The 7 C’s of Wine at the Business Dinner

21 Mar , 2018

Business dinners with co-workers and customers can be a daunting experience. You and your team will be judged on your professionalism, candor, etiquette, and good manners.  The wine list can be even more daunting, but it does not have to be.

Whether you have hosted hundreds of business dinners or never hosted one before, the etiquette, traditions, and other mysteries of the wine list usually divide us into one of two groups: one, pass me the wine list please, or two, please pass the wine list to someone else.

The rules are not as simple as they used to be. Who gets the wine at a business dinner can be based on a number of factors including who is hosting the dinner, who is the “ranking” attendee, or simply who knows about wine.

If you end up with the wine list or think you might, here are some ways to pull off the experience. These are the basics. If you already know a fair amount about wine, these will be good reminders. If you know a little about wine, these should be of help and may unlock some of the unknowns you have questioned in the past. If you know nothing about wine, the seven C’s should start you on the road to knowledge. Remember, there is nothing wrong with saying to your guests “you know, I really enjoy wine, but would love for someone else to do the honors.” It is almost guaranteed that someone will gladly raise their hand.

The “Seven C’s” are as follows:

Cheat – If you know the restaurant you will be attending, go on-line and look up the wine list ahead of time. Many restaurants put their menu and their wine list on their web site. Now you can observe the selection, prices, and do some research on each. You can also call ahead and speak with the manager or the Sommelier. Discuss the prices, the values, and get their recommendations.

Choose value over price – Never, never choose the cheapest bottle or the most expensive bottle on the list. The cheapest bottles are there to bring down the starting point of the wine list and probably will not be to your guests taste. On the other hand, ordering the most expensive bottle may make you seem pretentious or uncaring about expenses. Neither is the perception you are likely looking to create.

The usual mark up for a bottle of wine in a restaurant is about 2 to 3 times retail. If you enjoy wine at home, or have more experience with wine, the “values” are easier to spot. If you did a little research ahead of time on the medium priced bottles on the wine list, the value bottles start to stand out. Look for the bottles that are between the retail price and 2X that amount. They are almost always there.

Choose quickly and confidently – If you stare at the wine list too long, people at the dinner will think one of two things. Either you do not know anything about wine, or you know a lot about wine and they are getting ready to have an amazing experience (which may be a let-down). Once you orient yourself to the wine list and how it is organized, move to the section you want (i.e. California, France, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, etc) and focus your attention there. Restaurants that offer a “book” of a wine list, or even an iPad of a wine list, can seem overwhelming. Do not let it be. If you narrow your options quickly, you can spend time on what matters, the value selection.

Confirm with the Sommelier – There is nothing wrong with asking for a little help. Often the restaurant has selections that are not on the list and the Sommelier is there to help.

If you feel you are really in trouble, here is a little trick that can really help. Call the Sommelier over, find the section you in which you are interested such as Cabernet Sauvignon and point at the price (not the wine), and ask him if he has any suggestions. For example, “Mr. Sommelier, I was considering this choice, buy was wondering if you had any recommendations.” They will understand you need help, but want to stay in that price range.

Corroborate with other guests – Ask the table what they prefer or if there is something you might want to stay away from. Your guests will likely steer you towards red or white and then more specifics. It is important you allow for their tastes whenever possible.

Check the cork – If you order the wine, the waiter/waitress is going to bring you the tasting so be prepared. This is easier than most people make it out to be. Proper tasting can be done three simple steps.

First, examine the cork. The cork can tell you 90% of what you need to know. Unless you really, really know wine, DO NOT sniff the cork. Very few people have the ability to tell if a wine has gone bad by sniffing the cork. Instead, a physical examination of the cork shows you know more about and will keep you out of trouble.

The cork should be firm, but not brittle on the end that was pointing up. The end that is stained with wine should be soft enough to flex when you squeeze it and should be damp with wine. Examine the sides of the cork for red streaks or creases that run the length of the cork. Remember, if wine can get out, then air can get in and the win is bad.

If you find a cork with a streak from end to end, you won’t even need to taste the wine. The bottle is spoiled.  Simply, and discretely, show it to the waiter and request another bottle.

Second, swirl the glass. Leave the glass on the table and swirl it by moving the base of the glass around in small tight circles. If you pick it and swirl it, you may accidently sling some on yourself or others. It happens.

Third, smell and taste. If you smell or taste anything metallic, the wine is starting to go bad and you should send it back. If you think you don’t like the wine, or you think it tastes funny. Ask the waiter or sommelier for help. Do not be afraid or intimidated about sending back a bottle of wine. Cork is a natural product and it is estimated that .5% of all natural corks go bad. Even the new synthetic (plastic) corks can fail (usually from defective insertion). It happens more than you think. You can simply say, “I’m sorry, but I this isn’t what I expected.”

If you like the taste, set the stage for your guests, but do not oversell it. Make a comment such as “my, I think everyone will enjoy this (and smile).” The power of suggestion is amazing when it comes to wine.

Chat – After a few minutes, discuss with your guests if they are enjoying the wine. You will get suggestions or hints about whether to stay with your choice or select something else for the next bottle.

Knowing about wine can be very impressive at a business dinner. It suggests credibility, sophistication, and knowledge outside of the product or service you are trying to sell. In other words, it builds trust in a subtle and unspoken way that is hard to replace.

To learn more about wine, wine tasting, wine etiquette, and more importantly, what wine you like and do not like, we recommend the following:

  1. Find a neighborhood wine shop and go to a tasting every week. Most wine shops offer a tasting at least once a week. Over a period of time you will likely be able to sample wines from different regions, different vinifera (types of grapes), and different styles. This is the best education you provide for yourself. Imagine if you tried 5 wines every week for a year! You would know more than 95% of the people you meet.
  2. Read. There are some awesome wine books out such as Wine for Dummies which can really teach you a lot. There are also some great on-line resources such as www.winefolly.com
  3. Drink. Bring different wines home and try them out. Not from the grocery store, but from a wine shop. You will be surprised how you start to recognize certain wineries, regions, or types of wine that you like when you open a wine list.
  4. Visit some local wineries and talk to the people in the business.  The wine business is very friendly.

Author:      Ed Cowdrey

Note: We were going to call this article “The Wine List and Other Anteprandial Stress’ of the Business Dinner”, but decided that was a little over the top. We welcome your feedback about our articles. Please follow this blog by clicking the FOLLOW link at the bottom right of your screen, OR leave us a comment by clicking the link below.