Guess who's coming to dinner

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Until the dilemma was raised by The Independent's own problem-solver-in-chief, Virginia Ironside, I hadn't quite realised how fraught the question of whether to take a bottle of wine to friends for dinner could be. Virginia asked readers to come up with a solution to Beckie's problem of wanting to take a bottle of wine as a gift while her husband thought it unnecessary, even verging on rude. Maybe the matter said more about the relationship than the wine, but as I'm often asked for advice about wine, I thought I'd join in the debate as problem-solving uncle.

The dilemma reminded me of the Honeysett cartoon in which the new dinner-party arrivals have been stripped naked and are about to be subjected to a body search by the rubber-gloved host, who's saying to his hands-on-hips wife: "I'm sure they've got a bottle on them somewhere." Wine books will guide you through food-matching, serving and storage ad nauseam, but are no help with Beckie's problem. Even Debrett's New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners only stretches to how to hold your glass - or deal with drunken guests (order a taxi or offer a bed, since you ask).

Virginia's typically practical solution to the dilemma was simply: "Don't worry about it, just bring yourself." Most readers agreed, but I thought one response was spot on: "What could be more irritating to caring hosts who have planned the evening, matching wine with food, only to have guests arrive with an inferior bottle?"

It's a reasonable assumption that if you're having guests to dinner, you'll have chosen the wine. You're not, after all, expecting guests to turn up laden with food, so why should you expect them to treat your home like a Bring-Your-Own restaurant? And even though we do live in times when anything goes, you would look a little silly drooling on the doorstep over your bottle of Australian Shiraz, only to find sole bonne femme on the menu; or expecting the nice bottle of chilled Jacob's Creek Chardonnay you just picked up at the corner shop to go down nicely with your host's beef and shiitake stew.

Don't expect your precious bottle of wine to be opened and shared. Exceptionally, ask first if you have something special you're keen to share, or, as the dinner-party inspectors demonstrated by bringing a bottle of pre-chilled pink champagne to Deborah Ross's dinner party, carry it off with panache. "There are many people who think pink champagne vulgar, but I think it's completely wonderful," cooed Victoria Mather. Deborah Ross must have agreed, since the "blissfully expensive" pink champagne made everyone feel special and jolly.

I think even I could cope with expensive pink champagne. In general, though, choosing the wine to go with a meal is part and parcel of having friends round. If someone does turn up with an unannounced bottle, I hope they're not expecting me to pop the cork. The more special-looking the bottle, the more likely it is to disappear into the cupboard, for subsequent, more reflective consumption. Which is another reason why, next time you see me arriving empty-handed, you'll know I'm not being mean but simply following Virginia's advice.

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