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Sommeliers offer tips on gifting wine the right way

Some of America's top sommeliers offer suggestions on gifting wine, party etiquette and what happens if the wine you bring to the party doesn't get opened.

Attending a dinner party is supposed to be the relaxing end of the guest-host trade-off. You can simply show up while the host organises all the minute details to make the gathering a memorable one. Yet, before settling in for a hosted evening, there’s one detail that requires your attention – choosing the perfect bottle of wine.

Wine as a thoughtful gift

With so many styles, regions and labels to choose from, this can often trigger social anxiety. Does my host like white or red? What are we having for dinner? How many people will be there? These are all questions that arise in anticipation of finding the perfect bottle. Instead of asking them rhetorically, sommelier and founder of The Hue Society, Tahiirah Habibi says you should actually ask them.

‘Get as much information about the host and event as possible, that way you can tailor your selections,’ she says. ‘Cultural identities, commonalities, celebrations and food preparation can really help you understand your host’s wine preferences and they will appreciate the effort.’

Of course, there are times when you can’t secure these details – maybe the host hasn’t chosen the menu or perhaps you are a guest-of-a-guest and aren’t able to ask the host. In that case, there are a few ways to go about choosing the best bottle.

a woman shopping for wine is standing in front of a large selection of wines

Credit: d3sign / Moment via Getty Images

Choose a wine with a personal meaning, says Vincent Morrow, MS and beverage director at PRESS Napa Valley. ‘Wine is meant to be shared and if all else fails, bring a bottle that means something to you.’ Morrow shares he often presents a Riesling that he and his fiancée helped produce in the Pfalz region of Germany. ‘It is a stunning wine by itself, but the story means so much more to us.’

Along these lines: ‘Something that you’re excited to try will be exciting for whom you share the experience with,’ says Abe Zarate, sommelier at The Modern in New York.

A guest can also look at the occasion to help narrow down the choice. Even if you don’t know the host or the minutiae of the hosted event, is it in celebration of a birthday or a holiday?

Wines for the right occasion

For instance, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to bring a unique bottle to the table, says Jeremy Shanker MS, corporate wine director of Mina Group. ‘Have a little more fun with it,’ he says, noting the challenging amalgamation of flavours on a Thanksgiving plate. Chenin Blanc matches the caramel in sweet potatoes, the tartness of cranberry and savoury items like turkey.

Understanding the occasion, Shanker advises, also applies to birthdays, in which case he says there is a line where a bottle could be considered too cheap. ‘If you’re gifting somebody a bottle of wine, you might as well do it right,’ he says. This doesn’t necessarily translate to spending more money, as you can gift somebody a bottle that isn’t readily accessible or that they wouldn’t find at their local bottle shop, like a grower’s Champagne instead of Veuve Clicquot, he notes.

Zarate agrees with the swap: ‘Value wines outperform expectations in quality while offering an element of surprise,’ he says, offering a look at producers of great renown. ‘These days, they are likely to be working with lesser known or underrated regions and grapes.’ Zarate considers white Burgundy producers – instead of opting for their Grand Cru bottle, they might make an Aligoté, Bourgogne Blanc or even have a project in places like Oregon and California.

The price is right

On that note, what is the appropriate price tag for a gifted bottle? This is all dependent on the above and your relationship with the host, but on average, Habibi suggests a range of $20 to $50, which can be increased around the holidays to between $30 to $100. ‘I would try to avoid overly extravagant or inexpensive wines,’ she adds, re-emphasising the key of tailoring your choice to the host’s preferences and the context of the gathering.

Morrow agrees: ‘Don’t spend beyond your comfort level and risk also feeling resentment should they not like it.’

When it comes to presentation, context also plays a role: ‘The way that you package the bottle hints whether it’s a gift or whether it’s being opened that evening,’ says Shanker, who says if he was presented with a bottle of Champagne in a gift box or a bottle of wine in a bag with tissue paper, he’d assume it’s a gift and put it aside.

You also don’t need to go over the top, says Habibi. ‘Wrapping it nicely with a ribbon can enhance the presentation. Including a personalised note as to why you made the selection is a great touch.’

If you show up with no bag, it’s a clue to open it at the gathering, but by no means an expectation. ‘If it doesn’t get opened, then you leave the bottle. Don’t take it with you,’ stresses Shanker.

Though you can follow any of the aforementioned tips, perhaps the best advice is when all else fails, bubbles save the day. ‘You can’t ever go wrong with Champagne,’ says Shanker.

a champagne toast at a dinner party

Credit: Luis Alvarez / DigitalVision via Getty Images


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