Tis the season for holiday party hopping and gift-giving, and wine makes a great gift for hosts and that hard-to-buy-for person on your list. Still, if you're like most of us, buying the right wine can be a bit intimidating. Luckily Houston has some great experts on the subject, including Curtis Bagnoli, wine sales manager with The Tasting Room Wine Café, which offers a large selection of retail wines to-go at three area locations. We caught up with Curtis to ask him a few questions on everyone's mind this time of year.

VisitHouston: I'm going to a holiday party and I need to bring the host something, what are some solid recommendations?

Curtis Bagnoli
: As the weather cools and celebration is in the air, I find that Champagne is always a great way to add some festive cheer, and who doesn't love bubbles? Alternatively a big red blend like Beringer's 'Quantum' or the Lambert Bridge Merlot blend would also work well. Red blends tend to be a crowd pleaser since they're more an expression of the winemaker as an artist rather than the showcase of a single varietal, which makes it fun. Your best bet is to find out what your host likes to drink. A lot of people have comfort zones when it comes to wine, and if you know that John Doe loves Napa Valley cabernets or only drinks Oregon pinot noirs, that gives you a great starting point. Ideally your gift will be enjoyed later rather than on the spot so tailoring the selection to the recipient will make for a more thoughtful gift.

VH: What pairs well with our favorite holiday dishes? (Ham, turkey or duck for instance)

CB
: The holidays are a great way to explore new and different wines. Because there are such a variety of flavors on any given holiday table, you have a unique opportunity to take new wines for a test drive. I recommend pairing Rieslings with poultry and pork, and lucky for us, Riesling offers a range of styles. The Mosel Rieslings aren't aggressively sweet and the dry Alsace Rieslings have a beautiful acidity that cuts through fattier foods to expose more delicate flavors. When it comes to Red, an Oregon Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley is a great match with the spices and earthy aromas you find this time of year.

VH: What are some wine trends you've come across this year?

CB
: South Africa continues to put out some fantastic quality wines and is migrating away from the traditional Pinotages. If you're looking for something unique and affordable, but not too weird, it's a great place to start. Try a Cabernet which tends to have a smoky quality.

Also, Merlot is on the upswing! From California to Washington State I've noticed a steady increase in support for Merlot within the market. Winemakers are fighting the 'anything but Merlot' mentality; and I love that I can get similar levels of complexity and structure of a well done cabernet but with a supple velvety finish.

VH: If I'm looking to splurge, for myself or for a gift, what do you recommend?

CB
: Champagne is always a great splurge! People love champagne but don't always want buy it, so why not gift a little luxury to yourself or someone special.

VH: What if I'm on a budget, what are some great wines under $20?

CB
: For bubbles I would look into a Cava from Spain. They're crisp, dry and made by the traditional method of Champagne but without the sometimes hefty price of Champagne.

VH: For red I recommend looking at the wines coming out of South America and South Africa.

CB
: Malbec's continue to be the everyman grape, and both South America and South Africa are producing good quality wines but don't have the reputation to command the higher price point.

For white I love a crisp white from Bordeaux, usually from Entres Deux Mers and a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle.

VH: What wines are good for the wine novice?

CB
: I think the natural progression of a wine drinker from novice to aficionado starts with the juicy, fruit forward side of the spectrum and slowly shifts to the drier, spicier styles as their palettes evolve. However, everyone's wine journey is different and people sometimes settle into a style or favorite genre. (I'm an equal opportunist to the cork but I gravitate to Zinfandels and Spicy Rhone wines). If you are just starting out the rule of thumb is simple: drink what you enjoy. I find red blends with zinfandel or Petit Syrah are good entry level wines as are Sauvignon Blancs and Rieslings in the realm of white wines, but be adventurous and never apologize for not liking a wine.

VH: What wine should I buy for a savvy, wine collector?

CB
: This depends on what they like to drink but anything that has longevity in the bottle is a great gift, but do your research first! Many wineries and wine critics will tell you whether a wine will age or if it is better to enjoy now. See what people are saying about previous vintages or look to see if there are any older vintages on the market at The Tasting Room or MAX's Wine Dive. I think of the hermitage wines of Rhone, Chateauneuf du Papes of Provence, Amarones, Barolos of Italy and Cabernets out of Napa from some of the cult wineries like Diamond creek and Au Sommet.

VH: Are there good Texas wines that you recommend if I want to give something from the Lone Star State?

CB
: Texas wines often get scoffed at but there are some gems out there, I really like some of the Tempranillo blends coming out of Lubbock as well as Texas Hill Country. In a blind taste you would swear that dusty sip of red was from Spain!

VH: There are often a lot of fun gadgets in the wine world. Anything new jump out at you as a fun item for the oenophile who has it all?

CB
: I love the Corkscicle, it's a little cheesy, but wine should be fun! And nobody likes a warm white wine. Outside of that I love a well-made, double hinged wine key from Forge de Laguiole, Ghemme or Code38. Something about the ritual of opening a bottle the traditional way is very therapeutic.

VH: What trends in wine should we be on the lookout for in 2015?

CB
: My favorite trend is the increasingly educated population of wine drinkers. Gone are the days when the intimidating Sommelier told you what to order. Now people have a world of information at their disposal with phones, wine apps and computers, resulting in winemakers stepping up their game to appeal to this new wave of wine drinkers.

With three area locations, the Tasting Room offers a menu of more than 100 wines from around the world at all price points. The Tasting Room also offers gourmet foods prepared by an executive chef, regular live music, retail wines to-go and much more in casual yet sophisticated settings around Houston.