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The Wine Ethicist: Jeremy Seysses Has a Question

2011 December 21
by Mike

As promised, this week brings the first reader-generated Wine Ethicist question. Much to my delight, Jeremy Seysses of Burgundy’s Domaine Dujac is a regular visitor here and occasionally posts comments. A few weeks ago, Jeremy suggested a topic for The Wine Ethicist, and I think it’s a great one. He wrote the following:

Dear Wine Ethicist,

My friend X was just telling me about his mother in law’s visit. She stayed with his wife and him for about a month and a half (she lives far away, though clearly not far enough as it will emerge). My friend is a generous man, who opens wine for every meal gladly and graciously. He soon discovered that his mother in law was unwilling to accept any wine that was any lesser than Red Burgundy 1er Cru or better. And by “he discovered”, I mean that she told him in no uncertain terms. What is a polite host who does not want to get in trouble with his wife but who doesn’t have unlimited access to Burgundy’s finest to do?

The ill-mannered guest has been a recurring figure throughout history and literature, although it usually doesn’t take the form of a mother-in-law. On returning home from the Trojan War and finding his home overrun by Penelope’s plundering suitors, Odysseus dealt with the problem by killing them—a draconian remedy, to be sure, but the ancient Greeks did take the guest-host thing (xenia) and its mutual obligations very seriously.

We live in a somewhat more civilized age,  but obnoxious guests remain a problem. A well-stocked wine cellar naturally invites trouble. Frank Prial, the former wine columnist of The New York Times, once told a great story about a prominent wine writer who would time his visits to Château Mouton-Rothschild to coincide with out-of-town trips by its proprietor, Baron Philippe de Rothschild. The very generous Baron Philippe would instruct his staff to look after the writer, who took full advantage of the hospitality by helping himself to the choicest wines in Mouton’s inventory. Eventually, Baron Philippe was told of this. Sometime thereafter, the writer came to the château to have lunch, and Baron Philippe asked what he wished to drink. Not surprisingly, the journalist requested a rarity. Baron Philippe put his arm around the rapacious hack and said, “It’s not a luncheon wine, old boy, not a luncheon wine.”

I suspect that Jeremy’s friend X would be disinclined to throw an arm around his mother-in-law and say, “Not a luncheon wine, old girl, not a luncheon wine.” But he is clearly wrestling with a serious problem—to be told by his mother-in-law that she will only accept premier or grand cru Burgundies at his table is pretty amazing. Divorce is obviously one option for X, but that seems a little extreme (why punish his wife for the whims of her mother?) So what would you suggest that X do about the very demanding mother of his significant other? And have you ever encountered something similar—do you have a family member or friend who wants only to drink the priciest, most prestigious wines in your collection, and if so, how do you handle it? A related question: Have you ever given someone the run of your cellar and come to regret it?

This strikes me as an especially good topic in the lead-up to Christmas and New Year’s, when many of us will be entertaining family and friends. I am going to give The Wine Ethicist a break next week, and will have another installment up on Monday January 2nd. (I’ll be posting some other things between now and then.)  Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s spirited discussion about retail etiquette, and to everyone who has helped make The Wine Ethicist such a terrific addition to this site.

30 Responses leave one →
  1. David Schildknecht permalink
    December 30, 2011

    Chances are the lady in question cannot tell a Givry from a Gevrey or a Meursault from a Montagny, and there are legions of premier crus (indeed, according to many of us wine snobs and self-proclaimed Burgundy experts, embarrassingly many) down there in the Côte Chalonnaise. Moreover, the joke is on anyone who thinks you will thereby be stiffing your mother-in-law. If your wines from the less-fashionable South are from the likes of Xavier Besson, Vincent Dureuil, Jean-Marc Joblot, Roelof Ligtmans (Domain de la Monette), Francois Lumpp, Deux Montille, Francois Raquillet, or numerous other over-achievers it will be more distinctively and profoundly delicious than 75-90% of what comes on the market from Burgundy’s most famous appellations. (Not to suggest, of course, that the creme de la creme of Côte d’Or Chardonnay and Pinot such as rendered by the likes of Jeremy Seysses does not represent a class unto itself.)

  2. Sherman permalink
    December 28, 2011

    Just one of the added advantages of off-site storage is that I can say what is or isn’t available — and it’s just poor timing on Mum’s part that her stay didn’t coincide with any of those wines being available. Fortunately,we do have a few other bottles on hand of perfectly good wines that we drink on an everyday basis and she’s more than welcome to broaden her horizons with us — or bring her own. I mean, she doesn’t rely on me to provide specific flavors of cheese, meats or daily medications during her stay, does she? 😉

  3. Zack permalink
    December 27, 2011

    Well, I agree with David on having bottles set aside. We have a rack that is set for the cheap stuff that my wife may pick as she sees fit.

    As for the mother-in-law, I’d coyly say her decision leaves that much more for the rest of us and giver her a wry smile. Obviously this is your mother-in-law, so I’d probably parry around her remark and let her decided on if to drink. If she persisted I’d probably ask if Bunel called regarding her scene in Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie and then politely say she is welcome to bring but her expectations, unfortunately, aren’t reasonable. Snobbery isn’t allowed in my household, so I would never feed into her attitude with bottle switching, etc. A polite host cannot be expected to fulfill all absurd requests.

  4. Clinton permalink
    December 26, 2011

    What I find most amusing about the mother-in-law’s position is that it gives the pretense of being sophisticated and learned, but is in fact, quite the opposite. I would tell the mother-in-law in no uncertain terms that, while she may think that her preferences make her sophisticated, she is nothing more than a pretender who would be scoffed at by any Burgundian producer because her position clearly: (1) is that of a label-whore, and (2) does not respect the land, spirit, or philosophy from which wine is produced.

  5. Donn Rutkoff permalink
    December 24, 2011

    Hey John Dawson, is batillac an appellation in Gascony? Or an opera by Pucini?

  6. Donn Rutkoff permalink
    December 24, 2011

    Real answer: Premier cru from Givry, or Fixin, Marsanny.

    Smarty pants answer: Or from Trader Joe’s. Heck, up the ante, and serve her Barolo and Amarone from Trader Joe. She might be glad to have ordinary Bourgogne from a decent producer next time.

  7. December 22, 2011

    David, that’s a terrific setup, and as you suggest, it’s a good way of avoiding mishaps. I feel bad for your friend–that must have hurt (though it could have been worse–it could have been a Burgundy!).

  8. David F. permalink
    December 22, 2011

    A related issue that came up in a couple of comments is along the lines of grazing rights. As there is asymmetrical wine knowledge in my house, we have a designated shelf from which anyone can grab a bottle of wine at any time without question. This avoid the problem of someone (usually a spouse) taking the super-rare/expensive bottle and, for example, using it as cooking wine (a friend of mine found out, much to this regret, a few year ago that Mouton Rothschild does a great job braising short ribs).

    Of course, I am always happy to select wines that are not on that shelf at any time for any meal (we tend to have wine with our meals) or for any company but it is nice for her to not have to worry about what she is grabbing if I am not around.

  9. December 22, 2011

    Cedarglen, thanks for the comment. I think you’ve got the right approach, though I’d be wary of showing people what’s in your collection–that’s just teasing them! I almost never take people down to see my cellar.

  10. Cedarglen permalink
    December 22, 2011

    I have a nearly perfect ‘natural cellar’ and I’m working my way toward a modest, but usable collection. I’m far from an expert, but I enjoy having and drinking a variety of wines that I LIKE. My collection and emphasis on MY TASTES. I too have had overly demanding guests at times. Here’s what I do: I gladly conduct brief tours of the space – I’m rather proud of it! During the tour I mention that wone is often served with meals, but I (and I alone) select the wines. I’ve seen a few dropped faces, but never heard a complaint. Mother-in-Law or not, guests drink my selections.

  11. December 22, 2011

    Well, if the wife isn’t speaking to her mother of her own accord about this, I would say that the marriage has other, bigger issues.

    Although I like the subterfuge option personally, or perhaps just serving fish, in a similar situation with an alcoholic friend who’d raid my liquor cabinet when he came over, we simply stopped having him over. Seriously. Give the old bat the boot!

    I kid.

  12. December 22, 2011

    I would tell Mrs. Mother-in-Law the following:

    “When it comes to wine, we follow the lead of the greatest vignerons. Which is to say, we pair the appropriate wine for the food being served to create a delicious synergy, and take you to organoleptic nirvana, you old miserable battilac. Or, we pour the type of wine that is traditionally poured for the occasion (e.g., Champagne for engagements, graduations, or our secret celebrations every time you take a fall and break a wrist or something after drinking too much of your Monsieur Touton magnum specials, etc.) Accordingly, when an authority such as Aubert de Villaine says that he drinks his Aligote with scallops or as an aperitif with certain cheeses, or Jean-Marc Roulet says he drinks his Bourgogne Blanc with roast chicken every Wednesday, well, we’re following the lead of the masters. Anything else would just be de-classe, you ungrateful harpy. May I top up your Bouchard Bourgogne Rouge there, love . . . ?”

  13. December 22, 2011

    Hi Jeremy, thanks for popping in and for the great question. Do let us know what X thinks of the advice that has been offered, and how he intends to handle this issue the next time his mother-in-law visits. Speaking of advice, a neighbor of yours sent me an email this morning with her suggested remedy, and she has kindly agreed to let me post it here:

    Often a problem and I suggest several ripostes. Decant a remarkable Bourgogne Blanc or Rouge, one that is produced from older vines) and encourage identification. Serve your wine of choice dressed in a white linen napkin and note that it is really not chic these days to display the label. Please tell Jeremy to call for a consultation…

    Happy Holidays!

    Becky Wasserman Hone

  14. Jeremy Seysses permalink
    December 22, 2011

    Hi Everyone,

    Thank you for all the great answers, I will forward them to “X”. The question is indeed not so much about wine as it is about how to deal with entitled, rude, guests, especially the ones that one cannot avoid.

    I wish everyone a festive, happy end of year!


  15. December 21, 2011

    JP, this is a full-service, equal-opportunity site, and if the 1 percent have wine problems, The Wine Ethicist is here to help! (though Jeremy indicated that X does not have limitless resources and that having to feed his mother in law a steady diet of premier and grand cru Burgs is putting a strain on his cellar, and perhaps also his wallet). I think a secretly administered taste test would be one possible way out of this problem; if the mother-in-law “failed” the test, X could then go the subterfuge route confident in the knowledge that she’d never know the difference. But the bottom line is exactly as you say: it is rude to demand a particular wine or a particular category of wines.

  16. December 21, 2011

    Ha! Talk about a problem only suffered by the 1%! My response would be to simply state that I do not have any Red Burgundy 1er Cru (which in my case is true) or give some other excuse…such as a) those wines need more time to age; b) those wines won’t pair well with dinner; c) those wines are for investment purposes; d) etc.

    I’d also suggest turning the table on such a rude guest: if she wanted to pick some up ready-to-drink over-the-top pricey wine, I’d certainly participate in a tasting to determine why it’s the only wine she’ll drink! Bottom line, it is rude as a guest to insist on a particular wine (and I certainly suffered through some less than stellar glasses of wine, or just opted for beer, when I have been a guest at someone’s home.)

  17. December 21, 2011

    Walt, you make a fair point–this is very much a mother-in-law question, but with an interesting twist courtesy of the wine. The food pairing excuse is an excellent idea, though it doesn’t sound as if X’s mother-in-law would necessarily buy it.

    Bill, I’m not skip that one!

    Toby, you are right–I’m taking an expensive view of “ethicist” here. But I do think it’s a great story and a great question, and I think the credit card request is the ideal solution.

  18. December 21, 2011

    Is there really an ethical problem here? A problem with protocol maybe (exactly how does one go about telling one’s mother-in-law to go get stuffed?), but the ethical position seems pretty clear to me – the host has fulfilled his obligations by serving a suitable wine with dinner, the the mother-in-law is in the wrong as a guest for being so demanding.

    What is the wife’s opinion on this? I can’t say I would fancy being married to someone who would take the mother-in-law’s side in this case…

    As a compromise, perhaps he could offer to stock up on 1er cru Burgundy for her visit, and could he please have her credit card number first?

  19. Greg permalink
    December 21, 2011

    It’s interesting that Walt, so far, has been the only person to mention the wife. And I would like to amplify on that point. I think the friend should have a discussion with his wife and upon reaching a consensus, they would then be better able to handle a confrontation (if one is to occur).

  20. Bill Haydon permalink
    December 21, 2011

    Sounds like somebody needs to keep their pimp hand strong.

  21. December 21, 2011

    Lee, I like the Rhone move! Seems to me that X’s mother-in-law is making an implicit claim about her tasting prowess; he should put it to the test.

    Greg and Tristan, I can certainly see the logic of that approach, but if it the mother-in-law has been so adamant on this point, perhaps it really would result in an argument. I would find that incredible, but I think it’s incredible that the mother-in-law is making these demands (it makes me very thankful that my Japanese mother-in-law is completely alcohol-intolerant; alcohol in a cake can make her loopy). I agree, Tristan, that the sense of entitlement is the big problem.

    Dan, that’s a great suggestion; let her have all the 04 premiers crus she wants. Perhaps she won’t notice the meanie greenies, or won’t mind.

  22. Walt N permalink
    December 21, 2011

    Interesting, an in-law question disguised as a wine question. If the relationship between you and the in-laws is so fraught that you can’t speak up for yourself, then their child has to take the lead. Otherwise, I like the idea of couching the decision to serve something else in terms of a mismatch with the food: “Oh, a premier cru would be too complicated with the croque monsieurs, I think, why don’t we open this Bourgogne Passetoutgrains instead?”

  23. Tristan L. permalink
    December 21, 2011

    I think Greg has the right of it. Hold your ground, serve what you would normally serve and break out a few nicer bottles for dinner spread out over the course of the guest’s stay. Push comes to shove, there are inexpensive, though still nice 1er Cru wines that cost about the same as a village or bourgogne; Girardin Santenay Les Graviers comes to mind.

    But the main problem here is entitled guests. There are very few gracious ways to tell someone that you are not running a resort for the lengthy duration of their stay without an awkward moment. The best way is probably to come right out and say it, “that is not a luncheon wine.”

  24. Dan McCallum permalink
    December 21, 2011

    I would accede. And stock up on a lifetime (her’s not mine) supply of 2004’s.

  25. Greg permalink
    December 21, 2011

    I don’t personally think subterfuge is the way to go. Nor discussion. I think Frank’s second route is probably the way to go; simply serve the wine that one would normally serve with no pretense or discussion. If the mother-in-law then choose to become confrontational, it is of her own volition.

  26. Lee Newby permalink
    December 21, 2011

    A funnel and village or generic Burgundy and see if the guest knew the difference. I might even throw in a little Rhone for a cross check.

  27. December 21, 2011

    Frank, I was thinking along the same lines. It sounds like a situation that can’t be resolved through discussion, so subterfuge would seem to be the best option. Put a Bourgogne in an empty premier or grand cru bottle, and see if she can tell the difference.

    My wife doesn’t hit my wine cabinet, either, though she frequently reminds me that its contents are as much hers as mine. My kids are pretty young, but I suspect that once the teen years hit, I will probably want to hide the keys just in case!

  28. Frank permalink
    December 21, 2011

    Pretty simple – serve her plonk. Put it in the DRC bottle and say you’ve let it breathe in anticipation, or if you don’t fancy lying, decant it, leave the DRC bottle out, and let her draw her own conclusions. With manners like that, it’s unlikely she will know the difference. If she does, just say, “off year,” “I *thought* that might not be drinking well just now,” or some such bafflegab, and get something more appropriate out .

    Regarding my puny collection: My wife has grazing rights, naturally, but won’t exercise them, despite my urging. My son is the only other one to whom I would think of giving rights, but (1) I open the good stuff when he visits anyway, and (2) he has already announced that the only part of my estate he wants to inherit is the wine.

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