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How to bring the right gift to your next dinner party

May 3, 2019

By Erin Henderson

Wine can be baffling. That’s part of the reason I decided to pursue wine studies: I love a challenge. And when people find out I’m a sommelier I get my earful from wine lovers mystified by the world of wine.

Questions range widely, of course, but there are a few ol’ faithfuls that I hear again and again. One of the most popular: What wine makes an appropriate host or hostess gift?

Whether for a special occasion like a bridal shower, family get-together, birthday or a holiday feast, inquiring minds want to know. What wine should I bring?

Good company demands good wine.
Good company demands good wine.

This is the burning questions I get repeatedly at our weekly Wine School. I heard from a bride-to-be who was absolutely dismayed by the bubbly her guest brought to her bachelorette (but like a good sport, she drank it all anyway). Another one of our students — a newbie wine drinker — was mortified that, after hearing her dad complain of the swill he often received, she might be among the guilty parties contributing to his distress.

Before we get into the deeper dive of how to select wines for gift giving, let’s eliminate the stress of choosing the best bottle on the planet right now.

You won’t be able to do it. Don’t even try.

If you find yourself with an ulcer induced by the stress, then you’re taking this way too seriously. If you’re sweating over whether to bring your wine-loving dad, boss or mother-in-law a Shiraz or a Cabernet… just don’t. Bring something else. Chances are your host has planned the menu and paired the drinks — and according to standard etiquette, they are under absolutely no obligation to open what you bring. So forget the wine. Bring a beautiful wedge of cheese, a bouquet of flowers, a box of artisan chocolates, the latest best-selling cookbook. You get the picture.

If you feel you really must bring a bottle, there are a few basic rules.

  1. Spend between $25 and $50. Use this rule of thumb: How much would you spend on a dinner out (similar to the giving-cash-at-a-wedding rule). True, you can find decent wines under $25, but chintzing out on the person who is hosting you for a marvellous evening — not cool. Conversely, spending more than $50 is unnecessarily indulgent (write that down, that’s not a pairing of words I ever use), and could embarrass your wine-loving host.
  2. But don’t tell your host how much you spent. A hundred years ago, my first career was in journalism. I was 22, working a pitifully paid internship at CFRB radio in Toronto, and somehow managed to score an invite to columnist Christie Blatchford’s party. I later found out it was a mass invite to the whole newsroom. Anyway, I was delighted. Not only was I in awe of Christie and her incredible, award winning, intellectual career, all the coolest people in journalism, politics and business would be there. And me too! So I blew $10.95 on the finest wine I could find. Presenting it in the brown paper LCBO bag to Christie as she welcomed me at the door with a cocktail, she was thankful and gracious. And she put it on a table with the rest of the bottled gifts. As I was leaving —just to be sure she knew which wine was actually my gift — I pointed out my central California red blend, conveniently nestled on the gift table between the Veuve and the Johnny Walker.
  3. Consider your host’s favourite wine. If they are fans of big reds, it’s probably useless to bring a bottle of bubbly or Riesling, no matter how fine. Now, don’t kill yourself trying to remember their favourite brand. Find a knowledgable and considerate sales person to help you track down bottles that match your host’s preferences.

At the end of the day, it truly is the thought that counts. Even if you take a swing and a miss on the wine (à la my Blatchford debacle), any decent host will appreciate the time and effort you put into selecting something you thought they would enjoy. Similarly, any decent guest will put a bit of care into the choice of bottle. Stopping by the wine shop to grab something— anything — on the way to the party and wrapping it in the car isn’t exactly going to inspire a second invite. Unless, of course, that’s your strategy.

Have questions about wine? Come to Wine School on Tuesdays and Erin will answer your questions. If you ask nicely.