May 21, 2012

Wine Etiquette

- the challenges of pairing wine with a group of people.

I am continually flabbergasted by the number of people who when offered, choose not to enjoy a glass of wine with their meal or as a social connection. 

Granted, there will always be a percentage of the population who choose not to partake in the consumption of alcoholic beverages:  designated drivers are essential to the success of any social gathering, religious practices must be observed, and medical conditions – legitimate or imaginary may dictate the need to abstain.  There are also those who curiously do not enjoy the taste of wine.  And if I was not the host of frequent events involving alcoholic beverages, then I suppose I’d be somewhat impartial to the preferences of others.  Reality however, dictates that not everyone is equally enthusiastic about this subject.     

To most people, wine is nothing more than a beverage with little more importance than a glass of orange juice at the breakfast table or a bottle of water at the park.  It serves the simple purpose of quenching one’s thirst or to wash down a swallow of food – it tastes good and that is all that is expected.  To think that these same people care where the wine came from, at what altitude the grape were grown, mis en bouteille au Château, or what blend concocts the brew is an entirely absurd expectation.  We must also understand that as wine enthusiasts, we are by far the minority in any group and that people who care to discuss the degree of extraction or the likelihood of cold stabilization are few and far between.
As connoisseurs of the drink, should we really care if people decline the opportunity to sample what is arguably the most profound of all beverages?  The answer is probably not; some people just simply choose to abstain.  On the other hand, and considering both the effort and cost involved in selecting the perfect bottle for the right occasion, abstinence without intelligent reason may leave you somewhat bewildered, if not slightly offended (I fall into this camp).  But here lies the question:  when and for whom do you open your best bottles?  Imagine this comment at the dinner table: ‘I’ll bet that we are not drinking one of the fancy bottles from your cellar, are we?’  Slightly awkward indeed, but good etiquette calls for tactful redirection (though my thought at the time was,  ‘Ah yes, that’s because you can't tell the obvious difference between Riesling and Merlot my friend.)' Perhaps the better tactic is more a question of recognition on the part of the host.  Let me explain:

Recognizing the preferences, expectations, and limitations of your group is paramount to the success of any function.  But the real talent is to cater to exceptions and please everyone without drawing attention to any particular person’s individual needs. 

For the nondrinkers, I suggest a variety of bottled water, fresh juices, and hot or iced tea.  The presentation of these drinks deserves no less attention and a little imagination and research will reveal a wealth of creative techniques to jazz up the glass. 

As for the wine… gauge but do not judge your audience:  Are they casual drinkers, inquisitive palates, or hardcore enthusiasts?  Consider several bottles for the occasion.  The labels that you serve should coincide with the level of interest that your guests display, and that is easily determined with a surprisingly simple question: 

‘Can I get you a glass of wine?’ 

The answer that each person provides will paint a picture of their level of knowledge and degree of taste:

  • ‘No thank you’ – likely a nondrinker; no problem whatsoever.  Without putting anyone on the spot, take a moment to explore an alternative choice of beverage. 
  • ‘Only if you have something open’ – a casual response that dictates a casual bottle.  No pressure, no fuss, just a nice glass of wine.
  • ‘I don’t drink’ – the tone tells the story, and there is a good chance that this person is just begging for you to ask why?   Don’t go there… I lump this type in with the group that need to be sick:  ‘Can I get you something else?  Herbal tea, de-cafe coffee, a kick in the ass…’
  • ‘Sure, that would be great’ – explore their taste with another question:  Would you prefer red, white, something sparkling?  A bottle of each should always be ‘ready-to-go’.
  • ‘What are you pouring?’ – one of two possibilities:  above average knowledge or a touch of arrogance.  Follow up with a few options or ask if they have a particular region in mind (provided you can support such an offering).   Inquiring minds love to explore unfamiliar territory and uncharted tastes.   Unfortunately though pretension is far more common than knowledge and equally easy to detect.  That said, do not highlight the obvious, but rather work with these folks to select a nice bottle.  True knowledge is only gained through experience – help them along, they probably mean well. 

With practice, this approach will become second nature.  Your questions while serving a specific purpose will appear nothing more than a polite gesture. 




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Tyler is a member of the Wine Writers' Circle of Canada and the Guild of Sommeliers. He writes about and reviews wine both online and via a variety of circulating publications. In 2009 Tyler founded North of 9 Fine Wine, a free public wine education resource where he publishes his Thoughts, Theory, and Recommendations. For additional vinous related information and learning, follow on Twitter @TylerOnWine