For casual acquaintances $10 (The mail carrier, favorite local merchants, coworkers, mothers-in-law): Bottles around $10 or less are fine. This might sound cheap, but buying wine for a few dozen people adds up to several hundred bucks. White wine is usually a safer bet than red. Look for wines from countries where quality and value go hand in hand, such as New Zealand for Sauvignon Blanc (try Brancott or Villa Maria), France for Alsatian whites (Hugel or Trimbach), and Italy for Pinot Grigio (Mezzacorona or Livio Felluga). Champagne is festive, but a good bottle costs too much. Try Prosecco from Italy (Mionetto or Zardetto) or Cava from Spain (Freixenet or Segura Viudas).
For good friends $20 (people you like—or have to like, such as your boss—but with whom you don’t necessarily break bread too often): Bottles that cost around $20 are about right, which means you can find wines that are new, exciting, or off the beaten path. A grape that’s gaining popularity is the Austrian Grüner Veltliner (look for Josef Hirsch or Willi Brundlmayer), which is fantastic with just about any food. For friends who love rich, creamy Chardonnays, buy a California classic at a vineyard-designated or reserve level, such as Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve or Cambria Winery Katherine’s Vineyard Santa Maria Valley. Or offer a little French refinement by way of a Louis Jadot Pouilly-Fuisse. For red wine lovers, forego candy-coated Merlots in favor of the lush Malbecs of Argentina (Bodegas Terrazas de los Andes or Bodega Lurton), or rich reds from Sicily made with the little-known Nero d’Avola grape (look for Morgante or Planeta).
For intimate friends $30 (people with whom you want to share a bottle or three): Give wines you don’t buy for yourself —typically anything priced over $30. Try getting personal: buy a vintage that commemorates the year your friends met, came out, got married, or had a baby. Rounding up older wines takes knowledge. Ask a good retailer for suggestions.
Otherwise, go to the wine shop and look for the wines in jail —the ones tucked away behind locked doors. If you want Champagne, try the so-called tête du cuvées, the top of the top from the best producers, such as Louis Roederer Cristal, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, Krug Clos du Mesnil, Bollinger R.D., Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, and of course, Moët & Chandon Cuvée Dom Perignon.
Giving wines from great appellations is always a safe bet, too. From France give a beautiful Bordeaux (Chateau Lynch Bages); from Italy a classy Chianti (Antinori); from Spain ravishing Rioja (Montecillo); from Germany a fabulous Pfalz (Dr. Bürklin-Wolf); or wines from California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys.
All that said, remember: you get as good as you give. If you want to drink well, choose well. Your friends deserve nothing less.
Beverly Hills Adjacent
Top bottles, like Champagne’s tête du cuvées, will easily cost you a 100 bucks or better. So here’s a little trick. Wine appellations are really just real estate. I’d love to live in Manhattan, but I know the deals are in the boroughs. Look at great wine addresses the same way. Find the high-priced neighborhoods and then look next door. Case in point: Burgundy. Wine aficionados know that the best Bourgogne comes from the Côte d’Or, but you can’t get a great bottle from this region for under $50, and a $500 price tag is not uncommon. However, directly south of the Côte d’Or is the Côte Chalonnaise, known for Burgundies that are not as refined, a little more earthy and rustic (just like the locals!). But they’re only a fraction of the cost —like $20 to $35.
For some of the Brooklyns of Burgundy, seek out these four villages: Mercury (mostly reds; look for producers Antonin Rodet or J. Faiveley); Rully (both reds and whites; look for Antonin Rodet); Givry (mostly reds; look for Domaine Joblot); and Montagny (all whites; look for Antonin Rodet or Louis Latour).