It’s holiday time again and that means we’re about to careen smack into the new year with little if any semblance of control.  But before then we’ll have to navigate the perilous tinsel-filled waters of office parties, dysfunctional family gatherings, crowds, traffic and general holiday mayhem.  But fear not! What follows is sage gift giving advice that will hopefully allay the madness and make your holiday shopping all the easier.

Rule # 1: if all else fails give a bottle of bubbly.  Champagne, sparkling wine, Prosecco & Cava are like a quartet of sparkling seasonal elves whose only purpose is to make your gift list shorter.  Prosecco, the DOCG variety and not the mass-produced dreck, is a personal favorite because of the deliciousness-to-value ratio.  Beyond that, for the boss or the target of your future affection a bottle of grower-producer Champagne fits the bill perfectly.  Pierre Peters and Egly-Ouriet are personal favorite producers.   

Rule #2: Give yourself a gift.  Before everyone and everything gets completely out of control remember to buy yourself something.  A great bottle of restorative spirits is just the prescription needed whether it be a top shelf Cognac, Malt Whisky or Rum.  Italian Amaros are my personal favorite and aside from the ever-restorative bottle of Fernet Branca always on my shelf I heartily recommend Braulio.  It originates from the Valtelinna district in Northern Italy and is both overtly herbal and bittersweet.  An ounce or two (or three …) is guaranteed to help guide your nimble fingers over the keyboard as your order away online.  Remember: avoid brick and mortar if at all possible.

Rule #3: Get a book!  A good book is one of the best gifts for to give and receive.  Here’s a dozen I’ve read over the last year.  All are entertaining, informative and highly recommended.


1. “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” Mary Roach

“Gulp” is the latest effort from the ever-curious and equally hilarious Mary Roach.  Follow Roach as she fearlessly explores the human digestive tract like no other before with painstaking and often bizarre results including putting her hand in a cow’s stomach.  Want to know how Elvis really died?  Read and discover.



2. “Wine: A Tasting Course,” Marnie Old

A wine book?  Absolutely! Long-time colleague and Philadelphia-based Marnie Old’s new book, “Wine: A Tasting Course,” makes brilliant use of graphics to convey all the basics a wine newbie needs to know.  It’s become my new go-to book for beginners.  Highly recommended.



3. “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth,” Colonel Chris Hadfield

Canadian-born Chris Hadfield spent decades training to become an astronaut and ultimately logged over four thousand hours in space.  His “Astronaut’s Guide” chronicles his years of training and space exploration including six months aboard the International Space Station where he was an integral part of scientific experiments not to mention producing and performing a zero-gravity version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” which received over ten million views.


 4. “Wine Grapes,” Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, Jose Vouillamoz

The one and only time I met Jancis Robinson was several years ago at a memorial dinner held for the late Robert Mondavi at the artist formerly known as COPIA.  I was a member of the sommelier team and met Jancis just as she was leaving at the end of the evening.  I only had time to say hello and ask when she would release an update of her book, “Vines, Grapes & Wines,” published in the early ‘90s.  She looked at me as if she suddenly had a strong urge to tase me.  In fact, if there would have been a taser app for the iPhone at the time I’m sure she would have made quick use of it.  Instead she smiled tightly and said that something would be coming out “in a couple of years.” Fast forward to last year and her new amazing tome, “Wine Grapes.”  Weighing in at a hefty six-plus pounds and over 1,400 pages, it could be the most profound book on wine ever written—and sure to satisfy any and all wine geeks on your gift list.  Suggestion: given the heft and lack of portability of the book you might consider a gift download to your lucky recipient.  


5. “One Summer: America, 1927,” Bill Bryson

I’m a huge Bill Bryson fan and his new effort doesn’t disappoint.  In “One Summer” Bryson spins his narrative magic describing in detail the months that made up the summer of 1927, a very short period time crammed with remarkable events and characters including the likes of Lindberg crossing the Atlantic, the Sacco-Vinzetti trial, the secret origins of the Great Depression, Al Capone, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Charles Ponzi, Herbert Hoover and much, much more. After reading it I’m once again struck at how much there is to learn about American history.  Highly recommended.



6. “Letters to a Young Scientist,” Edward O. Wilson

Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson is an emeritus professor of biology at Harvard University.  Wilson is considered to be one of the world’s preeminent scientists and has taught and counseled thousands of students over the course of his career.  In his book “Letters” Wilson makes a surprising argument that success in the sciences is not dependent on math skills or a stratospheric I.Q. but rather one’s passion for finding and solving problems.  He also calls for a more broad synthesis of the sciences and humanities in the decades to come so future generations of students will be inspired to solve the major problems that face the human race.  More than anything, reading “Letters” is like having a one-on-one chat with one of the great teachers of our time. Inspiring!



7.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is one of the great fiction writers living today.  His earlier works include Coraline, Stardust, American Gods and Neverwhere.  In his new novel “Ocean at the End of the Lane” Gaiman weaves a magical tapestry where the lines between reality, fiction and fantasy challenge the reader in delightful ways.  It’s become my favorite Gaiman book and it’s sure to please any fiction-lover on your gift list.



8. “Smoke & Mirrors,” Neil Gaiman

Another Gaiman book and the perfect airplane book.  “Smoke & Mirrors is a collection of some of Gaiman’s best short stories and poems; all wildly imaginative and perfectly, completely creepy.  


9. “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” Richard P. Feynman

Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman was one of the most brilliant scientists of the 20th century.  For better or worse, Feynman was an instrumental part of the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb ending World War II and ushering in the Cold War. Aside from his work in physics Feynman was also an outstanding teacher/lecturer at Cal Tech and he penned multiple books on his thoughts on everything from explaining the basics of science to gambling in Las Vegas to working on physics problems while sitting in strip clubs.  “Surely You’re Joking,” is one of Feynman’s best and most entertaining volumes.  


10. “How to Raise a Happy Child,” Heather Criswell & Taryn Voget

A book on raising kids for x-mas?  Am I kidding?  Not in the least.  “How to Raise a Happy Child” is the brainchild of Heather Criswell and Taryn Voget.  Taryn is a corporate trainer/speaker and NLP specialist and Heather has worked with over 20,000 kids during the course of her career in the child care industry.  Together they deconstruct Heather’s strategies for dealing with every possible kid scenario from the most trivial to the most horribly nuclear.  But what is especially impressive is that the book is one of the best manuals on intra-personal communication I’ve ever come across.  The strategies listed in its pages are priceless for dealing with kids of any and all ages from toddlers melting down all the way to your passive-aggressive boss. “How to Raise a Happy Child” is the one book I wished I would have had 25 years ago before my kids were born.  It would have made my life exponentially easier.   


11. “Color: A Natural History of the Palette,” Victoria Finlay

Victoria Finlay’s “Color” is a wonderfully written history of all the colors found in an artist’s palette. From ochre all the way to violet each color has a fascinating, complex and sometimes perilous story.  Finlay chronicles the super-spy -level intrigue needed to smuggle the tiny cochineal beetles out of Central America ultimately resulting in the original scarlet red; how the essences of the color orange originated in India and traveled to Italy through the Middle East only to become part of the secret concoction used varnish the great violins of Guarneri and Stradivarius; or how the exiled Emperor Napoleon died from arsenic poisoning not at the hands of his incarcerators as long thought but from mold growing on the emerald green wallpaper lining his apartment that created toxicity that would eventually be his demise. A great read!



12. “Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Musicals,” Steve Young & Sport Murphy

This book to be filed under the category of strange, wacky and delightful–as in an entire musical genre you’ve probably never heard of.  While the great musicals such as “My Fair Lady,” “Oklahoma,” and “Carousel” are widely known (even if not nearly as popular as they once were), for several decades running the same talents—literally from writers to performers—crafted hundreds of stage musicals for the big corporations of their day, from John Deer Tractors to the Ford Motor Company to the Maiden Form Bra.  That’s right, full-blown staged musicals with casts, plots (sort of), bands and full scores where stars of the stage (and sometimes screen) belted out tunes about the beauties of selling the newest, shiniest tractor, pickup or bra.  Steve Young, long-time writer for the David Letterman show, and industrial musical vet Sport Murphy chronicle the history of the industrial musical through the decades.  “Everything’s Coming Up Profits” is a perfect coffee table book filled with delightful period illustrations and photos.