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How to Master the Art and Etiquette of Giving Wine as a Gift

Experts share their strategies for selecting the right bottle.

Wine bottle in Santa Claus Hat and Costume on wooden rustic background. Christmas and New Year celebration Photo: courtesy Adobe Stock

About three lifetimes ago—just before the pandemic—I was chasing down a wine at BevMo! when a woman stopped me in the aisle. Maybe because I looked like I knew what I was after, she asked, “Is there a chance you could help me find a bottle of good red wine? It’s for a host gift.” The enormity of her problem hit me as I calculated the rows of bottles, the long aisles and the sheer number of them. Wine can make a brilliant gift for the right people during the holidays, but which ones (the people and the wines)? How do you know what they like? And what would make it a personal gift?

We tapped two experts for their advice: Elaine Swann, who specializes in etiquette and founded the Swann School of Protocol, has been featured by the likes of The Washington Post and CNN and called “the Emily Post of the digital age” by The New York Times. (Her newest book is Let Crazy Be Crazy.) Alexandra Schrecengost, founder and CEO of the new event company Virtual with Us and WSET III certified, is in the business of curating wines for many people, for the experiences her company creates. Together they navigate the nuances of settling on great gift wines for the right candidates, including the etiquette involved. And we ran with their strategies, to recommend a few great bottles.

Who should we be thinking about on our gift lists as great candidates for a bottle of wine?

ELAINE: Anyone who considers themselves a foodie or someone who hosts often and could use a bottle to add to their collection.

ALEX: People who love food! Edible gifts are fun too, of course, but you can’t go wrong giving wine to someone who’s very enthusiastic about food. It’s a good rule of thumb to only cook with wine you’d drink and while you probably don’t want to cook with a very expensive wine, giving someone a bottle they can cook with and drink—or cook with while drinking—is thoughtful, useful and personal.

Any tricks for deciding what kind of wine would be perfect for each person?

ELAINE: The scenario: Tell them you’re making different types of meals for the week and ask them for wine-pairing advice—for lamb or steak, for instance. Beyond that, I like to pair any off-the-beaten-path wine with everyone.

ALEX: I approach it like I do a conversation—what do I know they already enjoy? If someone I know loves drinking an easy-to-find wine like Merlot, I might give them something less common, like a Grenache and explain their similarities. They learn something new about wine, maybe discover a new favorite and I show them I appreciate and share their interest. Conversely, I start by thinking about where in the world that person has enjoyed traveling to or living—a region they admire for its art, cuisine or films. A bottle Rioja would be a fantastic gift for a friend who loves Spain or a dry Riesling for a colleague who’s just binge-watched a German sci-fi thriller series. Maybe they’ll even open the bottle right then and there and share it with you.

How much is the right amount to spend on a bottle for someone?

ELAINE: Select a price that you’re comfortable with. When you purchase the wine, it should be about the gift you’re choosing as opposed to how close or not you are to someone. The bottom line is, don’t purchase wine based on the price. Sometimes people think expensive wine will be the best gift, but that’s often not the case.

ALEX: The right amount to spend on a bottle for someone is the amount you were going to spend on a tech gadget, kitchen tool, gift card or anything else you were thinking of giving that person. It’s relatively straightforward to find a rare or well-aged bottle at a specialty wine shop: Just call ahead and chat with your local merchant about the amount you’d like to spend. But keep in mind that a $40 bottle can deliver just as much enjoyment as a $200 bottle, while conveying the thought that you appreciate the recipient’s excellent taste just as well.

Are there any big mistakes you can make in choosing a bottle for someone?

ALEX: The biggest mistake I make is underestimating the classics. Everyone loves to see an iconic label on a bottle of wine they’ve gotten as a gift. These wineries are household names among wine drinkers for a multitude of good reasons and you can’t go wrong giving someone a bottle you’ve bought over and over again.

Is there any kind of wine you think makes a foolproof gift, absent any other information?

ALEX: Everyone loves Italian comfort food—spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmesan, lasagna, pasta Bolognese—so I tend to look at Italian reds that pair well with tomato-sauced dishes, with acidity that complements tomato’s acidity: Medium-bodied reds like Rosso di Montalcino, Nero D’Avola and Sangiovese (especially Chianti Classico).

When you give a bottle as a host gift at a party, should you suggest opening it on the spot?

ELAINE: No. When you bring a bottle of wine for a gathering, it is the host’s gift, and it’s up to that person to decide when to serve it.

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