'Twas the night before Christmas and, oops, I realized I was short three gifts for friends and neighbors.

Well, no worries, a quick trip to your local wine merchant will always provide an array of quick gift ideas that are sure to please most adults. And, similar to other retailers, wine stores are hoping to make their budgets with big boosts from holiday sales. So, at a good wine shop you are likely to find an extremely helpful salesperson as well as some really cheerful deals on certain products.

But if shopping for wine for yourself is a challenge, just wait until you walk in and start thinking about buying wine for other people -- it can be as mind-boggling as shopping for perfume or clothes for your significant other. So many times I hear stories of eager wine gift shoppers leaving a store feeling defeated because the choices were overwhelming and they just couldn't decide what to buy.

In an attempt to spread holiday cheer and goodwill among potential wine givers, here's a quick checklist of things to think about when buying wine for your loved ones or colleagues and nearly guaranteeing you find a wine that won't create a whine from those on the receiving end.

Develop Relationships

Those of you who are regular readers of this column know that I believe one of the most important tenets of enjoying wine is to befriend a good wine merchant. I enjoy being able to walk into my wine shop and say, "I'm looking for something that will..." and getting a quick, authoritative answer that provides some options.

That is even more important when the wine will be a gift. A good wine merchant will be able to provide a quality bottle in just about every price range and for every taste. Please, please, please ask for a little help. While it may seem intimidating at first, good wine merchants are delighted when they can put their skills to work. And, you will learn in the process.

Many of you have asked the same question: How do I know I've found a good wine merchant? The answer is simpler than you think.

First, a good wine merchant will always listen. If you say you want a $10 bottle of smooth, red wine, a good merchant will offer you a handful of alternatives around that price point. At the same time, the salesperson should be able to describe the attributes of the wines being offered.

Second, alternatives should be offered. If you walk into a store and ask for a $15 bottle of Cabernet and the only thing the salesperson shows is the

Kendall-Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon

, one of three things is happening. First, the clerk hasn't a clue about the various wines available in the price range; second, the store's selection is more limited than your average grocer; or third, the store is getting a volume incentive from a distributor for selling those wines.

Simply try a number of different stores before you settle on any one. Find someone who has a love of wine and, equally important, is willing to share his knowledge. Second, find a store with a deep selection in various price ranges. You want a wine merchant that is just as comfortable selling $15 bottles as $90 bottles. Third, find a store where you like to shop. Better personal relationships will always lead to better deals.

The Shopping List

So, you have decided to give a bottle of wine as a gift this holiday season. Here's a list of tips I have found valuable.

First, be unique. While there is nothing wrong with Kendall-Jackson Cabernet or Chardonnay, you don't know how many people have the same idea. Use your wine merchant to find a wine that isn't on the end of an aisle that everyone is likely to buy on impulse. There are a plethora of wine options in every price range and a good merchant will point you to selections that will be uniquely yours.

Second, buy a bottle for yourself. That may sound self-indulgent (and it is) but you can justify the "splurge" for a couple of reasons. Having it for yourself lets you know what you are giving. I go even a step further and drink it before delivering my gift. That way, I know if it's bad and I can describe the wine to the recipient. If you don't like it, don't give it as a present -- return it and try again.

That leads to the third suggestion -- make the gift personal. Don't just hand your friend a bottle of wine, hand your friend a personalized gift. Find a nice wine gift bag (the cloth bags are always a hit) and put a nice personalized note with the bottle with a description of what you think of the wine. "We enjoy this wine with a bold pasta dish once a month," or something along those lines. If you know a little bit about your recipient's wine tastes, give the note an even more personal touch, playing to that person's wine desires.

There are two other questions I get quite often: First, is one bottle enough? Of course -- you are the gift giver and I have never, ever thought that someone who gave me a single bottle of wine was cheap, regardless of the wine. Moreover, a nice presentation can make the gift extra special.

The second question I often get is: "I took a bottle of wine as a housewarming gift to a holiday party and the host simply set it aside after looking at it. Does that mean it wasn't good enough?" You're being paranoid, of course not. I rarely accept a housewarming gift and immediately open it. In fact, I usually will look at the bottle, try to make a comment or two if I know the label, say thank you and then put it in a rack in our dining room or kitchen. And, I always make a point to indicate how much we will enjoy the bottle at a later date.

Holiday Favorites

Enough of the tips and rules, you say. Let's get to the wines. Here are three that I will likely be gifting this year:

On the white side, the 2002

Matanzas Creek Chardonnay

is a very nice wine at about $20 a bottle. The nice thing about Matanzas Creek is that the name is mainstream enough so as not to intimidate but unique enough to be considered special. The folks at this Sonoma winery craft solid wines and this vintage Chardonnay is no exception. A hint of oak, but not overly so, with a nice citrus-like bouquet highlights the wine. The wine is complex enough to be enjoyed by "big" Chardonnay drinkers but is subtle enough not to offend mainstream pallets. Good wine merchants should have plenty in stock.

On the red side, I'll suggest an upscale selection, the 2001

Merryvale Profile

. This


, or blend -- which can be picked up at most high-end wine shops for about $70 -- is a mix of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot. A very smooth yet complex red, Merryvale has won numerous awards for this very unique blend. Not inexpensive but everything from the label to the last drop from the bottle will please the most discriminating wine drinker. If you want to move down the price scale a bit with Merryvale, try the 2001

Starmont Cabernet

, which has been well received by wine critics.

Finally, there are a number of nice sparkling wines that make great gifts. In the $30-$40 range I would pick a nice, nonvintage French Champagne offered from






. Champagne always makes a nice gift for celebrations and provides a gift that will likely fill that New Year's need as the recipient thinks of you as they ring in the New Year.

I'll take one last look at holiday options in mid-December. Until then, happy shopping.