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What to Wear to a Wine Event

Pro tips for navigating dress codes of the wine world

Posted: Nov 15, 2012 10:00am ET

By Jennifer Fiedler

Walk-around tastings. Auctions. Winemaker dinners. The wine world has no shortage of social gatherings, and with each event comes the seemingly silly, yet kind of important question: What should you wear?

In these days when hoodie-clad tech execs top the Forbes 400 and Malvasia gets more attention than Meursault on Brooklyn wine lists, yes, you can wear whatever you want to wine events. End of story. What's really important at these things is the company you keep and what's in your glass, etc., etc.

But let's get real. It's telling that many comments on Talia Baiocchi's blog post last week about a new generation of Napa winemakers revolved not around stylistic decisions in winemaking, but the clothes winemakers wear—specifically whether it was apt to describe 1980s Napa as "linen-wearing." Clearly, this stuff matters.

Without getting into a Thorstein Veblen-laced recap of Sociology 101, how we dress is a signal about status and class, and once you add wine into the picture, you've got a seriously complicated matrix. I asked a few wine and fashion professionals about what they've noticed at events, and the consensus seems to be that, despite the slow creep of casual Friday into casual everyday in America, the dress codes—spoken or unspoken—of the wine world still seem to skew on the more formal side.

"Generally speaking, you do see people dress up for wine events more so than food events," said Christopher Miller, sommelier at Los Angeles' Spago. He said that even though Southern California may be less formal overall, it doesn't mean people aren't well-dressed at wine events. "Casual is a tricky word. Even when someone is quote unquote casual, they still look like they stepped out of GQ. Their jeans are ironed better than the next guy's suit. It's a respectful casual."

Marie Keep, auctioneer for Boston-based Skinner, said that auction-goers tend to welcome a chance to get dressed up at their events. "We see the full gamut," she said, but in general, she noted the crowds are well-appointed, with women in "beautiful dresses or well-tailored suits" and men in business attire.

Business casual and cocktail attire seemed to be the default guess for what to wear when no dress code is specified. The most common refrain, however, was to consider what was appropriate for the venue, a suggestion endorsed by Kate Spade CEO Deborah Lloyd. "If the venue feels more formal, then I will wear a cocktail dress, but if it is someplace outdoors or more rustic, I like to relax my outfit," she said via e-mail.

Lloyd, who is partnering with Domaine Carneros to launch a sparkling rosé in the spring, also made an important point about the value of doing outfit research ahead of time: "I think you should dress for the occasion, so that you're not worried about your outfit and can focus on the important subject at hand—the wine!"

Below, I've compiled some general suggestions that work for any venue, from private dinners to walk-around tastings. What other tips would you offer newcomers to the wine world about dressing for a wine tasting? Please leave advice in the comments.

Wear Dark Colors: "I always forget to wear dark colors, but you're spitting stuff out, so it's important," said Emily Wines, beverage director for Kimpton Hotels. If you're prone to spills, a scarf or shawl can double as an emergency cover-up.

Fragrance-Free: No perfume, cologne or strong-scented anything that would overwhelm the wines. "That's a big no-no," said Jason Wagner, wine director of RM in Chicago. Smell is a huge part of tasting. "You would be shunned."

Practical Fashion: Marie Keep, of Skinner Auctions, said she avoids dangling sleeves that would interfere with picking up glasses and likes to have pockets to carry a notebook and pen. However, even if she's going to be on her feet a while, she prefers heels to flats. "I personally like heels so I can see over people's heads and shoulders," she said. "I do not like to be lost in a crowd."

Be Comfortable: "I always think that you should find what you feel best and most confident in and then build your outfit from there," said Deborah Lloyd, CEO of Kate Spade. "I happen to feel very happy in a colorful dress and some great jewelry."

Peter Meltzer
New York, NY —  November 15, 2012 12:09pm ET
When I first started reporting on wine auctions in the mid-90s, the dress code was fairly formal in New York. Jacket and tie in the very least for the men. The few women who attended these events were always smartly dressed – most often in a dress. Fast forward to 2012, and there has been a sea change insofar as auction apparel goes. Designer jeans, slacks and sweaters have largely supplanted suits. There are a few more women in attendance, still smartly attired, but sporting more or less the same outfits. And while auction goers have been dressing down, auction prices have gone through the roof.
Sean Calder
Vancouver, Canada —  November 16, 2012 12:59pm ET
My rules for tastings:
* wear dark colours
* no perfume or cologne
* step aside once you've had your pour (and possibly a quick chat with the pourer)
* a toothbrush for a quick touch-up if you're tasting reds.
Maryann Worobiec
Napa, CA —  November 16, 2012 1:08pm ET
Here in Napa, there are often events where the attire is described as "wine country casual." As far as I can tell, it's mostly business casual with a splash of cocktail attire and/or a touch of cowboy. Layers are necessary to deal with the diurnal temperature variation. Since most of the events take place outside and in the grass, high heels don't work well.
Ray Everett
San Francisco, CA —  November 27, 2012 1:44pm ET
Personally, I thank the gods that the hipsters are still into their PBR and haven't moved onto wine yet, so I have yet to see very many pairs of skinny jeans and tattered flannel shirts at tastings here in San Francisco. But there definitely does seem to be a male uniform of sorts at many of the tastings I've been to here in SF and up in Sonoma and Napa: khakis or nice jeans, button down shirts with a fleece jacket or other warm pullover or sweater that can be thrown jauntily over the shoulders. That's what I think of when I think "wine country casual"... but I'm probably hanging out with a sketchier crowd than Maryann. ;-)
Michael Henderson
San Francisco —  December 22, 2012 10:06pm ET
Sweater that can be jauntily thrown over the shoulders. Does anything look worse? Wear it or don't take it.

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