Dear Manners Oracle,
What is the correct way to deal with drinking wine that is brought to a dinner party or other occasion?
I always go out of my way to bring a really nice bottle to my in-laws at Thanksgiving or Christmas. My father-in-law, who is a big wine guy, is always impressed and grateful. He also invariably serves cheaper wine instead, presumably so he can drink the nice stuff some time when he doesn't have to share it with us.
This has always struck me as assholic behavior. On the other hand, when people bring not-great wine to my place, I usually serve something better, which is kind of the same thing as far as manners are concerned. What do you think?
Thirsty in Brooklyn
Dear Thirsty in Brooklyn,
You have hit on why bringing wine to a dinner party in France is considered not quite the thing. There, such an offering implies that perhaps you thought your host wasn't going to fête you properly, so you chose to hedge your bets and bring your own.
It's sticky territory in the States, too. It goes two ways. Let's start with tradition, which, you may be sad to hear, is on your father-in-law's side. Under that thinking, when you bring wine to a party, it is a gift to the host and they can do with it what they like. The presumption would be that they have already planned the food and drink for the event for which you have just arrived, and everyone would assume they would enjoy the wine some other time.
I will note that when I act as such—bringing a particularly fine Champagne to a big-number birthday party, for example, when I don't want my offering to get lost in the sea of random bubbly—I know I'm acting against common contemporary practice and will pointedly beg the host to hide it away to enjoy when they can savor it.
Which brings us to commonly observed practice today, when often the request of "what can I bring?" is met with "a bottle of wine." Under that model, the wine is more of a contribution to the party than a gift, per se, to the host.
So what's the difference? If you've been asked to bring wine or something to drink, you can fairly assume that you'll be sipping what you brought at some point.
Did your in-laws ask you to bring wine? No? Then you are giving them a gift. Assholic or not, they are free to enjoy that gift as they see fit. Since this sounds like a predictable pattern, and one that's pissing you off a bit, I suggest bringing a different gift. Flowers or candy or a book you think they'd enjoy, or a fancy candle if they seem like they'd be into that sort of thing. Or bring a wine you think they'd like, knowing that you won't be tasting it.
And the same goes for you and your pretentious serving of finer wine than your guests schlep over to your place. If you asked them to bring wine, bring out the corkscrew. If not, go ahead and show them up with your finer taste.
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About the Author: Molly Watson honed her ability to guide others in tricky situations by telling her little brother the best way to do everything. See what she has to say beyond dining at Ask a (Sensible) Midwesterner. Catch her work as a recipe wizard at Local Foods.