I had a dinner party several weeks ago for some friends, and one of them decided to bring along a bottle of wine as a gift to me. When I met him at my front door, he thrust this chilled bottle of battery acid at me and said, "I decided to pay you back for all the wine you've served me during the past few months."
I was flabbergasted. I have never served him fermented spit, so why did he feel the need to pay me back for services not rendered? Being a Southerner, I nodded politely and thanked him for his gift. (It went straight in the trash after he went home.) Then, I realized that the poor soul actually thought he had given me a nice bottle of vino, although the screw-on cap and the detergent container shape of the bottle should have given him a clue.
When I repeated this story to several other Wine Snobs (we conference each other in occasionally to discuss auction prices for prime vintages), several of them said it was my own fault for inviting such a Neanderthal to my home. I explained that, actually, he was a nice fellow, and he did mean well (although shelling out a meager $8 is hardly the definition of generous). He just didn't know a good wine to pick. In fact, he must not have known whom to ask either.
To save other Wine Snobs the horror of having dreck-in-a-bottle arrive with an invited guest, here is some advice on wines to bring for dinner or lunch.
When you've been invited to someone's home for dinner, especially The Wine Snob's (T.W.S), it's best to be simple in your selection. As a respectful guest, you want to provide a wine that can be served only with hors d'oeuvres. You don't want to presume to preempt your host's choice of wine during the meal, although be prepared for T.W.S. to do this when he's invited to your place. (In fact, I have yet to be invited to a dinner when I did not bring enough wine to cover the entire meal. Think I'm rude? Too bad. Next time don't invite me.)
What you want to bring are what T.W.S. calls "sipping wines," meaning they are delightful by themselves and do not require food to be appreciated fully. For the novice buyer, meaning anyone who is not a wine snob, this eliminates all Bordeauxs, Burgundies, Barolos and Super Tuscans. Of course, there are exceptions with each of these wines, but for our purposes here -- pointing you to a fabulous sipping wine -- it is best to focus our attention on other wines.
If you are a dinner guest in the summer, or you live in a place that is warm throughout most of the year, it is acceptable to bring a white wine. If you're a guest of T.W.S., never -- and I mean never -- offer white wine as a gift. T.W.S. may enjoy white wine, but will certainly believe it is inferior to red and the joys that can be had from red wine. No doubt, T.W.S. will ask himself why he has you as a dinner guest when your appreciation for a good hedonistic wine experience is virtually nil.
Most people limit their white wine experience to California Chardonnays, and, to be fair, some are quite nice. But truthfully, most of these are simply passable. One good California white wine is the Landmark Chardonnay Overlook, which is available at many wine stores and usually goes for about $26 a bottle.
If you have yet to experience a white Burgundy, now is the time. Montrachets are the ultimate in white Burgundies, in my opinion, and are well worth the money. They are light, crisp, with a slight taste of butter on the palate, and spare you that horrible taste of tin that accompanies many other whites that I have tasted, and then mercifully spit out. Montrachets are expensive, usually running anywhere from $60 a bottle to well more than $100 a bottle.
(If you want to impress T.W.S., tell him when you arrive that you thought it over and decided to leave the Montrachet at home. He'll be impressed that you have taste in wine, and may be tempted to return to his own cellar to upgrade his choice of wine during dinner. T.W.S. may seem generous with his hooch, but you can bet, he's got something better in the cellar that's not on the dinner menu.)
Red wines that can be sipped without food are a joy of life, and we are fortunate that there are many to be had and sampled. One of my favorites is Cuvee du Vatican Reserve Sixtine, which can be found in most wine stores for less than $30 a bottle. This flavor is wonderful - you get a taste of plum, berries and a little smoke - with no aftertaste.
Another wine I love is Chateau Fortia, which has a wonderful taste of cinnamon. It's a delicious sipping wine but can be served with food, if you're tempted to take your unfinished glass to the dinner table. (Both the Reserve Sixtine and the Fortia are excellent in years that are available, so don't sweat out the vintage or dicker over a 2001 vs. a 2002. If you're fortunate enough to find any of these two wines in its 1998 vintage or any Chateauneuf du Pape that's a 1998, grab it. And then give me a call; I'll give you directions to my house.)
OK, so you don't live in a metropolitan area that has a wine store with a large selection. You still have no excuse in bringing yak sweat to someone's home when your assignment was to show up with a bottle of vino. Two mass-produced California Cabernets are actually quite nice. The Hahn Cabernet is light, but has a wonderful taste of cinnamon. You can usually pick this up for less than $12 a bottle. And the Beringer Founders' Estate, which usually sells for around $11 a bottle, is an adequate sipping wine, with its fruity flavor that is sturdy and often robust.
Another wonderful option is a California Pinot Noir, but one that comes from or around the Russian River. There are many wines that are wonderful. With a Russian River Pinot Noir, you get the tastes of berries, plum and vanilla that tend to linger over your tongue. When you're in your wine store, simply ask the proprietor for a Pinot Noir from the Russian River, and you'll be pleasantly pleased with what you receive.
With your Pinot Noir in hand, it's time to head over to dine with T.W.S. If, by chance, you didn't follow my advice, there is one welcoming phrase that may get you invited back. When you hand him your gift of wine, simply say that you saw it and wanted to try it out. T.W.S. will nod and say, "Great," knowing full well that wines that are "tried out" don't receive a second sip when they're dreadful. Gift or not, it all goes down the sink.