Perhaps you're the one in the office who casually drops fancy grape names into conversation, the one who always tries the latest hot-spot restaurant before anyone else, or the one who always chats up the latest wine reviews in Wine Spectator. Watch out, though, because sooner or later you're going to find yourself at a business dinner holding the wine list with the boss and sommelier glaring at you while you panic about what to order. Talk about stress! Order something too cheap, and you look cheap, but order something too pricey on the company dime, and you could be in hot water. What to do?
Some diplomacy is clearly required, folks, especially if you're spending someone else's money on wine. Below are some tips for handling wine at a business dinner so that you and your guests enjoy the evening AND the wine, too:
1) Start right, start light and white. If you want to have something to start off with while you peruse the menu, order cocktails or a light, crisp aperitif white meant to get your taste buds going. I like champagne cocktails like a kir royale, or Lillet blanc on the rocks with orange slices, or wines like vinho verde from Portugal or a crisp sauvignon blanc like Sancerre to get the party started. Begin with a monsteralcoholic zinfandel, and your neighbor's oysters aren't going to taste so good. You get the drift. A good wine dinner starts light and white, then progresses into heavier reds as the meal progresses, too.
2) How many people, how much wine? This should be your first thought. Consider who you're dining with and how many folks will be drinking before you order anything. Don't know your guests' drinking habits? Watch how quickly the first cocktails go down to get an idea of if they're drinkers or not. Then estimate four full glasses per bottle. Quick tip: Ask to order by-the-glass selections split into tasting portions, then follow up with a full bottle of something heavier (e.g., two glasses of a nice white poured into four portions for a party of four, then a nicer bottle of red). If you're ordering for a larger party, you may want to plan to order two bottles of the same wine. A single 750 mL bottle of wine just isn't enough for dinner for eight. It's smarter to order two bottles of a more affordable wine than it is to order a big-dollar bottle that leaves your guests thirsting for more. Be nice and order enough for everyone.
3) Who should pour? How annoying it is to have the over-zealous waiter pour your wine to the brim and try to push you into ordering more than you wanted? If you prefer to pour your own wine, let the waiter know right away. Or simply tell them you'd like to save some wine for your main courses. While you're at it, tell them you don't need 13 bottles of unsolicited bottled water -- that's also a real pet peeve of mine here in L.A. Good service means a waiter should be taking his or her cues from whomever is "hosting" the meal. Be warm and direct about your beverage preferences -- communication is key.
4) I am having steak, my neighbor has chosen fish... It's polite to wait until everyone has ordered their meals before picking the wines to pair. In this instance, your best bet is either by-the-glass selections paired to match each entrée individually or a bottle of a "bridge" wine. By bridge wines, I mean wines that are meant to complement a variety of entrées. For me, reds like pinot noir, cabernet franc from the Loire Valley, mid-weight Italian sangiovese wines, or even lighter merlots can qualify as "bridge" wines. A fuller style of California pinot noir, for example, can stand up to a meat dish without overwhelming a fish dish. (Yes, you can pair red wine with fish...it's the sauce that matters more than the protein in pairing for the most part anyhow.) You might also consider ordering two half bottles (375 mL) if the restaurant has some good ones -- like by-the-glass pours, this is another great way to add more variety to your wine lineup without breaking the bank or ordering more wine than you really need.
5) "Waiter, I will have the boo-joe-lace..." Not knowing how to pronounce wines often scares people into ordering the same old American wine they know and trust. Let your fingers do the talking in this instance. Use the wine list and point to things and ask, "What do you think about this wine?" Letting the waiter or sommelier mispronounce things first takes the pressure off of you! Or you might actually learn how to correctly name wines that you recognize by sight in a list. (And for the record, beaujolais is pronounced "bo - joe - lay," folks.) Don't miss out on great new wines simply because you're afraid you won't say the name of the wine quite right. No one starts out pronouncing trockenbeerenauslese correctly, but this tasty dessert wine from Germany and Austria is worth discovering, so be brave in matters of wine pronunciation.
6) Find an ally to help. Learn to tell if you're dining in a restaurant that has "real" wine or not. Is there a full-time sommelier whose paid job is to help you? Take advantage of this person and ask away. Or does the waiter seem eager and knowledgeable, like he or she has been trained in wine? But don't waste your time asking for recommendations from someone who knows less than you or who only recommends the priciest bottles in the hopes of scoring a big tip. You know this type, so don't feel pressured to order something too expensive. Good wine service means pointing out options at a variety of price points. I used to operate on the "power of three," and would suggest three good wines at three different tiers of price. Savvy diners can take this subtle tip and choose good wine at a price that matches their budget without having someone bluntly ask "how much do you want to spend?"
7) Don't fake knowledge you don't have. When diners feel anxiety, they often take it out on the restaurant staff. This is very annoying. Don't pretend to be a wine expert if you're not -- we can spot you a mile away, you faker. I remember the nameless Hollywood studioexecutive who was mortally offended when I gently revealed that Bordeaux is often merlot-based wine...you'd have thought I suggested hemlock, as she was quick to inform me that she only drinks red BORDEAUX, not lowly merlot or cabernet sauvignon! Now that's a feat as red Bordeaux virutally always has at least one of these grapes in some measure. Because she went out of her way to be rude to me, she ultimately ended up embarrassing herself in front of her guests who knew more than she did about wine. If you don't know, ask! Be friendly and warm, give the sommelier or waiter the chance to help you by helping them to know what kinds of wine you like and by giving them an approximation of what you want to spend. Then everyone wins and