Expert Wine Selections for Everyone on Your Holiday List

7:30 AM 11/22/2019

by Lesley Balla

From assistant to agent to actor, pros share secrets for finding the best bubbles, cabs and more: "Take care of the people who take care of you."

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Illustration by: Massimiliano Aurelio

Holiday season is primetime for wine gifts, and the first rule of thumb is to do a little research. Make sure the recipient even drinks alcohol — "I once gave a British executive a very nice bottle of Petrus without realizing he was a recovering alcoholic. He auctioned it off for charity," says So You Think You Can Dance and American Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe. Then find out his or her preference for a varietal or region or if the person has a penchant for trendy pét-nat sparkling and other natural wines. "You should establish whether the person is at least an Old or New World drinker. That's a big divide," says author and wine columnist Jay McInerney.

A good Hollywood assistant should be able to research anything, but also pay attention to details any time you're meeting the recipient, suggests CAA's head of music brand partnerships, Tom Worcester. If a client once mentioned a trip to Tuscany, get her a nice Brunello. "Surprise them with something they've talked about," says Worcester. "It's the gentle touch that can lead to a big payoff."

ICM senior media rights agent Josie Freedman, who collects mostly Central Coast wines made near her Ballard Canyon ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley, suggests seeking out bottles the giftee never would find in a store. "There are so many up-and-comers in California," she says. In addition to gifting bottles of his own Pursued by Bear wines, Kyle MacLachlan throws support behind rising stars in his home state of Washington. "My Baby Bear Syrah is always a surprise for people not familiar with it," he says, "but I also have an inside track on terrific Washington wines that aren't necessarily in the mainstream yet."

No time for sleuthing? Any well-known collector in this town will have their preferences kept on file at their favorite wine shop, so call and ask. "We might have more than 400 notes on a studio head," says Christian Navarro, president of Wally's Wine & Spirits, whose ubiquitous green box has been hitting Hollywood desks since the 1980s. "What he's given, what he's received and from whom, why it was given. It all helps."

If you don't know the recipient's preferences, zero in by finding out "if they're vegetarian or carnivores; if they're intellectual or creative; if they like art," says Jill Bernheimer, owner of Hollywood wine shop Domaine LA. It's OK to stick with a well-known and respected varietal or region, but make it interesting. "I'll give a full-bodied red wine that they wouldn't necessarily buy for themselves," Lythgoe says. "Barolos and Super Tuscans from Italy, like Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Tignanello." He also gives bottles from his own Paso Robles winery, Villa San-Juliette, which he co-owns with fellow Idol producer Ken Warwick and his wife, Julie Warwick.

Special touches such as packaging or the way it's delivered can make an everyday bottle more eye-catching. "I think a short, personal note on why you chose to send a particular bottle to that person is a nice touch," MacLachlan suggests. And don't worry too much if the bottle is regifted. "Take it to a dinner party or give it to your assistant," says Girls and Camping producer Jenni Konner. "I'm convinced there are five bottles of Dom Perignon in all of Hollywood, and we're all just continually switching them."

  • The Studio Chair

    "You need to select kings of wine for the kings of entertainment and media, wines like Harlan Estate, Colgin, Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Haut Brion," says Navarro. Adds Helen Johannesen of Helen's Wines, "For the person who can potentially buy any wine they want, the 2011 Château le Puy Barthélemy Côtes de Bordeaux ($274) is a magical adventure in terroir and grace."

  • The Streamer Chief

    Make an impact with a magnum of anything, says Christopher Hoel, wine consultant and founder of Harper's Club, whose clients include Mark Wahlberg. But look for something obscure, super trendy and hard to find, like a 2016 Memento Mori Cabernet Sauvignon ($225). Adds Navarro, "I would suggest interesting wines like Sassicaia, a top Montrachet like Marquis de Laguiche, or a Napa cabernet sauvignon like Marciano Estate. These wines will excite their thoughtful brain."

  • The Prestige TV Exec

    A gift that keeps on giving is just the right speed. "A full case of wine to send as gifts down the road comes to mind here. The 2016 Sassicaia ($300) is the perfect choice as this wine will make anyone smile," says Hoel. Navarro thinks that an exec's highly structured life calls for something fun. "Ornellaia, Chateau Hosanna and Jonata," he says, "will put a smile on their face."

  • The Auteur Director

    Go the experiential route, says Bernheimer. "Head to Sicily for unusual and ethereal wines from equivalent auteur winemakers, like Gabrio Bini." Johannesen recommends something totally unique like the 2015 Christian Tschida "Yummy Yummy" Burgenland Cabernet Franc ($109) from Austria. "Christian Tschida is one of the most pure winemakers." Johannesen adds that, "good wine comes at all prices. You don't have to ball out to impress." At a lower price point, she recommends the 2017 Agnès & René Mosse Vin de France Cabernet Franc ($38): “It runs farther and vibes harder than the price point would suggest.”

  • The Showrunner

    "You can never go wrong with a big California cabernet sauvignon because they're so accessible," says ICM's TV lit partner Dan Norton, who reps showrunners for Mr. Robot and Orange Is the New Black. Adds Navarro, "Something full of fruit like Kistler Pinot Noir, a powerhouse red blend from Napa Valley's Quintessa ($300), or a great Brunello di Montalcino like Biondi Santi would help keep thoughts about sweeps away."

  • The Lead Actor

    A project's stars "deserve only truly special wines that are as beautiful as they are," says Navarro. "The Marcassin Pinot Noir ($300), Château Margaux or Leflaive Puligny Montrachet will have them dancing."

  • Your Agent

    If he or she isn't a wine aficionado, stick with well-known names that will impress. "Keep it classic but legit," says Johannesen, who recommends the 2016 A. Rafanelli Winery Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) from Sonoma, while Navarro says Billecart Salmon Rosé, Williams Selyem Pinot Noir or a great Guigal Côte-Rôtie ($75 and up) are easy pleasers.

  • Your Stylist

    Johannesen says the 2018 Gut Oggau Weinland "Winifred" from Austria ($35) inspires creativity and is "chic AF," while Bernheimer finds Furlani's frizzante pét-nat ($26) "affordable, fashionable and colorful." Johannesen also likes the 2018 Domaine de la Renière Saumur “La Cerisaie” ($25), "an elegant chenin blanc."

  • Your Assistant

    A good assistant deserves a great bottle of wine if not several. "It's best to take care of the people who take care of you," Navarro advises. He recommends a delicious Hilt Estate chardonnay ($45) or pinot noir. Adds Bernheimer, "All the kids seem to want is orange wine or a chillable red. So give them one of each, and you have a great gift at the $50 price point." For an orange wine, Johannesen likes the 2016 Vignobles Pueyo Hellebore Bordeaux ($99): "They'll be in seventh heaven!" Johannesen’s lower-priced assistant picks include the 2018 Porta del Vento “Voria” ($24), the 2018 Margins Santa Cruz Mountains “Rugged Heart” ($25), and the 2018 Château Cambon Beaujolais ($24), of which she says, “Keep it classy with the kids’ fave—Gamay.”

    This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.