“Oh, how thoughtful!” says your host, looking at the bottle of wine you hold in your hand.
You stand there in the doorway. You wonder, is that smile forced? Or is it overly sincere, one of those “I so lucked out with this guest’s gift” types of grin?
Either way, you are offering what you think is a pretty good bottle. Maybe you picked it up at the supermarket five minutes earlier, or spent a great deal of time, thought, and yes, money, at a high-end wine shop.
Either way, the look on your host’s face makes you feel you’ve done something wrong. Either you bought a wine the host considers inappropriately cheap, or something so good that the lip-smacking host is planning to lock it up in the cellar without opening it to let you take a sip of your hard-won prize.
Welcome to Thanksgiving Day 2009, a modern era where, thanks to magazines like Food & Wine and Internet shows like Wine TV, everyone feels themselves to be critics and/or collectors.
So what are the rules of engagement this holiday season? How low can you go, in terms of a hostess gift? Should you inquire about what will be served so as to bring an appropriate wine for pairing? Or should you not expect the host to open the bottle in your presence?
“The quality of wine I bring has a lot to do about how seriously the guest is into wine,” said my friend Katie, when I asked the question. “For some, only the best will do — a recognized producer and vintage. For others, anything goes. They prefer the lower-end, under-$15 wines they are used to and wouldn’t even know how to appreciate the ‘good stuff.’”
And Katie is right. Often, the more expensive a wine, such as those from the region of Burgundy, the more it smells of “barnyard.” An inexperienced wine connoisseur might think the wine is flawed or just plain “icky,” whereas to an experienced taster, the "stinkier" the wine, the better its quality.
Also, do not feel offended if the host does not open the wine in your presence. It is their gift, remember, not yours, so just nod and smile when you see that light in their eyes and irrepressible smile that says, “I lucked out.” It’s okay if they want to share that expensive bottle with a friend, privately. After all, if your hostess gift happened to be expensive bath oil, you wouldn’t expect them to invite you into their bath.
So because time is short before Thanksgiving, here are three quick guidelines for your gift.
1. Rethink buying an expensive bottle for guests who are clueless about wine. Instead, buy something mainstream, under $20 and likely under $15, from a large, respected “brand” with the kind of intense advertising campaign that will be familiar to your host.
2. If your host is fluent in the world of wine, consider a bottle you have experienced and love. Insert a little note about the flavors and aromas one can expect, and perhaps a pairing suggestion. When giving the wine to your host, explain that there is no need to open the wine that day and it can be enjoyed privately.
3. If you are wine savvy, resist the temptation to talk endlessly about your wine to the hosts and other guests when it is opened. Remember, wine is to be enjoyed — especially on festive occasions.
That’s it — just three rules. Stay tuned for suggestions for when you are the host!