First of all, if you are headed to a dinner party and you haven't brought a bottle of wine for the host to consume on their own time, not tonight, and not necessarily with you, then pull over and find the nearest purveyor of fine wine and spirits. Or the nearest liquor store. Or supermarket. Or gas station. WHATEVER or WHEREVER you are, this is a must for yours truly.
Yes, daunting as it may be, we must sometimes participate in the arguably altruistic act of choosing wine as a gift to somebody else. It never ceases to amaze me how so many seemingly sophisticated people of reasonable portrayed status fail at this twisted game of social niceties. But alas, they fail, and they fail often. Until now.
Indeed, the chore of purchasing wine, as a gesture or gift, for another, is a confluence of many factors, some less clear than others and several that are seemingly unmitigateable. Let's lay out these factors first, before we lay out the corresponding solutions. Shall we dance?
LIST OF ANXIETIES SURROUNDING THE PURCHASE OF A BOTTLE FOR SOMEONE ELSE
1. How much do I spend?
2. I know nothing about wine.
3. I've had wine once before. That one over there.
4. The person I'm buying for loves wine. I'm going to look stupid if I buy the wrong thing.
5. I don't want to spend that much money. I am broke/cheap/both.
6. I don't want to look like I didn't spend much money.
7. Will they even notice?
8. Maybe I'll get the second-cheapest bottle.
9. What kind of wine do they like?
10. Does it even matter?
11. White or red? Are those the two colours of wine?
13. I'll just buy this one stacked up everywhere. Must be good.
14. "I didn't know what kind of wine to get you..."
15. "Oh, this is lovely thank you (this is total garbage I can't believe these people)!"
16. *Thank god* they liked it.
17. "Here have some of this wine you brought let's try it out! (I wouldn't drink this unless I was serving it to my worst enemy remind me why we invited them again?)"
Or something like that.
Here are the antidotes. I'm doin' my best up here...
1. Spend what is comfortable for you. You want to feel good parting with the value of the wine you give, not sick to your stomach. If you can't spend much, it doesn't matter. That being said, if you show up in a Range Rover with a $6 bottle, well, you do the math on how it makes you look. I've had great friends bring me cheap bottles and I find those gestures as charming as the high-end bottles I've received.
2. You may know nothing. You do know nothing. And yes, this makes it harder to "kvell" when attempting to procure something for someone who knows something. Buy an Italian wine. I am dead serious. Keep this simple. Yes, there are some big, clunky brands out there that I wouldn't necessarily "endorse", however, your mistakes will not be as bad as if you shop in a new world region. Even the sophisticated and well-traveled amongst us still get the fuzzies when imagining an old villa on a vineyard somewhere near a coast in Italy. It's one of those classic images of the wine world. The other thing is, you'll almost always be able to find AT LEAST ONE Italian wine wherever you're shopping. The white wines should be uncomplicated, and the reds down the middle in terms of style, as a rule. Not as hard as those from France, not as overripe and sugar-laden as some from the US, Australia, and elsewhere might be on the shit-end of the wine stick. The labels will should often look old-school, wine-y, and understated. Best part is, if all you know is "Italy", you can use whatever bottle you select to dive in to a more specific region. It's gonna be OK.
3. Don't buy the only bottle you recognize. Yes, we are comfortable with the familiar. But your familiar hardly exists. Hate to tell you this, but this is a situation where you have to step out of your box a little. If you've only ever had wine once before, chances are it wasn't great. Ask someone for help. Do some googling. You're not just gonna make it.
4. See number 2. If they love wine and you want to impress them, then definitely shop in the old world categories. Italy, France, Spain are great starting points for you. I'd go with Spain, personally, if you are going to try and level-up. Rioja is a well-known region with some great value in it as a category. Even if you buy the big brand wines from Rioja, the wine-lover you're buying for will see that you made an effort, did some hunting, and did not succumb to what everyone else was buying.
5. You do not have to spend a zillion dollars. I mentioned this in item #1 albeit briefly. This is another reason to keep shopping in the old-world categories. Real-estate in the countryside in old Europe has often been in the same hands for generations, meaning there probably isn't as much pressure to produce or jack prices because of land-cost or debt. The wines are relatively controlled via Europe's appellation systems. The market for them is relatively stable. Nobody is trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes too too much. Try Portugal. Cheap, cheerful, satisfying. There is probably a good chance that the receiver hasn't seen it, either, and doesn't know what it costs. That's good for you and your status nerves.
6. Old World! The labels will be more traditional-looking. In fact, very little to nothing actually separates a cheap wine from any appellation in Europe from an expensive one. Quality and site is often what determines the price of wines from the old world, not label-status-appearance. How many times can I say it? Shop on the right side of the Atlantic, not the left.
7. They might not notice. But that doesn't mean you can't do some research of your own on your selection, and tell them a little of what you discovered. This will at least get them a little more excited than they might have been, and it should pique their interest a touch to see how passionate you are. They'll appreciate that you are excited to present what you found, and it will show that you looked forward to getting together. Why don't we all just get along?
8. If you are really in a pinch, strapped for time, and don't want to show up empty handed, grab the classiest looking second-cheapest bottle from a gas station and move on. Be honest, if you need to. Tell them that you really don't know much about wine, and that you were in a rush, and that you did not want to come empty handed. There are ways to spin this, and it can be cute. Don't ever mention the price of the bottle you brought. They may not even know, and they really should not care. If they do, go for dinner at somebody else's house next time.
9. Short of asking them beforehand, just bring them a white and a red. Don't sweat it. This is great time to share something that you like with them as a gesture, as they are sharing their home and their food with you. Bring them something that you can tell a tangible story about. Not about you drinking it in a parking lot, but about the actual wine. If you can't find a story or a history about where the wine comes from, it is probably a virtual brand that comes from a warehouse that mass-produces wine. Not that sexy. See if you can buy something that comes from an actual winery with an address that isn't just a P.O. Box. Now you're cooking with gas.
10. Effort always matters. Even if it's just a little. You never know how someone might remember a specific event, and you never know who might become your best friend now that they know you care about wine, too. Someone who takes note of your extra effort might want to open up their good stuff for you all of a sudden. It's always worth the added care.
11. It doesn't get any easier. Branch out and bring a bottle of sparkling. You know that every household needs it AT LEAST once a year. And while I may personally not be an enthusiastic imbiber of the cocktail (screwdriver is more my speed on the juice front), people love mimosas, and rarely give a shit what goes into them on the wine side. But that OJ better be fresh-squeezed...from a good vintage...
12. Why do we even do this? Stay calm. We're not saving lives here.
13. Don't. I'm really repeating myself, but I love independent thinkers, and I want to love you, too.
14. Utter these words in your mind. And instead, say, "I brought this for you, are you familiar with it? Let me tell you what I found out about it when I was doing my homework." Teacher's pet?
15. You'll never know what they really think. Unless Larry David is hosting you. Try harder if you care. Otherwise, forget about it. If they're wine people, don't try to impress them. You probably won't. And they shouldn't expect you to. It's not rocket science. My fiancée decides once in a blue moon to bring wine home. She agonizes, but does her homework. The only problem is her friends that try to tell them that the one bottle they've had before is what she should buy right before she makes a great decision which she came to all on her own. Point? Homework beats opinions.
16. It's a great feeling. When you go above and beyond to politely and earnestly share your knowledge, they have no choice but to at least be interested and appreciative. At least now, they'll be open to liking it, rather than scared, and that makes it more likely that they will like it. And when they do, they'll tell you about it and ask them where you got it. And if it was the second-cheapest bottle, you might say that's your little secret and bring a bottle each time you go over. I call this "residual winning."
17. You never liked them, anyway.