Wine Rookies: Your Handling of Wine Matters More Than You Think

“Your handling of wine, whether ordering it or just drinking it, matters more than you think to your colleagues. Sometimes people see your comfort or expertise with wine not as a comment on your knowledge, but on your character.” — The Wall Street Journal

You’re at a fancy downtown restaurant for dinner with a new client, and a million-dollar business deal is on the table. The waiter hands you the wine list. You wonder, “To make a good impression, should I spend $350 on the Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 Hillside Select? Or do I go with something half that price that the client will like just as much — maybe more?” What do you do?

The problem is that you don’t know what makes a good cabernet, much less the Hillside Select. After all, you went to business school, not bartender’s academy! “What if I order the wrong wine?” you ask yourself. “I’ll embarrass myself and might lose the deal!” For all you know, your client is a passionate wine collector and connoisseur, with a trove of 1,000 bottles of vintage Bordeaux gathering dust in his wine cellar.

Your forehead begins to break out in a cold sweat. You have to make the right decision!

Who would have thought that your shiny Ivy League MBA, powerful business connections, and past successes doing big business deals would help so little now? What matters right now, at this moment, is your wine IQ and your ability to entertain this client in a way he’ll never forget — in a way that will cement your relationship with him (or her) for years to come.

I’ve seen many dinner guests dealing with the consternation over what goes with what and how much to spend. I would like to shed some light on some “Power Entertaining” practices that I utilize in my presentations to corporate sales and marketing teams that will work in most any restaurant situation.

In order to have the very best experience in strengthening client relationships within the restaurant environment, you need to do a little pre-planning. Here are my suggestions:

When you make your reservation, ask to speak directly with the wine director/sommelier. This person will make your evening. Use them, that’s why they are there.

Tell the wine director you want to spend time with your clients and wish to pre-arrange as much as possible to achieve that goal. Decide right then if you have found the right person who is willing to work with your intentions. Your successful experience depends upon your relationship with that person. If you can’t find the right person, change restaurants.

Give him or her your budget.

Ask if the restaurant has a private dining room. There is nothing worse than trying to enjoy the subtleties of fine food and wine when they are competing with the roar of most dining rooms at 8 p.m. Many restaurants have small rooms or can create quiet ambiance for you. This is powerful.

Always start with Champagne for ultimate acknowledgment.

Tell the sommelier you wish to compare two wines with each course and have them served prior to each course so you may discuss them first (this is original, as well as educational). You want your guests to leave with some new insights, like tasting the difference between Oregon pinot noirs and those from California.

Other Tasting Possibilities:

  • New World vs. Old World (California Chardonnay versus French white Burgundy or two Chardonnays with completely different styles to discuss)
  • Horizontal tasting (compare two wineries or two of the same grape varieties) Napa Pinot Noir versus Santa Barbara Pinot Noir. Discuss styles. Your sommelier will prep you on what to say.
  • Vertical tasting (Compare two vintages or two wines from the same winery, discuss influence of age)

Ask about signature menu items and go with those. Ask which wines on the restaurant’s list are showing best with them. If you are fortunate to live in the same city as the intended restaurant, go there in advance and ask to taste specific food and wine pairings. Why leave anything to chance?

Now you have Champagne waiting at your table. You have chosen the first course with two comparative wines that will stimulate conversation. When your guests arrive, you are in control and can spend time with them. This way, you avoid the initial stress experienced by all the others who didn’t pre-plan their event.

Other Things To Consider:

  • Ask the restaurant or sommelier to provide fine crystal glassware. If they don’t have them, they can be rented at a nominal cost (Riedel Crystal has the best rental program). Fine glassware provides a powerful impact.
  • Have the sommelier decant all red wines! This adds a touch of class and sets you apart from others.
  • With large parties of eight to 10 or more, I like to serve red wines from Magnums (double-size bottles). Many restaurants don’t carry Magnums, but if you call in advance, they will have time to special order them for your party.
  • Lastly, I suggest you have the restaurant send the bill to your home or office, or you can provide your credit card over the phone. Tell the restaurant to add 20 to 25 percent to the bill. I never allow the check to arrive at the table because it invariably changes the tempo of your event.

Learning the subtle nuances of specific food and wine pairings at each and every restaurant can take a lifetime. You don’t need to be an expert; you need to bond with your wine director and let his or her expertise guide you. Take care of your sommelier, and your sommelier will take care of you.

Master Sommelier Reasonably Priced Suggestions Found On All Good Wine Lists:

Sparkling Wines

Serve these with items such as calamari or tempura — bubbles like salt and fat.

These Spanish sparklers offer great value-for-money bubbles. Buy the best they offer, good ones rival the best sparklers from anywhere and cheap ones don’t.

Italian sparklers which are lightly effervescent, delicate and the perfect aperitif wines.

German Dry Rieslings

Ask the sommelier to let you experience “dry style,” high acid, refreshing rieslings. I believe they are the best white food wines on the planet. They are not the sweet rieslings you may have drank in college.

Here is a region in the Loire Valley, France, where sauvignon blanc is the star. These wines have just the right balance of acidity and the best ones are less herbaceous and grapefruit-driven as their New Zealand and California counterparts. They can be found on all good wine lists, so make sure to ask the sommelier for a great one. You usually see them on the list in the neighborhood of $40–$50. These are magnetic with goat cheese appetizers or lightly sautéed fish of any sort.

Cru Beaujolais
There are 10 wine areas in the Beaujolais region of France: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Cote de Brouilly, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin a Vent, Régnié and Saint Amour. These wines are superb food wines and a quantum leap upward from the usual Beaujolais-Villages or worse, Beaujolais Nouveau. Cru Beaujolais age well, are more full-bodied, have bracing acidity and are always ready to drink.

This is an Italian grape variety that exhibits low tannins and high acidity, which helps to cut through fatty, grilled meats, as well as cheese-inspired dishes. Always reasonable and ready to drink, it is one of my favorite restaurant reds. Again, ask the sommelier for the best they have.

This is the predominant grape variety seen in the Rioja region of Spain. The styles vary from easy-to-drink and fruit-forward to age-worthy and elegant. I recommend the former, lighter styles, as they are always crowd-pleasers and very affordable.