A few years ago, a Chowhound forum member shared a particular, but not uncommon, wine etiquette conundrum. She had invited a couple of friends over for dinner, but the wine they brought as a gift — a Mateus Rosé — was far too sweet for the steak dinner planned. Nonetheless, she thanked them for the bottles and set them aside. After the meal was over, she brought out a bottle of American Zinfandel she had bought specifically for the occasion, but to her horror, one of her guests gagged after tasting the wine, complained of its low quality, and asked why she didn’t serve the Mateus instead. The forum member wrote, “I kept my temper, reminded myself that we didn’t need to see them again, and we finished out the evening.”
This might seem like a cut and dry case of a rude party guest, but the hostess still wondered whether the couple did anything wrong. It does beg the question: are you allowed to share your honest opinion about a wine at a party? The key is to do it moderately. When it comes to wine etiquette for dinner parties, the most important thing is to be graceful with your generous hosts.
Bringing Wine to a Party
When you bring wine to a party, should your host open the bottle? This question can stump even the most experienced wine aficionados, but the etiquette blogger Alpha Mom says that the etiquette of giving wine as a gift depends on one of three scenarios:
In the first scenario, a guest asks the host what they can bring to the party, and the host asks the guest to bring wine. When this happens, the host is socially obligated to open the guest’s bottle at dinner because the guest was asked to bring it for the occasion. No matter how terrible you think the wine is, you should thank your guest and open the bottle.
In the second scenario, a guest arrives at the party with a bottle of wine, telling the host that the bottle was picked specifically because the guest thought it would pair well with the host’s food, or because the guest wants to enjoy the bottle with the host. In this situation, hosts should also open the bottle with dinner, since the guest requested that the bottle be opened. If you already have wine planned for the evening, offer to open your guest’s bottle next, so that you don’t appear dismissive.
In the third scenario, a guest arrives with wine but never outright says they want to open the bottle with dinner. In this case, the host is safe to store the bottle for later, since the guest hasn’t expressed any expectations one way or another. As a wine party guest, you should never expect a host to open the bottles you bring to a party, no matter what the scenario, because most hosts already have wine planned for the party.
As the Alpha Mom blogger explains, “If you’re the type who is going to get all bent out of shape because you brought a bottle of expensive vintage Bordeaux and your friends serve Yellow Tail instead, I would suggest maybe bringing flowers next time.” Choose wines that will be appreciated by your hosts using Vinfolio’s marketplace or the list of affordable party wines. Bringing wine to a party is about expressing gratitude, not showing off your wine knowledge.
Tasting Your Host’s Wine
Let’s say you’ve safely navigated the minefield of wine gifts, but what do you do if you find yourself at a party drinking a wine that you hate? The best tip to remember is that expressing a strong opinion over a wine in a casual party setting is generally inappropriate, whether that opinion is negative or positive. Take a note from wine critic Steve Heimoff, who says he leaves his critical taster’s hat at the door when he attends parties. In the back of his mind, he might guess that he’d rate a wine as an 84, but he’d never say it out loud or dwell on it. Ultimately, this allows him to enjoy the wines more.
Heimoff says it’s equally important not to gush too strongly over wines you enjoy at a party — you don’t want to make other guests feel inferior for bringing wine that didn’t get the same praise. If you enjoy a wine, don’t dwell too long on the specifics: when your host or another guest asks what you think of a wine, you should stick to describing what you taste, not how it makes you feel. Use what you know about wine tasting notes to your advantage. If the wine has great structure, say so. Point to some of the fruit notes that you taste. Comment on the wine’s texture. The goal is to talk about the wine without sounding overly gushing or overly negative, just pleasantly neutral.
Etiquette for Special Diets
When you have allergies, follow a special diet, or avoid certain wines for religious reasons, you can’t simply grin and bear it when it comes to wine at parties. You should be upfront and honest with the host and fellow guests about your needs — if you can only drink kosher wine, don’t be afraid to tell your host or politely turn down non-kosher wines at a party. Most hosts will be willing to buy wine that you can drink if you let them know ahead of time. However, you shouldn’t expect your host to serve wine that meets your special diet needs, so it’s a good idea to bring your own wine option as a backup plan.
Why Wine Etiquette for Dinner Parties Matters
Why should you strive to be the picture-perfect party guest? You’ll get invited to more parties, yes, but you might also see a boost in your wine cellar. When you show that you can talk about wine at parties without being rude, your host might invite you out to a few wine tasting events in the future or recommend a new wine for you to try. And keeping your mind open at parties is great training to keep an open mind when you pick out wines for your own collection. Collectors who get stuck on one varietal or region won’t have the best investment options compared to a collector with a diverse range of wines. When you walk into a party with your critical eye and nose at the door, you open yourself up to new experiences, and might even find a new wine varietal that you love.
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