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In choosing a new wine, take the risk 

A friend brought a terrible bottle of wine to dinner the other night, and I couldn't have been more pleased.

This friend is truly a wine connoisseur, and it is his business to know good food and wine. We were dining at the house of a mutual friend, who is also a highly knowledgeable foodie, and the guests included other food professionals and enthusiasts. My friend presented a bottle from a small North Carolina vineyard, which shall remain anonymous, because I can only hope that this sample was an anomaly for which the vineyard should not be flogged in public.

The wine was fairly undistinguished except for the finish, which spoke powerfully of kerosene. We couldn't drink much of it, in fact, and moved onto a Vinho Verde the host had on hand.

I was delighted not because I enjoyed seeing my friend's polished tastes fail him, but rather because I was honored that he felt such a kinship with those sitting around the dinner table that he was willing to risk presenting us all with a great surprise. He had never tasted the wine but had found the bottle while on a trip and was eager to share an adventure of the palate.

I am always eager to try new North Carolina wines, although getting a hold of them requires covering a lot of miles. A few large winemakers dominate the shelves in our part of the state, and the wines from smaller makers are hard to find beyond their point of origin. Here was a chance to explore. That our exploration ended at a dead end wasn't my friend's fault. I was just glad he had the spirit to ask us all to come along.

Too many gift-givers let their fear of failure play too large a role in their selection of a wine. When my husband and I became engaged, a friend who didn't know my tastes well gave us a pair of hand-blown goblets. They are heavy and wide-mouthed and lovely. "These are perfect for red wine," she said. "I don't know if you drink red wine much, but if you don't, you should."

I do drink red wine and I loved the thought behind my friend's gift. As with gifts of books and music, the best gifts of wine acknowledge your tastes and challenge you to take a bit of a risk. This is not to suggest that you run out and buy a bad bottle of wine to take to your next dinner party. Instead, consider something offbeat but akin to what you know of your host's passion. Here are a few bottles to consider.

A perfect pick for these last days of summer is the 2008 Chateau Font-Mars Picpoul de Pinet from the Langeudoc region of France ($9.99). Picpoul means "lip stinger" in French, and the wine gains its name from its citrusy tang. The nose is full of fragrant tropical fruits like pineapple, and the finish is smooth and clear as a bell. I found it at Barley & Vine (5910 Duraleigh Road, Suite 141, Raleigh; 235-0018; Buy it for your favorite pinot gris fan.

Another cool find is Dancing Coyote 2009 Verdelho ($11.99), made with a Portuguese grape from a California estate winery in the Sacramento Valley. It has the slightest fizz to it, which makes it refreshing on a summer day. The nose has a soft mineral quality, and it tastes of pear and apple. It is crisp but not bracing, and the finish is almost but not quite sweet. I'd prescribe this for sauvignon blanc fans in a mellow mood. It came from Carrboro Beverage Company (102A E. Main St., 942-3116), a quiet little shop next to Tyler's Taproom. Beer selections far outnumber wine here, but the 20-odd bottles of wine are carefully chosen. (There is no company website, but it has a Facebook page.)

Because I love rosés, the Alba Liza 2009 Rosado ($9.99) might be my favorite new find. A Spanish winery in Guadianeja makes this dark pink wine from 50 percent tempranillo and a quarter each of garnacha and cabernet sauvignon. It has a lush nose full of raspberry and a wonderful, light feel in the mouth. The taste of fruit is strong, vaguely reminiscent of a zinfandel but without the bulk and power. This is for red wine lovers who long for something light and vibrant to carry them through until it's cool enough to uncork the pinot this fall. It also came from Carrboro Beverage Company.

Take a chance on something your host doesn't expect. Surprise is always welcome at a party.


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