Friday, December 14, 2007

The Wine Exchange

In a recent post I talked about the wine exchange, as I call it, where guests take along wine to social occasions and the hosts usually don't open it because they have arranged suitable wine themselves. Perhaps they drink it later or take it to someone else's house and thus the wine exchange.

Gold medal commenter, the Political Umpire as usual provided an excellent comment that I could not resist sharing with you, if you missed it. I also want to give my thoughts on the scenarios he posited. However, you have to remember that I am astemia, as I say when I am in Italy, which always shocks them no end, but since they have a word for it, surely I am not the only teetotaler there. Now the Ann Landers of wine advice takes on the following questions for PU:

1. I always take a nice wine to friends X, because I know Mrs X is a wine buff and appreciates it. They never open it, however, but offer either non-alcoholic drinks or, occasionally, a very cheap supermarket wine (I do not believe Mrs X, with her evident knowledge, is unaware of this). Should I continue taking nice bottles, but unsubtley hint they open it, take an inferior one (the contrast with previous offerings would be noticed), or take a different gift the value of which would not be evident (thus enabling me to economise discretely if I so wished).
JMB: It's obvious that Mrs X is a cheapskate since not only does she not offer you decent wine of her own accord, she keeps your offering for herself and Mr X. Since you are a oenophile PU, I know you would appreciate a good bottle of wine and she must know this too. However, it would take more gall than I have to ask her to open the bottle which I had brought. Although some could carry it off I'm sure and if you think you can, go for it. You could try the inferior wine route but make sure it's drinkable, for she might surprise you and open it. However, I myself would take another type of gift next time which is sending a message of itself.

2. Friend Y is not a wine buff, or even much of a drinker at all. He took a bottle to Friend Z's house, nonetheless, following convention. Friend Z is a wine buff, and served a nice bottle, but when Y was leaving Z gave him his bottle back, saying 'we didn't drink it, we'll have it next time we come to yours'. I happen to think this was ungrateful and patronising of Z, though he wouldn't have intended it that way.

JMB: Well Z was certainly not a gracious host. He should have accepted the wine and sent it on the wine exchange circuit if he did not wish to drink it himself. What he in fact did do was very awkward for Y and hurtful to boot and I'm sure spoiled the evening for him.

3. This one comes from the Times, not personal experience: couple A go to restaurants frequently with couple B. Couple A don't drink. Couple B do, and always order a very expensive bottle, then at the end of the evening say 'shall we split the bill?' Suggested remedy was for couple A to find a fiendishly expensive non-alcoholic thing on the menu and see if the offer continues.

JMB: This is a situation with which I am familiar, although with a slight twist. We often dine out with another couple, close friends, with whom we always split the bill, just for convenience. I do not drink but the others do not usually order an especially expensive wine, although it seems all wine is expensive in restaurants nowadays since they mark it up so hugely. We value the friendship very highly and do not worry about the extra few dollars we might pay for a very enjoyable evening.

Obviously this is not the case above since they are writing to the Times. I can't imagine that even two of the most expensive non-alcoholic drinks would equal an expensive bottle of wine. I would be inclined to order the lobster or the most expensive entrée in addition and see what happens. Since it would be out of the ordinary I think the message would be obvious. Perhaps we should have separate checks?

Well I think it is clear that Ann Landers (if she were still alive) would not feel insecure about her job. I can't seem to make up my mind about a definitive answer to the above dilemmas. Despite my advanced years, instead of having all the answers I am still winging it, just like everyone else.

At the luncheon for 15 at my house today, I received four new bottles of wine, only one of which was drunk since I had opened my own wine, but the others joined the motley collection in my cellar. Unfortunately five boxes of chocolate were hostess gifts and since I am abstaining from chocolate this season I think I will start the chocolate exchange.

Thank you Political Umpire for asking my advice on these difficult wine related questions. Too bad that I don't have any real wisdom to impart.


Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

The wine exchange is a form of embezzlement. You know you're getting a good product, barter wise, in exchange for the inferior you're offering.

Unfortunately, sometimes the offerer of the lesser just doesn't know or has no taste and really thinks he's serving an equal quality.

But more often they know full well and think they've made a good deal. That's one of the reasons I've become anti-social - all these little subterfuges and the dire small talk between people who aren;t interested in one another.

I'd prefer to chat to you here.

Political Umpire said...

JMB it goes without saying that I am honoured by having my comments elevated to a post in their own right, and by your complementary remarks as well. I think your answers are very sound.

Mrs X is a funny one. She spends money on herself and their child alright - to the point which irritates Mr X no end (her rule of spending seems to be why buy one baby suit when you can have three at three times the price). She is always generous with gifts for the junior umpires when she has been home (she is from the continent) but at the same time is always tight with the wine as I've described. Worse, she seems to manipulate things with Mrs Umpire when they have their weekly lunch. This is a good occasion for both as our oldest children are the same age, and it has been great for new parents to share the experience. A convention arose whereby they would take it in turns to pay for lunch.

Of late, however, Mrs X seems not to be hungry when it's her turn to pay, and wants to downgrade things to a coffee and sandwich. As I said, she's very generous towards the children and a good friend in other respects too, which is why we haven't discarded her for this other meanliness. But it does give rise to one issue, namely: if it's person A's turn to pay, does it indicate meanness if they go to the normal venue, but A herself only has a cheap meal whilst still buying B what B normally has? B has not missed out, in that B has her normal meal, but it does mean A ends up with a smaller bill than B normally does. I suppose the answer is for B to do the same in reverse. It certainly isn't on for A to want to pay in a distinctly cheaper venue and then assume that they will go to the normal place next time.

In scenario two, I agree entirely. It is plain ungrateful. Perhaps it is some sort of convention he has with his wine drinking friends, but this was not such an occasion and he should have behaved like anyone else - accepted with thanks, not rejected at the end of the evening.

In scenario three, if the couple had said to me 'shall we split the bill' and there was such an evident disparity between the food and the wine bill (as there could easily be in any restaurant, let alone some in London which carry bottles of wine at unimaginable prices (Johnny Depp once bought a bottle for £17k at one), I would say "oh, you mean for the food - sure" and see what the reaction was.

I think it's very cheeky of the drinkers to make such a suggestion to the non-drinkers, if the bill really is disproportionate in that way. They should have waited to see what the non-drinkers suggested. I suppose it comes down to how much you value their friendship.

Thanks again for the thoughtful replies, and I remain in awe at your ability to serve 16 at once!

Carver said...

I'm not sure why this post has made me hysterical with laughter but it really does crack me up and as Martha Stewart would say "that's a good thing". Too funny.

On another topic, I enjoyed the Menorah post below and Dr. Dino does have an amazing one featured on his post. I'm glad you pointed us that way. I've backed off from my medblog reading lately, so I was glad to know to check that one out.

Gledwood said...

I remember going round to an ex girlf's sister's house. The girlf was about 23 and the sister about 28 years old. The appointed time was about 6:30 or 7pm on a weekday evening. So I took round a bottle of wine assuming we were going to be eating.

No were not! We all just sat about speaking and me being stared at like I was a space alien (big sister did not approve well stuff her)... blah blah

to be honest I wish I'd had the guts to ask for that bottle of wine back as they were so rude they didn't even open it and it was a good one too!

leslie said...

Excellent post! I had popped over to PU's site to read his post on the wine thing and you've done an excellent job as "Anne" here. I remember going out with a group one time when one of the men kept ordering bottles of wine. Most of the women just had a half a glass to be sociable. When it came time to pay the bill, this man suggested we just split the bill by the number of people. I was livid and so were a few of the other single women, but of course we all just bit our tongues and paid up. I'll be prepared next time.

Oh yes, I was thinking about the situation where the guest brought the wine but the host/ess always serves the cheap stuff. I'd just walk right in the kitchen or dining room area with my own corkscrew and open my bottle. Then gallantly offer it around to others. Maybe that would do the trick. If I didn't get invited back, I don't think I'd be missing much, right? ;D

sally in norfolk said...

AS i can be very fussey about what wine i drink I usually take one i like and get them to open it if there is nothing else i like.... how bad of me !!

jmb said...

Hi James,
That's an interesting point of view, different from my take on it.

There's always someone who is worth talking to at every occasion. You just have to find them.

Most of the time I get to spend time with people who are very good friends thank goodness.

Hi PU,
Mrs X is quite the character then all around. I guess you have to weigh up if there is more good or bad in the friendship and accept her idiosyncrasies if the answer is yes.
For scenario three you have you own good answer. I think it is more than cheeky to expect the non drinkers to pay for the wine in this particular case. I would never even suggest it if I were them.
Well 16 is the largest group I have had to dine at my house. Last year this lunch was 14 and I forgot to count myself and we only have 13 chairs so I had to use my desk chair with wheels. This year I borrowed some folding chairs.

Hi Carver,
It is a bit funny. The idiosyncrasies of the English. Still we all have our little quirks but only others notice them, never ourselves.
Dino's posts were great. I don't read as many medblogs as I used to but still always read his.

Hi Gleds,
Well that sounds like a fun outing, not. I guess you should have offered to open the wine yourself but sometimes we are not confident enough.

Hi Leslie,
I didn't realize PU had posted about it too till you said. I certainly didn't have all the answers. I think you solution is a good one too, if you can carry it off.

Hi Sally,
You could say you are allergic to everything but the one you brought. That would be a good solution for PU too.

Thanks to you all for visiting and commenting.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

jmb, you should have been an agony aunt or one of those "correct manners" advisers who are paid so much by certain newspapers. You'd make millions!

Love Bears All Things said...

I'll comment on this. I'm sure I've read in ettiquette that a hostess is not obligated to serve a wine brought as a gift by a guest. I would just accept it as the gift it implies.
I don't know where the splitting the check thing originated. I've only run into that situation a couple of times but I think if I had friends who ordered expensive entrees or drinks every time and expected to split the check, I would just ask for separate checks up front.
Mama Bear

jmb said...

Hi Welshcakes,
I think you have to be more definite in your answers to do that job. I am too wishy washy it seems.

Hi Mama Bear,
I don't think it is necessary to serve the wine brought by the guest if they have chosen something to go with the food themselves but if they are not serving wine perhaps they should open the guest's wine in case 1, in case 2, just accept it IMHO.
We usually split the check with very close friends, sometimes I do it with my women friends too.
Thanks for visiting and commenting

Stephen said...

The correct response to the distinctly vulgar suggestion that the check be split is "No, of course not; you'd think me rude. Thank you very much."

Far better to get in first and say "You must let me pay."

If you feel that the cost of a meal is a significant one relative to one's circumstances there is no shame whatever in saying so at the outset, and that you would prefer separate bills. If you know that the sum is a significant one for your companions but not yourself you should (again at the outset) insist on paying for the wine. This avoids any embarrassment to others and at the same time ensures you get to choose the wine.

Unless these matters have been clarified beforehand, the arrival of the bill is a time to display generosity, not to measure the meanness of others.

Stephen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephen said...

As for Mr & Ms X, stick with the good wine, just make sure that it's a red one.

Do not hand the bottle over on arrival, instead start by flattering the good lady's ego:

"This'll be the first time I've tried this and it's supposed to be a really good one, so of course I'd value (Ms X)'s opinion - she won't admit it, but I know she's a bit of an expert."

"We were going to drink it last night, but we thought it'd be more enjoyable to have it with the two of you this evening."

"It'll need a while to breathe; I'd better open it straight away if you don't mind."

In extremis, take two extra bottles with you, the cheapest claret you can find that has some sort of obscure Chateau label on it, preferably one with a very recent date on it. (Sainsbury's are pretty good in that regard):

"I've brought one that needs to be drunk right away, so I thought we could have that with the meal tonight. And a couple that need laying down for a bit, so you must add them to your cellar."

Just make sure you get the bottles the right way round!

In the event of a flat refusal to let you open the good bottle:

"Why don't I hang on to it then? We'll be sure to open it the next time you come round to ours. We really did want to share it with the two of you one night"

If you feel a little more subtlety is called for, phone ahead:

"I'll bring some wine with me of course. Just need to know whether we'll be drinking it tonight. I've got some here that I'm having to drink up, but if you've already sorted the drinks I'll make sure to bring one that'll keep a while."

The last resort is of course to open the wine before you go, and Vacu Vin it. This definitely demands a prior phone call:

"We've got a really good wine for tonight. But it needs an age to breathe, so we'd have to open it far earlier in the day. We can do that here, I've got the proper stopper, just wanted to check we'd be drinking it"

Perm any combination of the above. So long as you don't hand over a good wine until it has been opened, you'll be ok.

Political Umpire said...

Different people have different social conventions, these vary from people to people as much as from country to country. As Stephen infers friendship should never be about accountancy; nor should it be about freeloading. It should after all be about _enjoyment_ and generosity after all.

In essence though I think the answer to splitting the check/bill depends on the social group.

Most of mine follow the same rough convention of splitting as a matter of course, save for when it is someone's birthday or similar, in which case we refuse to let them join in the split. Amongst some friends we tend to sort of take it roughly in turns to pay.

Personally I wouldn't feel comfortable assuming a 50% split if the other couple didn't drink and I knocked back a Chateau Latour; in those circumstances I would offer to pay for the wine or certainly wouldn't be first out of the blocks suggesting an equal split. If I was the non-drinker (happened more in NZ where public transport being thinner on the ground, there would usually be a designated driver or two amongst any group) I would almost always agree to an equal split simply because of being able to afford it and preferring generosity to accountancy. In a sense though it depends on how much one values the friendship!

I had a chat to my sister the other day about the ethics of the wine as gift when attending someone's house. Stephen's suggestions are much more machiavellian in that instance than they are with the restaurant example! Sister observed that in New Zealand wine tends to be brought as a contribution to the meal, whereas in the UK it is a gift to the host(ess). Example 2 in JMB's post is drawn from NZ and sister observed that the host would not have thought he was being rude (though despite being from NZ I disagree).

In England because it is the gift the rotter of a host is free to cellar the Chateau Lafite Rothschild and serve up two buck chuck; but Stephen's suggestion of ringing beforehand and asking what to bring is a good pragmatic solution. That way if they're not going to serve any alcohol they should say so; and if it is agreed that you will bring the booze you can wheel out a decent bottle and get to enjoy it.