When I walked into the office this morning, one of my partners handed me a small velvet bag tied with a nice tasseled bow at the top. It was the perfect start to the day as I knew it was a bottle of wine for the holidays.

It turned out to be a bottle of 1996 Opus One, a great meritage, or blend, from the Rothschild/Mondavi Partnership. A very, very generous gift indeed, and one I will remember for years to come.

To me, wine is one of the best gifts for the holiday season. It is always appreciated, has an excellent shelf life and can create a lasting impression with friends or business associates. And it is easy to give as a gift. If you follow the tips in my last column, you'll surely find a wine that will please your friends and colleagues alike. Clearly, the wines in that column will provide joy for anyone who receives them.

Yet if you are looking for that very special bottle for that very special spouse, friend or client, here is my 2004 wish list for the holiday season.

Really Bold Reds

The winery that coined the phrase "Life is a Cabernet" -- Silver Oak Cellars -- gets top billing on my wish list. The 1999 Napa Valley Cabernet is a big yet very smooth drinking Cabernet that was limited in production because of unusual weather patterns in the Napa Valley.

The La Nina weather pattern caused a very slow start to the growing season -- a dry, cold winter followed by a long, cool spring meant a small crop with slow growth. Summer also started cool -- which caused a smaller crop as well -- but warming in August and September led to rapid maturity in the months prior to harvest. The result was a small crop, but one that was bursting with flavorful juices.

During harvest, the heat accelerated and the earth shook, making for a memorable picking season from mid-September to mid-October. The wine was fermented in stainless steel, then aged in American oak for two years, and then bottle-aged an additional 18 months.

The result -- a Cabernet worthy of the Silver Oak name. A blend of 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 6% Merlot and 3% Petit Verdot, the wine to me had an almost mocha coffee taste, with a long finish with just a subtle hint of spice. It is superb with beef and game and, in my opinion, is terrific with chocolate. It is also one of those Cabernets that deserves to be sipped on its own.

While some would argue it doesn't rate to 1997 standards, it is darn close in my book. And you can have it for just over $100 a bottle. While at the high end of the spectrum, it is worth every penny.

The second red on my wish list is a bit off the beaten path but, again, worth the trek. Tucked away on the Silverado Trail is the Darioush winery. Named for its founder, Darioush Khaledi, a trip to the newly completed winery makes the wine that much more special. Growing up in Iran's Shiraz region -- a prolific wine producer until the revolution -- Khaledi was able to sneak a taste of his hobbyist father's pursuits and decided he would become a collector as an adult. For over 20 years after arriving in the U.S., he searched for his wine-making spot and found it on the Silverado trail. Today, the winery -- showing strong signs of his Middle Eastern upbringing -- is a great place to taste his fine Cabernets.

The 2001 vintage is special and the Darioush Signature Cabernet is no exception. Bold, fruit-forward blackberry and licorice tastes dominate this bold blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (84%), Merlot (10%), Cabernet Franc (2%), Malbec (2%) and Petit Verdot (2%). While I find it delightful today, winemaker Steve Devitt suggests it can rest for over a decade, making a great conversation piece five to six years from now. You can grab the 2001 Darioush Cabernet for about $65.

I've talked before about the importance of good relationships in building your wine knowledge. Not only should you make friends with a local wine purveyor, get to know the managers at your favorite restaurants. I would have never found Darioush had it not been for my good friends Richard and Harold Marmulstein, the brothers who founded one of the Atlanta area's great restaurants, Dick & Harry's in Roswell. I'll often stop by for dinner and simply tell Richard to bring a bottle of wine. He knows my price point and always comes up with something unique. Good friends to have!

When Whites Are Wanted

While I tend to drink more red wine than white wine, I like both and find times when I can't wait for a nice, crisp glass of white wine. Here are two to remember.

I challenge you to find a better Chardonnay -- year in, year out -- than the offerings from Far Niente. When Gil Nickel first rescued the Far Niente winery in 1979, the place was in shambles. Three years of hard work resulted in an absolutely incredible winery and gardens, complete with wine caves. And Gil's wines became synonymous with unwavering quality.

His Chardonnay -- now the 2002 vintage -- is big, full of just the right amount of oak, and smooth as butter. While not inexpensive at $52 a bottle, I promise you it's the best bottle of Chardonnay you will likely find -- or I will come drink it for you!

On the "fun white" side, the $25 Conundrum offering is always unique. Originally sold under the Caymus label, Conundrum is now an offering of its own and can be a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, Semillion, Vigonier and just about any other grape that seems to fit the style of the year.

The wine has an awesome bouquet of fruit and honey, and tastes -- while not sweet -- a bit on the floral side. If you are a Chardonnay-only drinker, you may not get it, but then again, you may also not know what you are missing.

And the latest vintage goes even a step further in the eccentric category, showing up on liquor store shelves with a screw top. Don't let that fool you; there really is a shortage of cork and, in this case, the winery found a solution to what many think might prove to be the ultimate conundrum: how to keep wine fresh when you run out of cork.

Bubbly for the Holidays

So many champagnes and sparkling wines, so little time. Believe me, I have tried a lot of them, and this is the simplest of all: Go to your local liquor store, grocery store or even your local Wholesale Club and buy a bottle of Dom Perignon. The monks know exactly what they are doing and, while there are other great champagnes, there is little reason to stray.

For $100, there is nothing that says "happy holidays" or "I love you" better than that green bottle with the green label under the tree. In the champagne world, keep it simple!

To all the wonderful readers with great ideas, enjoy the season. Cheers and Happy Holidays.

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