Avoiding Dinner-Party Wine Gaffes

Dear Helena,
We took a nice bottle of white wine to a dinner party and the hosts didn't open it, which was fine. But at the end of the night, they insisted we take the bottle home with us, saying, "We never drink white wine, so we'd really rather you take it home and drink it." Were they rude to give us our wine back?
—We Felt Dissed

Dear We Felt Dissed,
Although your hosts were probably trying to be thoughtful, it's always rude to return a gift. You could have put a lot of effort into picking out this particular bottle. It's not like you gave them, say, a pair of hideous porcelain frogs they can never get rid of because they'll have to display them on the mantelpiece every time you visit. Wine is easy to regift.

Dear Helena,
I took a bottle of screw-top wine to a dinner party. I could see the host wrinkling his nose. I wanted to tell him that nowadays a screw top is often a sign that the producer is concerned about corkage, and that this particular bottle was a very nice vintage, and expensive. When I take a screw-top wine to a dinner or other party, how can I convey to the hosts that it is actually a nice bottle of wine without sounding tacky and ostentatious?
—I Only Bring Quality

Dear I Only Bring Quality,
There's no need to mention how much the wine cost, even in vague terms ("This is pretty top-shelf stuff"). All you need to do is talk a little about why you chose it. That will show that you put care into your selection and it's not just something you snatched out of the bargain bin at BevMo!

As for your host's ignorance about screw tops, if you want to educate someone without sounding overbearing, a good trick is to act like you only just learned the information yourself. "My wine store said that everyone who works there is really into this Grenache from Spain. I was surprised, since it's a screw cap, but apparently nowadays a lot of serious winemakers are switching over from corks."

Sara Floyd, owner of Swirl Wine Brokers, suggests another way to show the host you've taken a little trouble. Put the bottle in a "nice wine gift bag." Or you could just tie a ribbon around the top. A friend of mine ties a sprig of rosemary or a few flowers from her garden to the wine she brings, which always makes it seem extra special and festive.

Dear Helena,
I'm a wine critic and my friends are mostly wine producers, wine sellers, chefs, and so on. I serve pretty nice wines, and my guests bring good wine, and we usually just open everything and talk about it. Once in a while one of my friends from outside wine circles will join us, and bring a bottle that is, frankly, crappy. I don't want to sound like an ungrateful snob, but I'm embarrassed to serve that stuff to my guests. Is there any way I can get away with not opening his contribution?
—I'd Rather Drink Vinegar

Dear I'd Rather Drink Vinegar,
As a host, you need not open the wines guests bring, since you may have already carefully planned out your wine and food pairings or selected all your wines according to a theme. But, let's face it, at most dinner parties, the wines aren't that rigidly scripted, even when the host is a wine buff. Daryl Groom, owner of Marschall Groom Cellars, says about 10 percent of dinner parties he attends have carefully planned wines, but at the other 90 percent, it's usual to open everything that is brought.

In any case, hosts must give their guests equal treatment. You can't invite three of your guests to bring their partners but not invite a fourth's wife because she's boring. Similarly, you can't savor everyone else's wines but shove one person's behind your wine rack. If you save it until last, it might even taste OK.

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