No One Opened the Wine You Brought. Can You Take it Back?

wine gift etiquette
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In a 1996 episode of Seinfeld, George’s parents bring a loaf of marble rye to a dinner party at another couple’s apartment. When the bread isn’t served, George’s father, Frank Costanza, takes it back, insisting the oversight was deliberate and the rye is rightfully his again.

With his hair-trigger temper and parasocial relationship to old issues of TV Guide, Frank Costanza isn’t television’s most aspirational character. But his attachment to the rye in this episode raises enduring questions about the intricacies of etiquette.

For argument’s sake, let’s replace the rye with wine. If you attend a social gathering and bring your host a bottle that doesn’t get opened that evening, can you take it home with you? What if you were excited about that wine and looked forward to drinking it?

“No,” says Elaine Swann, a lifestyle and etiquette expert based in San Diego. “It should be brought as a gift to say, ‘Thank you for the invitation,’ or as a nicety to celebrate you all getting together. Do not expect the host to open the gift and pour it on the spot.”

Elaine Swann
Elaine Swann / Photo by Chris Swann

That bottle of wine is akin to any other gift, Swann says. If you went to someone’s house and brought flowers for the host, and they weren’t put in a vase during your visit, you wouldn’t take the bouquet back when you leave, would you? (Would you?)

Besides, at a dinner party, your host may have already plotted out the wines to accompany the meal. If they’re serving grilled fish with lightly dressed vegetables, and you bring a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, the host may feel the wine doesn’t complement the dishes.

“That’s why it’s important to shift your mindset to think of this as a gift for the host to use at their discretion,” says Swann. “It’s up to them and their timeframe.”

Even if the host asks you to bring wine and doesn’t open it while you’re there, the bottle still belongs to them.

“You don’t want to be the one asking for it back,” says Lizzie Post, copresident of the Emily Post Institute, and great-great-granddaughter of etiquette legend Emily Post. “You shouldn’t assume that, because it didn’t get opened, it’s yours to take.”

Lizzie Post
Lizzie Post / Photo by Sabin Gratz

There are some gray areas, though.

“If it’s family, and your family is casual, I could see asking, ‘Mom, we didn’t get a chance to open that wine I brought. Would it be okay if I take it home?’” says Post.

This is a case-by-case judgment call. Some families are more formal than others, and not every relationship is so easy breezy.

“If you’re the girlfriend and it’s your first time meeting your guy’s family, I probably wouldn’t ask his mom if I could take a bottle of wine back,” Post says.

Expectations about whether bottles should be opened while guests are present depend on the circumstances. If you’re attending a wine club meeting where everyone is tasked with bringing a bottle to share, for instance, you can expect every wine will be opened. You still shouldn’t ask to take back the bottle you brought if it isn’t drunk, though.

Or if you go to a dinner party bearing a bottle of wine and something particular to pair it with, like oysters and Chablis for an appetizer, or Port and Stilton for dessert, it’s understandable to expect the host to serve it. It’s key to tell the host in advance, though, Swann says, and to bring something that won’t disrupt the rest of the meal.

Etiquette is a two-way street. If you’re hosting a party and guests ask what they can bring, it’s fair to ask them to pick up wine. “But you can’t say, ‘I want this exact wine from that winery and that vintage,’ ” says Post. That asks too much of your guests’ generosity and isn’t the most hospitable way to invite people to your home.

The Unwritten Rules of Tasting Room Etiquette

Be it a marble rye or Grand Cru Burgundy, the point of getting people together is to make and enjoy your connection, not tick wins and misses on a scorecard. If the wine you bring isn’t consumed in your presence, so what? Isn’t it better to have brought something nice for your host to enjoy later than to hoard your offering alone?

“The goal is to keep the spirit lively,” says Post. “Etiquette should never be wielded like a sword.”

wine gift etiquette decision
Infographic by Eric DeFreitas
Published on December 10, 2021
Topics: Wine Gifts