A question of etiquette: dining with abstainers

My wife and I recently had a couple of friends over who, somewhat to our surprise, were not drinking any alcohol that evening. This can happen since a whole family might be taking antibiotics, or maybe you didn’t know the people as well as you thought. Whatever the reason, the issue of guests who abstain, especially if it is unexpected, does raise a question of etiquette for wine enthusiasts: should you also abstain?

In our case, we asked if they would mind and then went ahead and indulged in some Ar. Pe Pe, a 2009 Nebbiolo from the vertiginous slopes of Valtellina (find this wine). I poured the wine in the kitchen, brought the glasses to where we were sitting and, although it was drinking well, spared them my wine snob’s impression of yammering on about the wine.

Since we may all be entertaining more at this time of year, what are your strategies if you have found yourself in this situation? Would you be more likely to join friends in abstaining in a restaurant because of complications in splitting the bill?

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15 Responses to “A question of etiquette: dining with abstainers”

  1. Same thing happened to us this weekend. We also went ahead and ordered a bottle. Generally, I ask if the others would mind if we had some wine, and if they are OK with it, we go ahead and order it!

  2. The reason for abstaining is important. A couple of times I have not wanted to drink at events — cold, hangover, whatever — and I have felt more anxious than the hosts about it.

    On the flip side, I went out to dinner with a friend who had gone fundamentalist who kept asking me what I was seeking in wine, and not taking “deliciousness” for an answer. That was the last time I dined with that friend.

  3. There should be no pressure to abstain, just as there should be no pressure to imbibe. As long as consumption is moderate, there should be no issue.

    We always keep some non-alcoholic sparkling cider in the cellar, as well as seltzer and juices, for both adults who do not drink and their underage kids. Most folks enjoy having something a little special in their glass.

  4. Kat and Blake – Yes, I agree it’s important to be respectful.

    Todd – I did that too. I found some Fever Tree ginger beer (have you tried it? Really ginger-y) and plonked a 2″ x 2″ “king cube” in there to make it also be a distinctive drink, worth sipping.

  5. Doc, have not tried that Fever Tree, but will keep my eyes peeled. I’m really not into soft drinks, but good ginger ale or root beer does interest me.

  6. i would probably try to abstain in that situation, although i would probably not succeed…

  7. Personally, I do what I want.

    At my house, I serve wine. My mom was an alcoholic, and for the last 7 years or so of her life, no longer drank. My father abstained with her.

    When they came to my house, we drank wine. They drank water or tea. Worked fine. No big deal.

    I certainly would never take wine to someone who I knew didn’t drink.

    When out, if someone isn’t drinking, we just pick up the bar portion of the bill, and split the rest.

    It’s no big deal, and if it becomes one, it’s usually not *my* big deal.

  8. I myself sometimes abstain at restaurants because no one can ever agree what bottle of wine to get, therefore we are restricted to wines by the glass of which choices I am sick and tired. Others are sometimes distressed that I am not joining them in a glass of wine, and I find that stressful. I’m cooking more now, and eating at home solves the problem as we have lots of new and old wines to try. Moral: If someone chooses not to drink wine give them a break.

  9. Well, I guess the answer depends on the quality of the wine list 😉
    Ar.pe.pe. is one of my favorite producers of Valtellina Superiore: which one did you have? I love their Sassella Ultimi Raggi and the Vigna Regina.
    In that situation I could never abstain, even because to me a dinner that is not accompanied by some decent quality wine is not even remotely as satisfactory!
    As you certainly know, it’s interesting that nebbiolo in Valtellina is known as Chiavennasca.

  10. well its more wine for you, so in my books thats a win win and they can drive me home afterwards


  11. The question…”Whatever the reason, the issue of guests who abstain, especially if it is unexpected, does raise a question of etiquette for wine enthusiasts: should you also abstain?” IMHO, it’s your personal decision; However, it depends on the event, the preparation, and the formality. For example, entertaining 2 to 4 guests for a casual meal, it’s a matter of choice.

    But, what about the host or hostess that has taken great effort to pair wine, serve wine,and tell the tale of their recent find served just for this occasion. This becomes a question of etiquette for the guests.

    Should the guest come to an event and abstain due to self-indulgence (hangover) or a casual excuse that they will not be drinking because they have to later do laundry? I have witnessed this first hand and it certainly can change the outcome of the evening. Obvious exclusions include illness or a non-drinker.

    The question of etiquette works both ways.

  12. I have a good friend who is 40+ years sober, whose wife doesn’t drink either. I sometimes drink wine when we are out with them, and when they are at our house, we serve wine plus something of interest – French soda, fruit juice with club soda, or some such. The trick is pairing – which I haven’t explored (presumably tannic things like grape with meats, lighter like pear with fish?).

    Before it closed, Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago had a pairing of non-alcoholic drinks with its tasting menus, and they were perfect. If Charlie is getting bored in retirement, a recipe book with pairing guidelines would be a good project.

  13. Of COURSE you drink wine!

    As Adam Gopnik once wrote, “Dinner with water is a meal for prisoners.”

    The Sediment Blog

  14. My general answer is of course I’d still drink wine. The one exception would probably be if someone who has had problems with alcohol was in early stages of sobriety. I’d try to not add to the internal pressures he/she had. I think most people in “recovery” (I don’t really like that term, but don’t have a replacement suggestion) have to learn to be around others drinking, and we’ve certainly served wine at dinner with someone who goes to AA (and has for years). But I wouldn’t serve if the person was in the first few months of sobriety. Those of us who love wine can’t deny the real problems alcohol causes for so many.

  15. […] A question of etiquette: dining with abstainers […]


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