It’s the return of the office party – but can we leave the bad wine behind?

In the depths of Christmas party season, and with many office celebrations making their return, David Kermode suggests that poor-quality wine should sit out this comeback

Words by David Kermode

a champagne toast at a christmas party

Unless you happen to work at Number 10 Downing Street, the chances are you won’t have been to an office Christmas party for a while now.

Notorious for excessive consumption, drunken indiscretion and mysterious next day absence, not to mention things that shouldn’t happen to a photocopier, they are likely to be remembered for the quantity, rather than the quality, of the booze consumed. So here’s my own manifesto for the annual work bash: drink a bit less, but drink better. And yes, I am serious.

Imagine a team celebration where all the talk in the aftermath revolves around the amazing wines that were sampled, rather than what happened when you decided to tell the boss what you really thought of them, or when that quiet man from accounts became amorous with a hat stand.

67 Pall Mall tasting kit
A tasting kit from London wine bar 67 Pall Mall

Still not convinced? Well, consider this: it is estimated that in a typical year, UK companies spend almost a billion pounds on staff entertaining over the festive period, with the average spend in London just shy of £60 per head, easily enough to stretch beyond perfunctory plonk and party hats. The research, compiled for Eventbrite, also revealed that the majority of companies look to boost morale by throwing a party that would get people talking for months afterwards. And presumably they don’t mean gossiping.

The perfect office party should really be a conspicuous thank you to all those who have toiled through troubled times, the equivalent of receiving a Fortnum & Mason hamper as reward for your hard work. What could be more memorable than a proper wine tasting? A celebratory tutored flight that culminates in a sure-footed crescendo, rather than the stagger of shame into someone else’s Uber?

opening sparkling wine with sabrage
Kermode suggests all manner of vinous activities for the office party this year, from wine tastings to team sabrage

I worked for the BBC for a decade and the reputation of its Christmas party was on a par with that of its infamous canteen. Such was the fear of being splashed across two pages of the Daily Mail, accused of using public money to get its metrocentric staff sloshed, that all expense was spared to give us a good time. We were usually treated to some basic Bulgarian wine, served at office temperature, cubes of rubbery cheese, origin indeterminate, and that British answer to umami, a tray of Twiglets, all washed down with a tone-deaf speech from a middle manager wearing antlers borrowed from the props department. It was a pointless exercise that left nobody present feeling valued, just horribly hungover.

Just imagine the respect afforded to your colleague who displayed a surprise skill for wine appreciation, as opposed to table dancing

There is no rule that says the office bash must be a feral affair. Just imagine the respect afforded to your colleague who displayed a surprise skill for wine appreciation, as opposed to table dancing. Picture the next morning spent discussing the relative merits of malolactic fermentation with a newly wine-literate colleague, rather than reflecting on how you both ended up locked in the stationery cupboard.

Party games can, of course, be fraught with risk when it comes to conduct that’s deemed to be appropriate with colleagues, so why not replace ‘spin the bottle’ with a contest to estimate the value of it? ‘Who’s in the bag’ could easily be adapted to become a blind tasting challenge instead. And never mind Twister, what about a bit of team sabrage? It’s bound to be a talking point and it will, at the very least, engage the health and safety department.

wine and cheese party illustration
'Cheese and wine, you’ll feel fine' - David Kermode's new office party mantra

A tutored tasting can reasonably be described as ‘educational’, so there’s all the more reason to splash some company cash on enhancing the skills and experience of those present, while also potentially getting one over the tax man.

We’re all aware of the perils of binge drinking and most of us are familiar with restaurant tasting flights, so why not treat the Christmas party the same way? A succession of small pours from a wide and varied range of different wines, each designed to highlight a different style or grape variety or to complement a really classy canapé, with the tasting notes providing a lasting souvenir. It would work just as well remotely, too, should this year’s party be confined yet again to Zoom.

Whether you dress it up as a Number 10-style, err, ‘business meeting’ – motto: cheese and wine, you’ll feel fine – or you’re honest and call it a proper party, Christmas comes but once a year, so why not dare to be different and make your office bash one to remember for all the right reasons.

What David has been drinking this month…

  • Perrier Jouët, Belle Epoque 2013 (£140 Harrods) Tasted at the beautiful Maison Belle Epoque on Epernay’s Avenue de Champagne, the ’13 vintage release stole my heart, with its enchanting floral elegance, vibrancy, purity and precision.
  • The Grange 2017, Penfold’s (£500 via fine wine specialists) Sampled at a lavish celebration at Waddeston Manor to mark this world-beater’s 70th birthday.  The newest release is unusual in being 100% Shiraz, a multi-regional blend, selected blind, it is a feast of brooding black fruit and spice, complex, silky and incredibly long.
  • Château Cheval Blanc 2005 (£827 at Enjoyed at a charity auction of the Birley Wine Club, which raised more than £100k for the Caring Family Foundation, this is a masterpiece of concentration and complexity, with perfect poise, drinking perfectly now, though it will continue to evolve exquisitely.
David Kermode 2021
By David Kermode

David Kermode is a journalist and broadcaster, with two decades of experience across TV, radio and print media, and a lifelong love of wine and spirits. Don’t miss his weekly podcast, The Drinking Hour.