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The Perplexing Protocol of Party Wine

Lettie Teague is flummoxed by the challenge of bringing the right wine to a party and frustrated when the host doesn't open the bottle. Here, her quest for a strategy.
Wine-Giving Strategies: 5 Ways to Make Party Hosts Happy

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Could there possibly be anything more straightforward than the act of bringing a bottle of wine to a party? It's such an uncomplicated gesture of goodwill that I've never really thought much about it: I simply bring a wine that I like, that I expect other people will like, too. It's an approach that has served me fairly well—except when it hasn't. According to my fellow guests at a recent dinner party (to which I'd brought a magnum of a great Châteauneuf-du-Pape, by the way), I needed what they called "a proper gift-bottle strategy."

The party took place at a friend-of-a-friend's house. "Are you sure you want me to open this?" joked the host, Andy, whom I'd never met before, when I handed him the oversize bottle. "Of course I do," I said, a little too quickly. (Since I enjoy the wines I bring to parties, I generally want to drink them.) We both laughed, perhaps a bit nervously. But our exchange got everyone around us talking about the protocol of bringing wine to parties. I found they had plenty of opinions—and strategies.

The first issue: How good of a bottle should one bring? Andy's sister-in-law, Susan, explained that she made her decision by thinking about how well she knew and how much she liked the recipient. If the host was a friend, she brought a very nice wine. If not, she didn't waste time or money—especially because there's no way of guaranteeing the host will even open the bottle at the party. (Susan herself never felt obligated to do so, a view that provoked some debate.) "The bottom line is, don't give a really good bottle to someone you don't know," she said.

Lettie Teague on Screw Caps

I thought about Susan's advice and realized I could never bring mediocre wine to a party. But clearly I needed to consider the hosts' preferences and prejudices, not just my own. Did they like American or imported wine? Modestly priced or expensive? (OK, maybe the answer to that one was obvious.) White or red? I once brought a terrific California Chardonnay to a new neighbor's house, and the wife handed it back to me, saying, "We only drink red." I opened my bottle and drank it while the couple downed a cheap Chilean Merlot.

My ex-husband, Alan, spends more time trying to figure out how to ensure his bottles will be opened than he does choosing the wine. For example, Alan once brought a really good bottle of Champagne to the house of a couple he didn't know well. He chilled the wine, put it into a bucket and delivered it on ice. This would have seemed like enough to guarantee they'd open it, but the husband dumped out the ice, took out the bottle and put it away. He served something far inferior instead—and kept the bucket, as well.

Some people might think it odd to care so much about the fate of a bottle once it's handed over. But I've found that the people who don't care whether or not their wines are opened don't invest much in them, emotionally or financially. I've had people visit me and present a bottle as if it were an entrance fee to my house, saying, "I got you this wine; I don't know if it's any good," as if the selection had been made by somebody else (which might very well have been the case).

This isn't true of my collector friends. When they bring wine, they always expect that the bottles will be opened and applauded. Sometimes, in fact, they bring bottles that are already open; for example, my friend The Collector has toted wine he'd uncorked the night before. "I had this the other night for dinner," he'll say and hand over a half-finished bottle of first-growth Bordeaux or grand cru Burgundy. "It was pretty good." I wasn't sure if this was a strategy I could actually borrow.

Of course, the wines The Collector brings to parties are uniformly great. And The Collector does, in fact, also bring me unopened bottles. When that's the case, he'll call several days before the party to announce what he's bringing—a sort of verbal press release that I'm presumably supposed to send out to the other guests.

And yet, when The Collector and I were recently invited to the same dinner party, hosted by a well-known wine importer, The Collector didn't tell me about what he planned to bring. The importer generously opened several spectacular bottles, including a 1985 Salon Champagne and a 1971 Penfolds Grange. The Collector's contribution was also remarkable: a stunning Parker 99-point 1989 E. Guigal La Turque Côte Rôtie.

I'd brought a very good 2003 Knoll Smaragd Grüner Veltliner that I'd acquired on a recent trip to Austria. I had been thinking that our importer host had very little Austrian wine in his portfolio, and this was a Grüner with some age—something that isn't so easy to find in the U.S. Of course, when I saw the other wines on the table, I realized mine was not much more than an entrance-fee bottle, and that I'd made the tragic error of thinking only about a wine I'd be excited to drink. And yet the importer politely opened my wine with the others. "Very nice," he said, in a neutral tone. It was the rare instance when I wished my wine hadn't been opened. (Even The Collector was unimpressed: When I saw him a few weeks later at dinner, he whispered, "I didn't really like your wine.")

My friend Scott Manlin, a Chicago-based collector, told me he doesn't usually bring wine to people's houses unless he has been asked to, or unless everyone there is a wine geek. "But you have such a great cellar," I replied. "Don't people expect you to bring something?" They do not, Scott insisted, although if he did bring wine to a stranger's house, it was likely to be Champagne. In fact, on such occasions Scott always turns to Dom Pérignon. "I'll bring a bottle of the '96. Everyone knows Dom Pérignon, and I bought a lot of the '96 years ago and got a great deal," he explained. This wasn't really a workable strategy for me, however; only Scott could bring Dom Pérignon as an entrance-fee bottle.

I wasn't sure about my friend Kathy's strategy, either: Her go-to bottle for parties is a $10 Rosemount Estate Diamond Shiraz. She likes the wine and says, "Everyone else likes it, too." Kathy enjoys having a reliable gift wine in the same way she enjoys having a great bakery not far from her house in New Jersey. And for the record, I'm always happy when she brings cookies to my house.

My friend Vonnie is the opposite of Kathy. Vonnie recently got divorced and is starting to date. "I have no idea what wine to bring to a man's house if he invites me for dinner," she laments. All Vonnie knows is that the wine can't be cheap. "If it's someone I'm trying to impress, I'd bring a wine that costs up to $30," she offers. And it has to be red. "I wouldn't go out with a man who drank white wine," she explains. (Vonnie hasn't dated since quiche was approved for "real" men.)

Vonnie had a traumatic dating experience once, which she attributes to a poor wine selection. She had "borrowed" a bottle from my ex-husband (bottles are borrowed like cups of sugar in our town). Alan gave her what he said was a nice red, but the guy never called Vonnie again. "I wonder if it was the wine," she says.

My friend Mark is a frequent houseguest who always brings wine. Mark doesn't care if the hosts share the wine with him or not; in fact, he prefers that they save the wine for later. Assuming they will, he encloses a clever little note with the bottle describing the wine in detail and suggesting when to drink it and what to eat with it. As a strategy, this sounded like a lot of work.

I considered all the approaches my friends had suggested to me—and then, when I was invited to a dinner party by a couple I'd never met before, I reverted to habit. I decided to bring a wine I liked: a 2006 Andrew Will Champoux, a Bordeaux-style blend made by a Washington state winemaker I admire, Chris Camarda. I assumed the host would appreciate it; he'd worked in the wine business for a while and so was presumably knowledgeable. But he took my bottle as if I'd given him an entrance-fee wine. "We're drinking French wine tonight," he said, rolling his Rs like Maurice Chevalier. He put my bottle on the kitchen counter as if it was something from the grocery store.

"But it's a very good wine," I sputtered, trying to keep the indignation out of my voice. "It's from one of the best producers in the U.S." The man shook his head. He had our wine selections for the evening already planned. We started with Lirac (he rolled the R again, unbearably), a simple red from the Rhône that might have cost $15 at most. Then we had a 27-year-old fifth-growth Bordeaux that was dried out and definitely over-the-hill. As I prepared to go, I gave the Andrew Will a backward glance. I felt not like I was leaving a bottle, but abandoning a friend.

And yet, how powerful it is when you bring a bottle that truly resonates with the person you give it to; it's like introducing two people you love to one another and finding out they might love each other, too. When my friends Liz and Greg invited me to dinner at their house once, I brought a bottle of Paumanok Vineyards Chenin Blanc. It's one of my favorite wines (and the best Chenin in America), and it's made by the Massoud family, whom I greatly admire. Liz and Greg opened the bottle that night, even though it didn't quite fit with the meal, and they enjoyed the wine so much that they drove out to the winery on Long Island shortly thereafter and bought a case for themselves. And now they know the Massouds. That's the sort of wine I love to bring—one that begins as a bottle but ends up expanding your life.

Published December 2009
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