goes down toddy-smooth. Basically any time you see the little gold Small Vineyards label on a bottle, you can trust it. Bonus holiday points for the winemaker naming the wine after his father, Arcangelo.
Saint Cosme, Little James' Basket Press Red, $11
The solera method of winemaking is interesting enough that you'll always have a story to tell about this bottle: The wine is made every year, and every year it's blended with a mixture of all the previous years' wine. Half of the wine is new wine, and the other half includes wines going back to 1999. That means the wine is consistently complex, smooth, and shows off the full range of what Grenache can do: big, crunchy red fruit, but with a hard minerality and earthy spice.
EARL Burle, Côtes du Rhône, $12
This is the money bottle. It looks like money, it smells like money, it tastes like money. It just doesn't cost very much money. It's a young Côtes du Rhône blend, but it shows fairly mature, medium-to-full-bodied flavors: ripe dark fruit and light earthy funk. Bonus points for being hard to find outside Portland.
Jean-Pierre Gaussen, Vin de Pays du Mont Caume, $12
Gaussen is a favorite among drinkers of Bandol wines. Unfortunately, that means his Bandol reds will set you back upward of 35 bucks. This, a Gaussen wine from the area surrounding Bandol, is heady and earthy—almost mushroomy. It's like falling face first into a bed of wet leaves or sticking your head in a nurse log and taking a deep breath.
Monteabellón, Avaniel Tinto, $10
Spain is one of those regions that still seems to be underexplored by wine geeks. The evidence is in the pricing. The Ribera del Duero region ideally showcases the spicy lightness of Spain's famed Tempranillo grape. The Avaniel is a young, unoaked Tempranillo with some spice up front and a smooth finish, but with a thick, ropy, dark berry current the whole way through.
Pajzos Antaloczy Cellars, Tokaji Furmint, $12
Hungary's Tokaj region is famous for sweet white wine, but this offering from Pajzos Antaloczy is a dry version of the Furmint grape. It's a mouthful of honeyed fruit, almost like a dry mead, but finished with gorgeously racy, appley acidity, and spice tickling your tongue.
Illahe Vineyards, Dry Riesling, $15
Naturally, the only local bottle on this list is also the most expensive. One style of white wine worth splurging on in the Northwest is dry Riesling, and Illahe shows why: deep complexity, white pepper, sage, and tobacco aromas with big stonefruit and apple flavor.
Kir-Yianni, Akakies Rosé, $13
This wine from the only appellation in Greece registered for rosé wines is another interesting bottle to break out at a holiday party. Chilled, it shows a lot of bright red fruit, like bobbing for strawberries in a bowl full of more strawberries. There's a shivering bolt of acidity throughout that makes it hard to put the glass down.
Delmas, Cuvee Berlene Blanquette de Limoux, $12
Awesome bubbles for 12 bucks. You can't go wrong with Blanquette de Limoux: dry but creamy, with a mouth-filling body that goes beyond just being bubbly. It's also lemony; it just tastes fresh and open, like facing a new year.
Pizzolato, Moscato Dolce, $15
If you or your guests prefer sweet bubbles, you can't go wrong with this party in a bottle. It tastes like a ready-made Bellini—like shooting champagne and then sloppily biting into a peach. Even those winos who scoff at sweet bubbles will be pulled in by just how fun this wine is.