How Does a Gentleman Talk About Wine Without Sounding Like a Jerk?

Sensible answers to the questions of modern manhood.
June 4 2014 4:32 PM

No, Thanks!

How a gentleman responds to the absence of a thank-you note. Also: talking about wine and women.

Please send your questions for publication to gentlemanscholarslate@gmail.com. (Questions may be edited.)

A college friend I've kept in touch with got into a top-tier law program, and I had a bottle of whiskey sent to his home with a congratulatory note. I got an email confirming that the package was delivered, but have not heard from him about it. Should I follow up with him or just assume it was received?

—Alexander

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

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Thank you for your didn’t-get-a-thank-you note.

Because you received confirmation from the booze merchant, no further action is required, beyond taking a moment to mention your pal’s lapse—lightly, in a tone more chummy than chiding—the next time you get together. Give him the benefit of the doubt and suppose that he failed to thank you properly because he had an extended moment of thoughtlessness, not because he is the ill-bred ingrate that his inaction suggests.

The promptitude of my own thank-you correspondence can leave something to be desired, and if there existed a governing body of etiquette columnists, it would not have put me on probation only because it never would have admitted me in the first place. As it is, I am grateful, here, to purge myself of some guilt by proposing that other derelicts join me in a collective beautification project.

The key is immediate action. We flakes all need to start keeping a box of stationery stationed in a place of easy access and unusual prominence—the center of the escritoire, the top of the cable box, whatever—along with stamps and a pen and sealing wax and anything else necessary to post a note posthaste. When you receive delivery of, say, a bottle of whiskey, you write a note immediately, even before breaking down the box in which it arrived, hesitating only to remove from your child’s mouth any styrofoam packing peanuts she may be trying to eat. You compose the thing like so:

Dear Alex,
Thanks so much for the 12-year-old Yamazaki, which I plan to spend many years savoring. I expect it to warm a soul crushed by the many nights of document review awaiting me after graduation. Let’s raise a glass next time you’re in town …

Easy-peasy. A general acknowledgement of the gift; a brief appreciation of its exact charms or specific utility; a final turn onto the forward path.

Can a gentleman discuss a wine’s qualities without sounding like an insufferable jackass?

—Darius

Thank you for your email.

Though a gentleman does not need to know anything about wine, he does want to know what he likes and to be capable of articulating his desires to a sommelier or shopkeeper in the space of one simple sentence. That’s it. That’s all. I mean, consenting oenophiles are free, rhapsodizing about pairings in the privacy of their own cheese caves, to mouth whatever fancy phrases they like; it’s none of our business. But the rest of us will be served well by understanding that wine is meant to be drunk, not discussed. After all, if you try to talk about the "amusing" qualities of a Burgundy while tasting it, it will fall out of your mouth.

The more concrete a wine word is, the more useful it will be. “Dry,” “sweet,” “fruity,” “spicy,” “tannic,” “acidic,” “full-bodied,” “oaky,” “tart”—descriptors such as these will get you somewhere useful. You want to remember that the grüner veltliner you enjoyed at a friend’s party is crisp and mineral with some citrus notes. You need to forget your dreams of being taken seriously if you try to describe a red as “hedonistic yet intellectually satisfying.” You must make a virtue of your ignorance, asking simple questions—“What do you think would go well with salmon?”; “Have you got a smoky red for under $X?”—and searching for straightforward answers. Then, having developed a modicum of sophistication, you’ve got to know when not to be an insufferable jackass: Please don’t be the guy standing at the bar at a VFW wedding asking if the chardonnay’s unoaked.

Should a gentleman discuss any particular woman, or women in general, with his friends? If yes, in what manner should he do it so as not to seem uncouth?

—Sanjana

Thank you for your question.

Yes, there are many, many, many women worthy of a gentleman’s conversational attention. Janet Yellen, Angela Merkel, Rachel Kushner, and Kara Walker spring to mind. Oh, but that’s not what you’re asking, is it? The chief problem with discussing “women in general” is that it requires trafficking in generalities, like so: “In general, bourgeois women seem not to understand that, when chatting among themselves, they tend to discuss the intimate anatomies and romantic actions of their partners in much more detail than do men of the same class.”

Yes, a gentleman should discuss women with his friends. That’s what friends are for: hashing through girl problems, pondering the pleasures and rigors of marriage, helping to extinguish torches still carried for old flames, evaluating the crushworthiness of this or that hottie. The only rule is, don’t be gross. (If you’re inherently not-gross, this will come naturally.) Save the phrase “hedonistic yet intellectually satisfying” for special circumstances.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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