How to be an ideal host

Dinner party with wine

A version of this article is published in an edition of the Financial Times Weekend magazine with a dinner-party theme.

So, you’ve invited a few people round for a meal (and probably feel you’d rather not call it a dinner party with all the pretentious connotations of that phrase). How much wine do you need to lay in, or fetch from your wine collection?

The estimable Dan Keeling of Noble Rot wrote in my FT slot a few weeks ago, ‘I contend that it’s prudent to plan on your thirstiest brethren dispatching one or two 750-ml bottles each over a four-hour meal.’ He’s younger than me and my contemporaries, and perhaps 48-year-olds can manage two bottles of an evening, but I should imagine most of his ‘thirstiest brethren’ are utterly committed to wine and its finer points and so consume much more than the average guest.

His point about the duration of the meal is important though. The more leisurely the meal, the more diners can afford to drink. Individuals vary enormously in their ability to metabolise alcohol; wine professionals are probably distinguished by being champions at this. According to our beloved NHS it takes the average person an hour to break down one UK unit (8 g) of alcohol. In a bottle of 13.5% alcohol wine there are 10 units, so in theory Dan’s most bibulous guests won’t return to complete sobriety until well into the next day. However, so many wines today are much more than 13.5%. A 14.5% wine contains well over 11 units of alcohol, for instance.

Among my contemporaries, a booming quarter-century older than Dan, with grandchildren, retirement and medical matters often dominating conversation, I would generally reckon on an average of half a bottle a head, with serious wine enthusiasts drinking more than that and their more abstemious, intolerant or health-conscious counterparts drinking less.

But we winos often like to serve more than one wine at a time for comparative and educational purposes, typically a pair that are related in some way – perhaps a white burgundy and a Chardonnay from somewhere else, followed by two red bordeaux from the same vintage, or two vintages of a particular Barolo or Napa Cabernet. So for comfort, to avoid running out of one wine, it’s a good idea to have more than an average of half a bottle a head available. I use very roughly a bottle a head in total for a serious wine dinner (half a bottle a head is for entertaining friends who aren’t especially interested in wine) and enjoy finishing up the leftovers over the next night or two.

Serving pairs of wines simultaneously can be a logistical nightmare however, with everyone getting confused about which one is which. I have found wine-glass markers – little multicoloured, pliable plastic clips that can be slid temporarily round the stems of wine glasses – an absolute godsend. As a firm believer in minimising the total number of wine glasses that need to be washed afterwards, I tend to serve an aperitif (often but not always champagne) in glass number one, identified with a different colour for each guest. Because, before they get to the table, guests tend to put their aperitif glasses down any old where, this was especially welcome when we were all even more neurotic about COVID and potential infection. 

We then move to the dining table where everyone has one unmarked glass, so when pouring a pair of wines, I just need to say which is in the marked and which in the unmarked glass. No more ‘do you mean the one on the right or the left?’

This may seem precious but it does avoid confusion. And I’m quite happy to pour white or rosé and then red wine in the same glass. It can get a bit tricky going from a red wine to a sweet white one, but rinsing thoroughly with water (and do ensure your guests have a water glass too) would be quite sufficient to prepare a glass and ensure no traces of the red remain.

No one could love sweet wines more than me but I acknowledge that even a half-bottle of, for example, Sauternes can be too much for one or two people. Entertaining a bigger group, however, provides the ideal excuse to open a bottle of sweet wine, and sweet wines can be absolutely delicious with cheese, combining your dessert with the cheeseboard. People drink sweet wine so rarely nowadays, unfortunately, that serving one could make your dinner extra-memorable. A half-bottle could easily be shared between six or even eight people at the end of a meal when your guests have probably drunk quite enough dry wine already. 

It’s easy to get eight pours out of a standard 75-cl bottle. Don’t worry about the level of wine in the glass; for maximum pleasure (swirling, sniffing and all that), no glass should be more than a third full. At a professional wine tasting – as opposed to drinking wine with food at a table – wine producers and merchants reckon on a good 20 pours a bottle. For a more social wine tasting, an early-evening get-together of people trying to learn a bit more about wine for instance, roughly 15 pours a bottle is a useful allowance for six to eight different wines. But that would make about half a bottle of wine available to everyone, and social tasters are much less likely to spit out the wine than wine professionals. So it is a seriously good idea to have something to eat available: edible blotting paper without, ideally, too strong a flavour to distract from the wines. Bread, breadsticks and cheese biscuits are especially suitable. Cheese itself is traditional but ideally a hard, fairly neutral cheese (not too messy) such as Gouda, Emmental, Cheddar or Parmesan shards.

When they were still affordable, I used to taste all the Bordeaux first growths every year over dinner with my FT predecessor Edmund Penning-Rowsell. He was a menu martinet who forbade anything sweet or sour with wine and favoured the hard, rather demanding French cheese Cantal. The other wine pro at these dinners was the late Michael Broadbent of Christie’s who, like Edmund, gave the impression that food was a bit of an impediment to wine tasting. But he had rather more liberal habits such as routinely serving Moscato d’Asti between the claret and the port.

A dinner chez another member of the wine trade, the late Geoffrey Roberts who devoted his career to introducing the fine wines of California to the UK, was memorable in that he served the wines blind in decanters, including, with successive courses, two halves from the same magnum. Yes, of course we were all foxed.

I will not presume to suggest exactly which wines you should serve with what but have one very strong recommendation for any meal that revolves round wine: milk thistle. This dietary supplement based on a relative of the daisy is popularly believed to help the body process toxins of which, alas, alcohol is one. I take one before any seriously bibulous occasion and am quite prepared to believe that its beneficial effect is entirely imaginary. But where wine is concerned, I have a fine imagination.

The ideal host

Offers, but does not necessarily pour, just very, very slightly more wine than guests need.

Doesn’t fuss too much about the wine and talks about it only if asked.

Does most of the work, such as decanting or cooling, in advance, or at least out of sight in the case of decanting so as not to seem like a show-off.

Always has an alternative available for people who don’t drink fizz, white, red or indeed any wine. It doesn’t have to be grand.

Uses entertaining as an excuse to set a good-looking table. (I appreciate one enormously but have to confess that I don’t always provide one.)

Doesn’t get het up about cooking, so is either super-competent or super-prepared. And/or has a talented accomplice in the kitchen.

The ideal guest

Is appreciative.

Respects other people round the table.

Offers to help.

Enjoys themselves but doesn’t get drunk.

And drinks writer Henry Jeffreys added by email after publication: Knows when to leave.

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