What sort of birthday present do you get for the wine fancier who already has everything: a cellar full of rare and prized bottles, a kitchen drawer with a full complement of cork pulls, a special refrigerator for chilling wine? You might tell yourself that not every wine fancier has everything yet but because oenophilia has become such a conspicuous component of lifestyle pornography, of status-consumption culture, the gap between aspiration and acquisition narrows a little every day. If wine in these parts is now a sort of wampum, constantly traded in an informal barter economy, it is still one thing to show up for dinner at somebody else's house with a bottle of midrange chardonnay or pinot noir and quite another to present the same wine as a gift that's supposed to signify in its own right.
The situation isn't hopeless, however, at least for the moment, because at the Ross Valley Winery in San Anselmo, owner and winemaker Paul Kreider has begun turning out half bottles of vin de noix ("wine of nuts," specifically walnuts), a Provencal-style digestif little known in this country. The walnut-infused wine has a portlike presence, with a low center of gravity and some restrained though deep sweetness, but it is a different color and has an extra dimension in the mouth. The color is the easier of the two differences to describe; whereas port is typically a deep ruby hue, the vin de noix looks like a blend of well-aged balsamic vinegar and some kind of winter ale. As for the additional flavor: it is nutty. If there were a dessert version of Kürbiskernöl (the Austrian pumpkinseed oil), it would be something like the vin de noix.
Best of all, for the gift-minded shopper, is the price $20. That's not nothing, but it's a pretty good deal for what you get. The smallness of the bottle, incidentally, adds to the aura by suggesting that the elixir within is potent and concentrated, a drink to be not quaffed but sipped, thought about, discussed, sipped some more.
And in other news, a reader wrote to remind me (apropos of my recent piece on Portuguese wine) that there is indeed a Portuguese restaurant in the Bay Area other than the Grubstake (if the latter even fully counts). That would be La Salette, on Sonoma's town square. Obrigado.