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The Wine Ethicist

2011 November 28
by Mike

The week before last, I suggested a “Machiavellian” strategy for choosing Thanksgiving wines, and in that post, I raised the dicey issue of whether it is ever okay to secretly drink one wine while pouring your guests another. A few days later, someone on Wineberserkers posed the same question, prompting a long and spirited thread. All the etiquette talk strikes me as an excellent excuse to introduce a new feature to this blog, called The Wine Ethicist. It’s an idea that I had a while back, and having given it additional consideration, I think there’s plenty of material to be mined here, and some fun to be had, too.

Like most hobbies, wine appreciation has its rules and rituals. But there is no wine geek manual, no formal code of conduct, and mastering wine etiquette can be challenging. In pursuit of tasting pleasures, an oenophile often confronts questions of protocol and propriety; there is even the occasional moral dilemma. Is there a statute of limitations, for instance, on returning a corked or otherwise flawed bottle of wine to a retailer? If you are hosting a dinner party and a guest brings a really nice bottle as a gift, are you obliged to serve it? If you are taking part in a wine dinner or a tasting group and someone shows up with a bottle that is a big step down from what everyone was asked to contribute, how should the matter be handled? These are issues for The Wine Ethicist.

No, I am not appointing myself the Mr. Manners of wine (I’m much too uncouth for the role). I want The Wine Ethicist to be a group thing:  I’ll certainly offer my views, but I am more interested in hearing yours, and in having an entertaining conversation.  Feel free, too, to suggest topics we might discuss. I plan to post a new installment of The Wine Ethicist every Monday; I will keep it going until we run out of subjects or it is clear that this was a bad idea that interests no one—well, no one except me.

So let’s get it started. The Richard Nixon method—secretly drinking one wine while serving your guests another—is clearly a hot topic at the moment. In your opinion, is it ever acceptable to do this? If so, under what circumstances?

43 Responses leave one →
  1. Siobhan Turner permalink
    December 9, 2011

    I LOVE the ethicist idea!

    With respect to wine – I have always remembered with huge gratitude a friend whose New Year’s eve party we went to, armed (knowing this friend) with a bottle of Krug. Mark opened it, dragged us into the kitchen, sent me out to his other guests (largely unknown to me) with a bottle of perfectly acceptable if uninspiring Champagne and instructions to fetch X into the kitchen. (Tricky part was figuring out who was X… as I said, I didn’t know them). X duly found and extracted (he was somewhat aggrieved at not getting a refill of the champagne), we fabricated an urgent chat, filled up with Krug, and returned to the living room.
    This worked so well, we replicated it 8 months later at our wedding – the top table got our ’76 Tondonia Gran Reserva, carefully cellared and 6 bottles only remaining, the rest, who didn’t know the difference, got a perfectly acceptable Cru Bourgeois. I am utterly unrepentant!

  2. Andrew permalink
    December 8, 2011

    I try to be a good host by giving the giver the choice. Particularly at a dinner party with a few couples, if I know that this is a good bottle of wine, I will ask the giver if he would like me to serve it. Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes they answer that it is for my wife and I to enjoy later, or for us (assuming couples) to enjoy at a later date with fewer people. I think that’s pretty fair. If it is a crappy bottle of wine I tend to serve it straight away, especially if it is a bottle that I would not want to re-gift nor drink a lot of.

  3. Jeremy Seysses permalink
    December 5, 2011

    Mike,

    I would love to see the Wine Ethicist explore the issue, so the permission is very much granted. I have been giving some thought to the question of “what do you do when your mother in law drinks your finest booze?”. I can’t come up with a satisfactory answer, but I think most of what I would serve would come out of a decanter.

  4. Glen permalink
    December 4, 2011

    Generally, I would not cloak any of my finest for any guest I would happen to be accommodating. But I have to insist that there are far too many caveats in this area to give a simple yes or no. For instance I happen to know quite a number of people who would find it offensive and pretentious to know they were drinking anything over a twenty-dollar price tag. People have their preferences, I should not judge that; instead I would choose to secretly open a favorite of a certain monetary expense behind their backs.

    As for an ethical issue: should it be the duty of a host to open their finest (or at least a special bottle) for the new-comers of the wine world/less educated oneophiles at a party or tasting so they can get a step ahead (a better education) on what wine can offer or should we harbor said wine for ourselves for fear of not wasting it on an “undeveloped palette?”

  5. December 2, 2011

    In response to Frank’s Nero Wolfe quote, which I think is fantastic and dead on, I consider myself to be a good host. I don’t think very many of my guests leave wanting or in any way feel like they have been deprived of anything.

    But the concept that that means that everyone wants or needs to drink the same thing seems silly to me. At the same dinner party I will have people who have no interest in wine at all and want to have a vodka on the rocks with dinner. I’ve got that. Some people want white with their steak, some people want reds with their shrimp. Some would love to try the one bottle of X, Y or Z that I happen to have in the cellar. In my view, being a good host is to accommodate each person to the extent I can.

    Thankfully, we are lucky enough to have lots of good wine, and love to share it, but I don’t force it on people if they want something else, and I don’t (as a rule) buy wines by the case, so uniformity is out. I open lots of things over the course of an evening and hope that people find something they like and enjoy, and if they are adventurous, even learn about something new.

  6. Frank permalink
    December 2, 2011

    “To me the relationship of host and guest is sacred. The guest is a jewel resting on the cushion of hospitality.” – Nero Wolfe in Too Many Cooks

    Drink what you serve. But what you serve may be more interesting than expensive.

    And Jeremy, if your MIL has that attitude, she probably can’t tell if you put plonk in the 1er cru bottle. (Unless she’s Jancis Robinson but then Jancis would never be so crude).

  7. December 2, 2011

    That, Jeremy, is a hell of a story, and perfect fodder for The Wine Ethicist. Fortunately, my mother-in-law, a delightful Japanese woman, doesn’t drink at all, so I don’t have this problem. I’m sorry to hear that RW does, and in a forthcoming installment of The Wine Ethicist, we will be exploring how he might handle this thorny issue (with your permission, of course).

  8. Jeremy Seysses permalink
    December 1, 2011

    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 MIL 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 doesnt have unlimited access to Burgundy’s finest to do?

    I personally would have taken the opportunity for some business travel, but this was. It an option apparently.

  9. December 1, 2011

    Dear Wine Ethicist,

    Is threatening journalists/bloggers with litigation because they posted straightforward, fact-based accounts of some potential pay-for-play activities involving one of your associates (and his associates) ethical? Just purely a hypothetical question…

    Bill

  10. November 30, 2011

    BTW, I have no affiliations with the cited merchant. There are plenty of reputable folks out there working their tales off to keep these awkward situations from becoming enduring family feuds or terminated friendships. We are a lucky lot these days, even more so now that the wine world at large grows less and less beholden to the arbitrary tastes of trophy critics. Not every ‘great’ wine is big and dark; some are diminutive and cherry red…a perfect departure point from the scourge of the white zin.

  11. November 30, 2011

    The best wine for all.

  12. Robin C permalink
    November 30, 2011

    If you are given a wine thermometer as a present how long do you have to kekep it before putting it in the Good Will box?

  13. November 30, 2011

    Blake, great story! Honesty doesn’t always pay. And, actually, you hit on another problem: non-wine geeks don’t always know to limit their pours (some waiters have the same problem, of course, but for another reason). We have one family member who will fill a Riedel Vinum to the brim if allowed access to the bottle.

    Zoeldar, thanks–I’m glad you like the idea, and we seem to be off to a great start. Your solution is terrific–it is a great way of handling the issue, and I love your breakdown of the the crowd. The gluttons must definitely be kept away from the table.

    Hey, Brooklynguy, thanks for stopping by. You have the ideal solution–there’s plenty of stuff to drink in the $10-$15 range, and if it is a wine that you enjoy, there’s obviously no need to pop anything else.

  14. November 30, 2011

    Have to agree with Brooklynguy here. Wine appreciation–especially knowledge–needs to be a distributive faculty, not facilitative. In other words, the love of wine ought really to be shared, to the hopeful betterment of all involved, including those whose current appreciation of wine falls well short of ours. Stocking one’s shelves with extremely good and interesting wine that wouldn’t make a miser blush–well, that seems essential in instances like these. You’ve introduced someone to some insanely good Cab Franc grown biodynamically in the Loire Valley, and you didn’t pay but $12 for it. While it may not be TBC cheap, it’s not something you’ve taken out a loan on either, and you’ve saved yourself the anguish of opening Clos Rougeard when no one would have given a rip anyway. It takes research to find these bargain basement gems, but I promise they’re out there, and so many of them are shockingly good. KLWM is a great launching point.

  15. November 30, 2011

    I understand the temptation to do this, and I deal with it simply by keeping only the wines in my house that are exactly what I want to drink, at every price point. That way, when I have guests who might not care one way or the other about what wine they drink, I can open something inexpensive and still love and respect what we are drinking together.

  16. zoeldar permalink
    November 30, 2011

    First off – big “thumbs up” to the Ethicist idea…a real winner (obviously by the vibrancy of this first thread).

    Re: Secret Wine – I think it a bad idea, and selfish to the max. Instead, I’ve found easy solutions…first, ensure that the otehr wines being served are at least passable (if you have control). Second, bring that fine bottle, but don’t advertise it…just open it, pour a glass, and offer tastes to others who might appreciate it. Those who are in “learning mode”, well, I’m delighted to help further their appreciation of better wines – and they usually (eventually) return the favor. Those in the ozone (no appreciation of the finer vino) are usually oblivious to the good pours, and ignore it. Those who are gluttons for anything coveted (ie. not wine fans but not wanting to miss anything anyone has…) probably shouldn’t be invited anyhow.
    There is PLENTY of great wine in the world…let’s share it and grow appreciation of the vino vs. hoarding it. It is better to give than to receive, so long as you get a reasonable glassful.

    Z

  17. November 30, 2011

    When I go to a big gathering with civilians, I usually take a lot of different wines. Often I open them all, taste them and put them on the table. People who are the least involved in wine invariably ask, “Which one is the best?” Having answered that honestly once and seen my favorite wine disappear in huge 10-oz pours to be compared with Two Buck Chuck (“it’s not as fruity”), I will never honestly answer that again.

  18. November 29, 2011

    When it comes to family get-togethers, this isn’t a big problem for me. If I bring a nice bottle of wine to Christmas or Thanksgiving, it largely goes untouched. Sure a few people might try it out of curiosity, but then they’ll go right back to the white zin.

    Oh well, more of the good stuff for me!

  19. November 29, 2011

    Fair enough, Tom. You at least need to keep the bottle close, then, to be able to claim the first refill!

  20. November 29, 2011

    Mike:

    I couldn’t sleep knowing I did this. However, I might be the first to pour myself seconds.

  21. November 29, 2011

    Bill – Seriously good work capitalizing on their denial of a great wine! I’m always happy to enjoy a good wine turned down by others because of a closure, label, or that they’ve never heard of the grape/place.

    Mike,

    We didn’t have that particular problem on Thanksgiving luckily, just an example of when it would have been awkward though. I wish we were opening wines like that on a regular basis, but it’s a Thanksgiving kinda thing to dig up some old bottles while we’re in the shop.

    I do remember the reaction some one gave to a ’97 Baumard Clos de Ste. Yves Savenniere though: “This wine’s gone bad.” It was and still is quite enjoyable, but it is old Savenniere.

  22. November 29, 2011

    Bill, you’ll get no disagreement from me regarding Nixon, and perhaps the fact that he took this approach to wine is reason enough for the rest of us to eschew it. Hilarious story about the Baumard, and really, the perfect ending–you went above and beyond with your contribution, and you and your wife got to drink the whole thing in the end anyway.

    John, fair points all, and the Gruet is a good choice for those occasions. For a few bucks more, the Roederer Estate NV would work well, too.

    Toby, that’s a terrific story, and glad to hear that those in the know were able to grab a taste.

    Al, I’m not sure it’s sanctimony; some people obviously reject the idea entirely and consider it rude under any circumstances, but others are simply arguing for a little tact–don’t hide the bottle, don’t make it too good a wine, etc. I agree with you that in certain instances, harboring a secret bottle is not a great offense. For instance, if you are having relatives over, and they like to drink hard liquor for cocktails, are sure to be shit-faced by the time dinner is served, and have zero interest in wine except for its intoxicating effect, why should you waste a good bottle on them–or deprive yourself of something decent to drink? If it sounds like I am speaking from experience, well….

    Jeremy, you are absolutely right: choose the right people to hang out with, and this isn’t a problem. But apropos of my comment above, what do you do about relatives? I like your solution to the restaurant issue–a good Southern Rhone can solve the problem.

    Bob, I’m glad you like the idea, and I’m happy to help you fritter away time!

    Joe, what did the Sutter Home/Andre crowd think of the 91 Lopez de Heredia white? Any of them see the light, or did they look at you quizzically and head for the register? I can imagine that it’s a tricky thing, the in-store tasting featuring wine geek fare. But great choice of wines–that’s an impressive tasting.

  23. November 29, 2011

    So the dinner table I have covered, there is another area of when to share and when to hide that I haven’t come up with an elegant solution to yet. Franzia Chablis to Raveneau Chablis. We have a tasting room and bar that’s open and on the floor, but set pretty far back in the building. Sometimes we’ll open an interesting bottle of wine or two, (day before thanksgiving it was a 91 lopez de heredia res. white and a 95 ridge lytton springs) and I’m never quite sure what to say when I see some one with a bottle of Sutter Home white zin or Andre, come back and say, “hey, what are we tasting today?”

    The family/friend situation I have down because I’m choosing to be with those people. The in-shop example is a little more precarious because I certainly don’t want to come off as rude, but sometimes I feel a little defensive about to whom the juice gets doled out to. I’m looking for Switzerland like responses that keep everything nice & neutral.

  24. Bob R. permalink
    November 29, 2011

    No, I don’t consider it acceptable at all. But what I have done on a few occasions is have a bottle of something special at one end (near me) and a more ordinary wine at the other end, and pour the special one for certain people. But it’s not hidden, and if anyone else spies that bottle and asks for some, they get it.
    As to the Wine Ethicist, while I like the idea in principle, it looks like another way for me to fritter away time I should be spending on other things. But I still like it.

  25. Jeremy Seysses permalink
    November 29, 2011

    You have people who don’t like wine come to dine at your house? That’s where you’ve gone wrong. I would avoid the dilemna altogether by being more selective upstream.

    More seriously, when confronted with the situation of people with little interest in wine at the restaurant, I have offered to select and pay the wines and treat the table, looking out for a wine that is pleasing to everyone involved. No Chateau Margaux, but more value, fruit forward yet never jammy options so that everyone found something to their taste.

  26. November 28, 2011

    I think everyone who is being so holier-than-thou about how they would never do such a thing are being a little over-the-top. What do you do if you’re at a table of 10, or a room full of 20 or more and you have a few wine geeks over? Do you really insist that everyone drink the same perfectly decent “reasonable” wine(s) that you’re serving in volume, or do you maybe pull something more interesting out for yourself and those who might be interested in it?

    I don’t do that very often, but I do it sometimes when it seems (and feels) appropriate. And done in the right setting and the right way, I don’t even think it’s rude. Denying some of whatever you open to someone who’s interested in having some? That is rude. But who would ever do that?

  27. November 28, 2011

    Have to admit, kinda, sorta did this once – at my own wedding. During the obligatory photographs we had some Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque 1979 Rose on hand. I can’t remember what the rest of the guests were drinking in the meantime, but anyone savvy enough to appreciate the difference was given a heads up so they could sneak across for a taste.

    Didn’t last long before we were all drinking the cheaper bubbly.

  28. John permalink
    November 28, 2011

    I wouldn’t ever do this because, risk of getting caught aside, I don’t really like to drink good or challenging wine with a group. Wine is certainly meant to be shared, but wine that requires attention can’t be given its due in a noisy, unfocused crowd. (Thanksgiving is thus the least appropriate time to drink something of particular interest.) With that said, I love drinking good wine at dinner with my girlfriend who lets me putter away with it for twenty minutes before we eat and then also likes to talk about it. Or with a friend or two who know what to look for and actually engage with it.

    In most situations you can share mediocre wine and still get that positive social effect. I always take a bottle or two of $20 and under wine that I like but either don’t love or know well. For instance, I’ve been carrying Gruet Blanc de Noirs NV to parties. It’s great, drinkable by the masses but well made and interesting, cheap, has a good backstory that almost keeps people’s attention, is not intimidating, and everyone thinks positively of bubbly at a party.

  29. November 28, 2011

    Mike,

    I heartily endorse the Wine Ethicist concept and am looking forward to seeing how far you can take it.

    As for this particular bit of protocol, I think it’s almost damned from the start simply through its association with Nixon. Who wants to say they embrace the “Nixon method?” (“When going to parties, I advise drinking like our nation’s favorite paranoid, alcoholic, borderline-sociopath, anti-Semitic felon President!).

    So, I agree with Tristan and Evan here. If you’re worried the other guests won’t appreciate your wine, then don’t bring one of your treasures; just bring a good value wine that’ll keep you happy and won’t break your heart if you see the bottle neglected on the table.

    FWIW, I actually had a “reverse Nixon” happen to me once, when I brought a Baumard Quarts de Chaume to a party, and guests acted like I’d brought something crappy (because of the screwcap, I think…what is it with all the screwcap haters, both among wine geeks and non-winebuffs?). It went untouched, the host actually offered it back to me at the end, and so I took it home and later savored it with my wife. Guess they didn’t have Baumard to kick around anymore…

    Cheers,

    Bill

  30. November 28, 2011

    Joe, thanks for stopping by. I think that’s a great strategy, and as with JP’s suggestion, it solves the problem without being rude.

    Evan, I’m not sure I agree with the alcoholism part, but selfish and antithetical to the spirit of wine appreciation? Yeah. I definitely agree with you that any upgrading should be limited to great value wines. Secretly drinking a grand cru red Burgundy while serving your guests plonk is just not depriving them of potential pleasure; it is depriving yourself of some of the pleasure that comes with drinking such rarities–the pleasure of talking about them, of really savoring the experience.

    Jack, sounds good, and I hope we can do it sometime (and I’ll bring some wine myself). And not to worry about the early hour–with two young ones, I’m used to it.

  31. Jack Bulkin permalink
    November 28, 2011

    Mike I have sold my Lafite and Latour to China but not my few Margaux and Haut Brion. You are safe. I eat early due to my child. Invite not necessary. Bring your kids.

  32. November 28, 2011

    Thanksgiving 2 years ago I was invited to a dinner that had about 2 family members of mine and 12 or 13 friends. I took two bottles of Domaine de Pavillion de Chavannes Cote du Brouilly, two bottles of Laurent Kraft’s Vouvray sec, and two half bottles of Domaine de Bernardins Beaumes-de-Venise.

    I knew that the crowd wasn’t particularly wine-centric, so I was not surprised to see the other bottles on the table were Menage-a-trois red and Clos du Bois chardonnay.

    Some people tried the wines I brought out of curiosity, but most of them gravitated to the house red and white. Meanwhile, I got to enjoy some fine fine grape juice that I found to be slightly more interesting. I knew to take wines I found reasonably thought provoking and enjoyable, but not old wines or very expensive bottles (all of these bottles being under $20.)

    When I take wine to a dinner unsure of how into wine the crowd will be, this is the strategy I tend to go in with. This way I can enjoy something good without snubbing some one over a more expensive bottle I’m protective of.

  33. November 28, 2011

    I can’t imagine pulling this trick unless the wine that my guests wanted was truly undrinkable stuff. And even then, I’d secretly upgrade to a great value wine, not something rare or expensive. The true pleasure of wine is the act of sharing it and experiencing it with others. Secretly drinking wine smacks more of alcoholism than prudent behavior. It’s missing the point entirely.

  34. November 28, 2011

    Jack, I’m certainly expecting Margaux if I ever visit you!

    It is funny, and of course fitting, that it was Nixon who pulled this stunt. But at least the guy had an interest in wine, which is more than can be said for most presidents.

  35. November 28, 2011

    Well, Jason, if you ever invite me over for dinner, I’ll be sure to volunteer to do the dishes–that will get me to the good food!

    JP and Tristan, thanks for the comments. JP, that’s a great suggestion–it addresses the problem without resorting to rudeness. Tristan, I think you touch on a key point– the one wine for me/another wine for thee approach is something that perhaps can be done with family members; if they simply don’t care about wine, it might not be a big deal to them, and they are stuck with you regardless. With friends, it is a much riskier proposition. I would certainly never do something like that with friends. With family members? It depends on which ones!

  36. Jack Bulkin permalink
    November 28, 2011

    There is a similar clueless thread on EBOB about this issue. I can’t compare the answers since WineBeserkers is taboo to me.
    I’m with Nixon on this. My guests get what I open and I get Margaux. I wish. : )

  37. Jason Parmentier permalink
    November 28, 2011

    “Is it ever acceptable to do this?”

    Of course it is.
    It’s your party, you can lie if you want to.

    Not only do I keep a better bottle on the side, I often keep better food on the side as well. While my guests are dining on meatloaf I will excuse myself, go into the kitchen, and feast on caviar, foie gras, and pheasant napped with sauce Perigueux.
    Why waste quality food on people who wouldn’t know the difference?

  38. November 28, 2011

    Definitely rude to secretly serve yourself the good wine and leave your guests in the cold….completely. However, openly putting the good bottle of wine at your end of the table, and a palatable, but perhaps less expensive wine near those guests that have less appreciation for wine is a far less serious sin in my view.

  39. Tristan L. permalink
    November 28, 2011

    Could not do it. First, there’s the possibility that your party discovers your trick, in which case they have good reason not to join you again unless they are close family. And in that case, it definitely wont make next year’s dinner any more entertaining. Second, it is a matter of your respect for your guests. Even if you are a host out of obligation, whatever wine you serve should at least be palatable. Deal with it, it’s not worth the risk.

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