The Wine Ethicist, Part Deux
(Sorry for the delay in posting this; the Parker/Pancho/Miller train wreck sidetracked me.)
The first installment of The Wine Ethicist got a terrific response; many thanks to all who weighed in on the secret bottle question. Last week, I started reading Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, and I almost rolled off the couch when I came across the following paragraph on page 34:
“Because here was the thing: at every picnic, back up in the kitchen of the stone house, there was always a bottle or two of fabulous old Bordeaux from August’s storied cellar. This wine was put out at Patty’s father’s insistence, at unknown personal cost of wheedling and begging, and it was always Ray who gave the signal, the subtle nod, to his brothers and to any male friend he’d brought along to slip away from the picnic and follow him. The men returned a few minutes later with big bubble-bowled glasses filled to the brim with an amazing red, Ray also carrying a French bottle with maybe one inch of wine left in it, to be divided among all the wives and other less favored visitors. No amount of pleading could induce August to fetch another bottle from his cellar; he offered, instead, more Doc Haunch Reserve.”
How’s that for ironic—and with a gender discrimination angle thrown in, too! With four references to wine in the first 35 pages of Freedom, it would appear that Franzen is possibly a member of our tribe. Perhaps he’ll swing by to offer an opinion on last week’s question.
Anyway, although there were some excellent dissenting opinions, it was generally agreed that harboring a secret bottle and serving guests a lesser wine is unforgivably rude. Several people pointed out that it is possible to drink well in the company of non-wine enthusiasts without resorting to Nixonian trickery—that there are plenty of good, reasonably priced wines that can offer a grape nut pleasure while also being shared with non-oenophiles. Feel free to keep that discussion going, and thanks, again, for all the great posts.
So let’s get to this week’s edition of The Wine Ethicist, which is on a somewhat related topic—should a host feel obliged to open a good bottle of wine brought as a gift? My interest in this subject was prompted by a recent experience that I had. My wife and I were invited to a potluck dinner a few months ago, and in addition to contributing a dish, we brought a bottle of wine. It was a $40 California Chardonnay from a respected producer whose wines score well with critics. This winery used to regularly send me unsolicited samples (they stopped about a year ago), and having tasted enough of its Chardonnays to know that they were too sweet, buttery, and oaky for my taste, I felt no need to uncork another one. But some people enjoy that style, so I decided to bring a bottle from this producer to the party. The hostess greeted us at the door, whereupon I handed her the wine. She looked at the label, broke into a knowing smile, and said, “No way are we putting this out!” After showing us in, she absconded with the wine, which was never seen again that night. Needless to say, my wife and I were a bit surprised. Every time we drive by her house now, we joke about the disappeared chardonnay; if we ever get around to reciprocating, I might even ask her to bring it (assuming, of course, that she didn’t drink it).
Obviously, what our friend did wasn’t exactly in keeping with the spirit of potluck. But let’s put aside the potluck thing and talk about gift bottles in general. If you invite someone to dinner and they bring a good bottle of wine, should you feel obliged to serve it? I am framing this question in part around the issue of quality because I think that most of us, if presented with a bottle of, say, Barefoot Chardonnay, would probably not be inclined to open it (if you happen to believe that a host should open any wine brought as a gift, irrespective of cost or quality, by all means say so). It seems to me that the dilemma arises when a guest arrives not with a bottle of plonk, but with a really nice wine that you would genuinely enjoy—and that he or she would probably enjoy, too. Even if you’ve already selected a wine to serve with dinner, should you pour the gift bottle? We can also turn the question around. If you bring a stellar wine to someone’s house, do you expect it to be served? If the host doesn’t appear inclined to open your cabernet or syrah, is it okay to drop hints that you’d like to drink it—by talking glowingly about the wine, for instance?
Clearly, this is a topic that lends itself to all sorts of hypothetical scenarios, and I don’t want to complicate the discussion any more than I have; I assume that you get the drift. Whether as hosts or guests, many of us have faced a gift bottle conundrum at one time or another. I’d love to hear how you handled it and what you think proper etiquette is in such situations.