’Tis the season for dinner and holiday parties and the easiest way to arrive (apart from empty-handed) is bearing a bottle of wine. Seems like a perfectly straightforward gesture, but it comes with a host of etiquette questions that can stump even the most experienced partygoers. Opinions run the gamut, but here’s my strategy on the Ps and Qs of bringing wine to a party.
Unless your host doesn’t drink, wine is an appreciated gift. Sure, there are chocolates, olive oils, flowers, hand towels, smelly soaps, jams, and other acceptable gifts, but wine is one-size-fits-all. You don’t have to spend a lot—between $12 and $20 shows that you did more than grab a bottle off the sale end cap at Kroger. How much you splash out (as well as what you choose) depends on how well you know your host and how well your host knows wine.
Having said that, as someone who does know wine and entertains often, I hate when aguest shows up, apologizes for not knowing anything about wine, and then thrusts a bottle into my hands. It discounts his selection before I even get a chance to form an opinion. If you are a novice buying for a connoisseur, simply ask your retailer for a recommendation and then give credit where credit is due. If you are a collector, bring something from your cellar. If you’re somewhere in the middle, bring a bottle that you’ve enjoyed before or one that means something to you (i.e., a Michigan wine because you were born in Michigan).
A common question raised is whether to expect your host to open the bottle you bring. Emily Post’s etiquette guide advises that wine brought to a party is a gift and meant for the host to drink on his or her own at another time. Once the bottle leaves your hands, it is no longer yours. A gift, by definition, has no strings attached and the assumption is that the hosts have planned their wines in advance. You can put your hosts at ease by saying as you give them the bottle, “Here’s something for your cellar.” (Nevermind if that cellar is the fridge and the bottle gets opened by the end of the night once supplies have dwindled.)
On the other hand, if your host is a friend with whom you dine frequently (or with whom you share a love for trading wines), you may be inclined to call in advance and ask if you can contribute wines for the meal. In that scenario, you’ll ask what’s on the menu and arrive with the mutual expectation that your selections will be served with dinner.
The real quandary is when you bring a bottle of wine that you really want to drink because you know that your host will be serving swill. To some, wine is just an afterthought. You watch in horror as they root around in a cabinet above the stove and unearth a bottle of red that’s been cooking there for two years. They open it with a winged corkscrew, get half of the crumbled cork into the wine, and then pour to the brim of a thick-rimmed goblet that tastes of Cascade. Short of bringing your wine uncorked and in an ice bucket or already decanted (see Winespeak 101), there’s no guarantee that you’ll be saved from plonk. I’ve witnessed the tactless (marching straight into the host’s kitchen to fetch a glass and pour his own) and the tactful (suggesting that this Gigondas would go perfectly with the lamb chops) all in an effort to avoid the undrinkable, but it is, ultimately, up to the host.
It should go without saying that you ought never to retrieve your unopened wine at the end of the night and bring it home—or drink it in the car. Finally, when in doubt of what to bring? Go with bubbles—they’re as festive as you can get and if the bottle’s already chilled, it might just get popped.
Decant (v.): To pour a wine into another vessel in order to expose it to air and/or to separate it from its sediment.