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Wines for the Winter Holidays

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As the last of the year's days turn more to darkness, we fill our calendars with holidays celebrating the solar return. Let there be light: Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, even Festivus, for an airing of grievances is really just one more way to make things brighter. Until that happens though, we might want some extra-warming wines, even here in California, where winter is the chance to happily gaze at distant, snow-capped mountains. That means wines with some serious alcohol levels, which has been a bone of big contention in the wine world for the last few years. (Check out the In Pursuit of Balance manifesto as one salvo in the direction of moderation.)Here I'll argue that big isn't always flabby and that wines with more than 14% alcohol -- officially and legally when a wine is called a dessert wine, but, c'mon -- can work perfectly if the fruit is asked to be made into such a wine. And if you don't think grapes speak to the best winemakers and vineyard managers, well, you're drinking the wrong wines. Some grapes lend themselves to their sugar and alcohol levels and can remain in balance with acid and fruit. Zinfandels are famous for this. Noted maker Turley, for instance, used to bottle a Moore Earthquake Vineyard zin that broke 17% in its 1997 vintage. Port is good for the holidays too, so how could a wine like this be a problem, especially at this indulgent time of year?

So here are several big reds that even Santa might like to take on a sleigh ride. If nothing else, the higher alcohol levels might be a way to self-medicate if you have to spend too much time with family, screaming children, or get the dreadful fear someone will suggest caroling. Or even better, ask for these wines from Santa -- you deserve them!

Brewer-Clifton "Machado Vineyard" Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2012

Putting the macho in the Machado (a vineyard contiguous to Clos Pepe), this is plenty of pinot without going overboard. It comes in at 14.5% alcohol, a bit high for pinot, but not in such capable winemaking hands. Brewer-Clifton's Santa Rita Hills pinot was just named the #8 wine of 2014 by Wine Spectator, so here's your chance to get the single vineyard that's the backbone of that blend. Think of it as a pinot that moves past cherry to blackberry and raspberry, while still remaining light on its feet, like prime Ali. ($75 retail.)

Fess Parker The Big Easy 2011

The wine is both named after New Orleans' nickname and is big and easy itself, with a pleasing, gregarious blend of syrah, petite sirah, and grenache. It won the Top Red Wine at The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, and could there be a more charming award than that? Be prepared for big, red fruit in this spicy wine that you can almost chew. (Why, yes, it would be great with a prime rib.) As a big alcohol wine it's a "mere" 14.9%, a hint it's got balance and brawn in its meaty, tannined paw. ($35 retail.)

Shafer Hillside Select 2010

For decades this Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has been one of the most sought-after wines in California, and for good reason -- it's flat-out delicious. Just short of opulent, it's the kind of wine you would buy when you have a child and then open upon his or her 21st birthday. Clocking in at 15.5%, this wine will make you realize that the alcohol percentage doesn't matter if the winemakers know what they're doing. Here that means prime fruit treated with utmost respect for a signature cab. ($300 retail.)

Villa Creek Willow Creek Cuvée 2012

Paso Robles gets chided for its too big wines, sometimes, but that just means people aren't drinking the right ones. However, Villa Creek's 2012 Willow Creek blend is 70% grenache, 20% mourvèdre, 10% syrah and 100% pleasing at about 15% ABV. Want fruit and flowers? Here's a wine for you -- silky and spicy. When the label reads, "Notes of black cherry cola are followed by a generous palate of berry pie with a lard crust," and you say, "I don't even remember what lard tastes like," you will still say, "Thank you, more please." ($45 retail.)

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