Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Guest Post and eBook Excerpt: Wining and Dining - The Sediment Guide to Wine and the Dinner-Party

Hi Muffy, .

..I think there's a great similarity between a gentleman's cellar and his wardrobe. Both display his knowledge and his taste, his sophistication and his worldliness – and at a dinner party, each of these will be on display...

Very best wishes, 


Wining and Dining - The Sediment Guide to Wine and the Dinner-Party

The dinner party is a combination of fashion show, restaurant, and debating chamber, held within the pages of an interior design magazine. There is a significance about it which doesn't attach to entertaining in any other way. When they titled the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, he was not coming to lunch, tea or a barbeque.

And the dinner party has retained its sense of occasion despite becoming increasingly relaxed. It’s still the cue to bring out all of those wedding gifts of crockery and glassware which are “too good for everyday”, so that your guests can break them instead of your children. But silver service is no longer required; and nowadays, when you ask people to “dress for dinner”, it’s to ensure that the younger guests actually wear some clothes, beyond flip-flops and shorts.

Perhaps the character of a contemporary dinner party was best captured in a profile of Michael Gove, the Oxford-educated Government minister. A friend described how dinner at his North Kensington home is “a standard middle-class set-up; completely informal, non-matching furniture, child-centred, you can’t move for books, the kids are usually up. Sarah does most of the cooking – meat and two veg or pasta, no bought in food or waitresses or any of that nonsense – and Michael’s pouring the wine.”

So we’re not going to quibble here about when a dinner party is only a “kitchen supper” (as David Cameron tried to downplay his meals for political donors at No 10). If you’re wining and dining guests in the evening, then as far as this collection is concerned, it’s a dinner party. But note how the verbs “wining” and “dining” sit inseparably together. And see how, as the punchline to the mise en scene above, Michael’s pouring the wine.

There are those who, for religious or medical reasons, do not accompany their dinners with wine. But neither, on the whole, do they accompany them with me. I concur with the view expressed by the American writer Adam Gopnik, that “Dinner with water is dinner for prisoners”. Wine has always been served to dinner guests. Plutarch, the Graeco-Roman essayist, published an intriguing debate back in the First Century, resolving that the openness encouraged by wine led to a better level of debate at the dinner table. “Wine inspirits some men, and raises a confidence and assurance in them,” he wrote, “but not such as is haughty and odious, but pleasing and agreeable.” Plutarch published several Symposiacs about dinner parties, and is useful on questions such as whether to have flute-girls at a dinner party (always a tricky one, I find).

Immanuel Kant, the rigorous German philosopher, known for his less than jaunty Critique of Pure Reason, was another, perhaps unexpected enthusiast for the merits of a well-lubricated dinner table. “Wine induces merriness, boisterousness, wittiness and open-heartedness,” he wrote. “Thus it is good for conversation, sociability, and virtue.” It was said of Kant’s dinner parties that “Before each guest was placed a pint bottle of red wine and a pint bottle of white”, which sounds more than Reasonable.

So given the importance of wine at a dinner party, we should obviously take seriously both its selection and its service. No, you do not simply trolley whatever is on 3 for 2 while you are in the supermarket, and plonk it on the table hoping it will pass muster. It will not.

Hosting a dinner party has in fact become something of a competitive sport. We imagine the conversations that are taking place going home in the taxis (or, in some unfortunate circumstances, ambulances). How well have your guests been treated? What’s your house like? Your friends? Your cooking? And, of course, your wine. Yes, it’s unfair that people may judge you by the wine you serve. But it is a declaration, to any guest who can read a label, of your worldliness, knowledge, style and generosity. Guests may judge you by equally unfair characteristics like your accent; but the wine you serve, and the way in which you serve it, is more easily altered than a tendency to rhyme “like” with “oik”.

So, what do you serve, with what, and when? How do you serve it? How much of it, and in what order? These and other aspects of dinner-party wine will be considered, by two gentlemen who have drunk rather more of it than their wives think they ought.

Excerpted from the introduction of new eBook by Charles Jennings and Paul Keers, available now: Wining and Dining - The Sediment Guide to Wine and the Dinner-Party

Paul Keers wrote one of my favorite books,  the classic guide to men's clothing, A Gentleman's Wardrobe. I bought my copy 25 years ago at Abercrombie & Fitch, and it is more interesting today (if possible) even than it was back then.

Much of Paul Keers' current writing, as witty and British as always, is focused on wine.  He co-authors the award winning The Sediment Blog, located at www.sedimentblog.com with Charles Jennings.  

As he described to me:
The "PK" persona is really a way of allowing me to be a slightly different "character". As with my fellow author, CJ, I don't think either of us are quite as angry/ignorant/alcohol-dependent in real life as we appear in our Sediment personae!



Chris from New Hampshire said...

What a great and timely piece! I am glad Mr. Keers mentioned the debating chamber. Some other blog had a fake dinner party scene that looked like they were trying to copy an already cynical Gap/Tommy Hilfiger advertisement, and between all of their winking at the camera I could only shudder at what must have passed for intelligent discourse.

WMC said...

Thank you for the heads up. This looks well worth the 2.99. I have the Kindle app for my iPad, so that should work.

Anonymous said...

Looks like a great read! I just may purchase this! I have to admit, we are always nervous about the wine we serve when we have any sort of gathering or dinner party at our home. Whether it's a $15 or $500 bottle, if someone doesn't like it, it's going to look bad. I guess you can't please everyone, right? --Holly in PA

WRJ said...

Many of us who have physiological impediments to enjoying more than a polite sip or two of wine at dinner have the cocktail hour to thank for our confidence and assurance. (I guess there are probably some, clearly superior, beings who are naturally confident and assured.)

I must admit finding it a bit depressing that this book seems to be based upon the premise that dinner parties are an upper-middle-class blood sport--sort of the social equivalent of a luxury SUV. I can't imagine I'd enjoy a party with people who would judge their host based upon a wine label. Or attend one.

Anonymous said...

While my drinking habits align with Muffy's (I don't drink), I bought this and so far am enjoying it quite a bit. (I will read more during lunch.) The writing reminds me of Peter Mayle when he was near the top of his game.

Ben said...

Honestly, I would much rather read about a dinner party than go to one.

Anonymous said...

Tongue carefully positioned into cheek- sounds amusing. Will have to explore further. My father is Italian; he might have a comment or two about wine. Will be sharing.

Yankee-Whisky-Papa said...

I think I take a different angle with all of this. Trying to impress guests with one's wine selection is the same as hoping that they find you "worldly" because you leave certain magazines and books conspicuously laying around. Perhaps reconsider the guestlist or one's RSVP's if this is the case.

Sartre said...

When I was in my 20s I was quite serious about wine, even tried to get a job in publicity/communications at Sonoma-Cutrer in Calif. I didn't get the job but I became pretty smart along the way about wine. I remember checking out of a wine shop once and the buffoon ahead of me was loading a case of Chateau Lafite into his Porsche; I had a dozen different mid priced bottles I'd carefully selected and the owner said to me, not to him, "The man knows his wine."

What I hate, though, piggybacking on WRJ's comment above, is all of the phony put-on atmosphere that often surrounds wine. Serving and treating it as if it were some kind of holy ritual, as opposed to a food or beverage that's an everyday part of a healthy lifestyle. Obnoxious bumper stickers that say "life's too short to drink bad wine"; to a wine enthusiast, life's too short to turn up your nose at any reasonably produced wine. The wine industry itself undercuts its potential by sending this message – wine as status; beautiful people celebrating occasions photographed in dappled sunshine. In top per capita wine drinking nations wine is on the table of all people, not just the upwardly mobile.

Right now, our daily house red is normally some form of cru Beaujolais, and we are currently enamored of a white Cotes du Rhone Villages from Pierre Henri Morel.

Anonymous said...

The use of the phrase "standard middle-class set-up" is interesting, as it ignores the fact that the stereotypical upper middle class and lower middle class often have vastly different tastes and practices in the household.
But then again, Britons tend to call themselves either "working class" or "middle class", and to round themselves downward if remotely possible.
Time for a re-release of Jilly Cooper's book, I think. :)

Theodore Bouloukos said...

The way my guests consume, it would be foolhardy to serve anything but a standard French table wine. As it happens, I recently wrote a piece of my own, of a similar sort, in response to The New York Times's declaring the death of said social occasion: http://itheodore.blogspot.com/2012/11/no-soup-for-you-new-york-times.html

Greenfield said...

THANK YOU to Sartre above for his statement that wine is "an everyday part of a healthy lifestyle." We went through a goofy phase here a couple of years ago where if you weren't serving some kind of strained-veg green juice mixed with Greek yogurt, you were considered a bit of a rake and probably an alkie. Ptooey! ;)

Janjan said...

I learned how do throw a dinner party when I was a young bride in London. It was the '80's and here in the States all my friends were still acting like they were in college. I was amazed at the ease with which my twenty-something friends could organize a group, put together a three course meal, pre dinner drinks, good wine which appropriately complimented the food, and enjoy it all.

If there is a lot of snooty "ritual" with the wine, etc, it's not a dinner party, its a contest. We have an excellent celler, because life is indeed, too short to drink bad wine. Thats what you get at our house, and good food, music and friendship. As my husband has said many times, "if someone hasn't enjoyed themselves, its their own damned fault".

I say use the good china, the silver and crystal, if you have them, invite your friends over, learn about the very good, very reasonably priced wines (Joinin, Barat....) and have fun.

Ferd said...

The sad truth, inescapable without debate, is that one in five Americans are active alcoholics. In our pretentious, semi-rich settings, whether urban or suburban, many quests at 'dinner parties' are drinking wine when they should not be. Marriages and 'friendships' are ruined and, God forbid, some of the parties are disrupted by a head band wearing, inexpressibly sad lacrosse mom slurring her speech during the main course. It may be grim to relate to this audience but many 'dinner parties' in modern America are brutal one act tragedies.

Anonymous said...

This seems to be a clever way of Muffy to bring up the preppy staple activity of drinking without any form of advocacy. I know Muffy breaks with prep orthodoxy in this area. I admit to following some of the 'tween preppy sites, and it does make me queasy when 30 year olds are promoting high school style drinking styles for their 13 to 15 year old audience.

BlueTrain said...

While I am afraid that Ferd may be correct with regard to American drinking, I disagree with the use of the word "pretentious." It implies that people are not what they are not as they present themselves. There are gate-crashing fakers but few are really pretentious, meaning they are not the way they appear day in and day out. They may not have started their life as they way they exist now but the way people live their lives (not their "lifestyle") is the way they are.

Referring again to drinking, I fear that Europeans are rather worse in their drinking habits than Americans are, some places more so than others, and sometimes with good reason.

Chris from New Hampshire said...

The writing staff of 'The Official Preppy Handbook' filled the book with drinking references, from The Top 10 Drinking Schools (1. Dartmouth; 2. Bowdoin...); to 20 Expressions for Vomiting; to The Cocktail Party; to The Bloody Truth ("Bloodies are the centerpiece of the Sunday Brunch");to The Tailgate Picnic. When Lisa Birnbach flew solo in 'True Prep' she continued the theme, such as "First Sips" ("Most teenagers drink simply because it gives them something to do together on a weekend night") and the chapter "Drinks Before Dinner: What we eat." But this begs not answers the question: in a culture that tries to not re-invent the wheel, should there be a new norm for drinking?

BlueTrain said...

What was the old norm for drinking? I lived for two years in Germany barely drinking anything at all while I was there. Then I attended West Virginia University, which, although not credited as such in the Preppy Handbook, did have a reputation as a drinking school, mostly with beer imported from Pennsylvania, but with strange concoctions like Harvey Wallbangers. I still drank hardly anything. None of this can I explain.

I wonder if serious drinking-to-excess is a generation skipping thing?

Greenfield said...

The "Old Norm" for drinking was starting slightly before you were legal, sneaking with your peers, and in my case, learning to "hold it" under benign and helpful adult supervision at the yacht club.

A few horrific hangovers cured me by 25 of any desire to binge; but with sensible moderation and in the absence of addictive tendencies, I'm with the older generation in still thinking a glass of wine or a cocktail is one of the last few pleasures for which we need not (yet!) apologize.

I find the "Bobo" strivers most pretentious, those who constantly need to one-up all and sundry with the rigor of their "health" regimen; a shallow, neurotic, and narcissistic substitute for Virtue.
They are insufferable bores at dinner parties and elsewhere . . .

Ferd said...

Muffy, thank you for printing my remarks. My marriage ended this way, after 50 repetitions of the same tragedy and her adultery along the way. She started drinking in high school, continued at Skidmore (where she would go back downtown in a Lanz nightgown under a Parka for a 'nightcap') and took a brief respite during the birth of our two magnificent boys in the early eighties. Twenty five years and after all is said and done, it was booze that ruined my dreams and probably those of many other men and women. At 60 I am happily remarried to a brilliant, beautiful Jersey Girl who is not preppy and not a drunk because of it.