Back in the day, as the saying goes, when we entertained at home we were all oppressed by "the rules." Books and magazine articles with titles like "The Rules of Good Hostmanship" or "What Every Hostess Needs To Know" abounded. Sure, it all seems harmlessly quaint now. But believe me that up to the 1970s this sort of thing was taken very seriously.
Today, the formality and etiquette once both studied and applied are long gone. But whether we care to acknowledge it or not, there's still a choreography in the dance between host and guest. It says something about our times (to say nothing of how times have changed) that this dance extends to wine. An impressive number of hosts and guests are now wine-centric.
Indeed, for many, wine is as much the focal point of the meal as the food, to say nothing of its being the subject of much—sometimes too much—of the conversation. (It might amuse you to know that in places like Napa and Sonoma, conversations at dinner parties only rarely touch on wine. Instead, the topic is usually the wine business.)
This summer I've been more involved than usual as both a wine guest and a wine host. In the former situation, I was the guest of a colleague whom I had not seen for several years. We live on opposite coasts. But he's been to my house, and on this occasion, I was at his. It was a small dinner party.
I knew that he was not lacking in the wine department. Quite the opposite. I knew that he had a pretty good cellar, filled with mostly (now older) red Bordeaux, old Barolos and red and white Burgundies. Still, a house present was called for and somehow flowers just didn't seem right. Wine was the thing.
Now, here's a question: What wine do you bring for someone who a) knows a lot about wine and b) already has a lot of good wines? Your mileage may vary on this, but my approach is to find something fairly esoteric (relative to the recipient) and not too expensive. This latter point is not casual. Giving expensive wines as gifts can seem somehow self-glorifying—unless the gift gets the absolution of having come from your personal cellar thanks to a long-ago purchase.
Anyway, I brought two bottles, both from the Loire Valley, my favorite happy hunting ground for wonderful wines at bargain prices. For the record, I brought a magnum of Château Les Fromenteaux Muscadet Clos du Poyet Vieilles Vignes 2009 ($40) and a regular-size bottle of Domaine Gasnier Chinon Vieilles Vignes 2008 ($19).
I felt confident that my host had nothing like either of these in his cellar (he said that he didn't) and that both wines were a) exceptionally fine and b) suitably esoteric. Voilà! Wine guestmanship.
This brings up, by the way, an interesting dilemma for both guest and host: Should you, as the guest, expect your wines to be drunk that evening? And should you, as the host, be expected to revise your wine pairings to accommodate these newly arrived wines?
My own feeling is that a wine gift is just that. It should be unwrapped, but not necessarily opened. When I bring wines I always make a point of saying that this is for the cellar. If the host then wants to open the wine that evening, it's his or her choice. But the host should be off the hook.
This may be a problem if, for example, you're bringing a wine that has a personal story attached to it. That sort of thing is best told around the campfire, as it were. If that's the case, I'd call ahead first and ask if, say, a good Cabernet that you'd like to bring as a gift might work with the meal—and that it's got a tasty story attached to it, too.
And what, ahem, would you have brought?
As for wine hostmanship …
This summer seems to have brought an unusual number of wine-loving guests chez Kramer.
Here again comes the question: Which wines do you serve wine-loving guests? Obviously, much depends on the food you're serving. But it also depends equally as much on who you're serving. How much do they know, and care, about wine? How adventurous are they?
I'll tell you one thing that I never do: I never, ever, serve wines blind at a dinner party. I don't care what anybody says ("Oh, we're all professionals here," or "It's just good fun!"). Not a bit of it. Blind tasting at dinners is ungracious and often downright mean. Guests are always discomfited.
If for some reason you absolutely must serve a wine blind, then you should announce that you're going to reveal the label after everyone has tasted the wine but before anyone says a word. After you’ve unveiled it, people can say what they like—or not.
My theory about choosing wines is never to serve more than one "standout wine"—but never to serve less than one such standout wine, either. Although their impulse and generosity are admirable, some hosts can bludgeon both their guests and, oddly, their wines, by serving a relentless series of trophy bottles.
You may say, grinning broadly, "What's not to like?" I know what you mean, of course. But the odd thing about such experiences is that they're numbing. By the time you've arrived at the third, fourth, fifth or sixth such blockbuster wine of the evening (some generous hosts like to serve a pair of wines at the same time), you're exhausted. Far from refreshed, your senses are overwhelmed. It's like having fatty, rich dishes for every course.
What I like to do is purposely serve unusually good but very modestly priced wines that either build up to, or follow from, what I hope is a great bottle of wine. Perhaps they're just being polite, but people seem fascinated to taste, as an aperitif, a Spanish cava, or sparkling wine, called Torre Oria Brut non-vintage.
What makes it so interesting? It's 100 percent Macabeo, which is an indigenous Spanish white grape that's rarely used alone in Spanish sparkling wines. It's really good (which is the usual exclamation from guests). With American guests (Europeans are much more discreet), the question invariably asked is: How much is it? When I say $8, they're flabbergasted. Everyone loves a deal, you know.
One recent dinner started instead with a high-end "grower" Champagne (André Clouet Silver Brut Nature non-vintage) which was followed by a modest but exceptional Dolcetto d’Alba “San Lorenzo” 2008 from the small family producer Brezza, and then—ta-da!—the "trophy": Williams Selyem Jackass Hill Vineyard Zinfandel 1990.
I'd been saving that Zinfandel for years, and its smooth, round, fruit-intense-yet-mature richness went beautifully with a risotto enlivened with small bits of Colonel Bill Newsom's Kentucky country ham.
Dessert—baked peach halves with amaretti-chocolate filling—was accompanied by a Moscato d'Asti Sourgal from Elio Perrone. It's an ideal dessert wine, as it's low-alcohol (5 percent), slightly fizzy, and refreshing.
For this wine-loving host, such a dinner seems just right. But what about you? Have you hosted—or been guests at—a wine-centric dinner this summer? What did you serve—or bring? And did it succeed? Do you have your own rules for being a good wine guest or wine host? Or is it a lost art?
Chris A Elerick — Orlando, FL — August 17, 2010 1:52pm ET
Thomas — Austin, TX — August 17, 2010 2:09pm ET
John Kmiecik — Chicago, IL — August 17, 2010 2:12pm ET
Barry Brown — Napa — August 17, 2010 2:15pm ET
Jennifer Frank — New York — August 17, 2010 2:23pm ET
Morewine Bishar — Del Mar, California — August 17, 2010 2:50pm ET
Johnny Espinoza Esquivel — Wine World — August 17, 2010 5:55pm ET
Phil Roberts — Palatine, IL — August 17, 2010 7:39pm ET
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — August 17, 2010 10:43pm ET
Gerald Ansel — Fullerton, Calif — August 18, 2010 12:19am ET
Colony Wine Market — madison, ms madison — August 18, 2010 11:56am ET
Matt Kramer — Portland, OR — August 18, 2010 1:24pm ET
Peter Mc Kenna — Cincinnati, OH — August 18, 2010 2:26pm ET
Jake Schwietering — Minneapolis — August 18, 2010 2:50pm ET
Matt Kramer — Portland, OR — August 18, 2010 3:13pm ET
Thomas Matthews — New York City — August 18, 2010 3:47pm ET
Anatoli Levine — Stamford, CT — August 18, 2010 10:06pm ET
Adam Harris — Dix Hills, New York — August 19, 2010 3:40pm ET
Walt Rooney — Seattle, Washington — August 19, 2010 6:12pm ET
Charles Clarke — Dallas, TX 75205 — August 19, 2010 11:49pm ET
Matt Kramer — Portland, OR — August 20, 2010 11:15am ET
William Odom — Washington State — August 20, 2010 12:54pm ET
Jeff Loomans — San Francisco, California — August 20, 2010 8:32pm ET
Richard Robertson — Charleston, SC — August 20, 2010 9:20pm ET
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