Have you ever been handed the wine list at an important group dinner? Was your response “I don’t know anything about wine,” followed by a nervous shuffling of the dreaded document to the person next to you? Or did you take it and, with noticeable hesitation and reluctance, mull it over for several awkward minutes before taking a random stab? Worse yet, you made a quick move by going straight for one of the most expensive bottles, thinking, “This has to work.”
While ordering wine at a business dinner is usually not the focal point of the evening, your handling of a wine list may very well be noticed and scrutinized by key people at the table. As with a case study interview, this is a great opportunity to showcase your poise under pressure, interpersonal grace and thoughtful decisiveness.
Charles Phillips, CEO of global software leader Infor, actually uses the “Wine List Test” to assess potential candidates for leadership positions. (See article: “We got 10 CEOs to tell us their one killer interview question for new hires — Quartz”).
Even if you know just a little about wine, there are ways to prepare for your next high visibility “pop quiz.” The following tips will put you in command of the moment whether you are dining with company leadership, courting important clients, or trying to impress your future in-laws:
- Do your research – “You’re poised and well prepared.”
The dinner invitation should give you an idea of the venue. Look through the menu and the wine list online. Call the restaurant and chat with the sommelier about appropriate options. While not always possible, researching ahead of time could help you make a seemingly crisp and knowledgeable decision on the spot.
- Estimate the appropriate number of bottles – “You think well on your feet.”
A standard bottle yields about 4 glasses. Start with roughly half a bottle or two glasses per person.
- Land at the right price range – “You know how to identify value.”
This is not accomplished by choosing the most expensive bottle or ordering the house wine. Start with the mid price range, and dial up or down based on the flavor of the event and your best read of the personalities at the table. The “safe” zone, often falls slightly higher than the midpoint.
- Bring something new to the table – “You are comfortable introducing a fresh perspective.”
Don’t be afraid to suggest wines from less conventional wine countries. Chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud, for example, complements his Mediterranean menu at Boulud Sud with some wonderful Greek wines. Aldea, a Michelin starred restaurant in NYC, has an extensive wine list with lovely labels from Portugal for its Iberian menu. Grüner Veltliner, a refreshing Austrian white, has proven to be a versatile pairing to many lighter dishes and has earned a stable spot on many fine restaurant menus. Stepping outside of the conventional French / Italian / Californian habit could be a great conversational starter while delivering impressive quality and value.
- Select red or white, light or full body – “You know how to define and manage scope.”
Keep in mind this is not a wine tasting event, and your mission is not to find the perfect pairing for every dish ordered. A quick around-the-table survey of “what will you be having?” or “do we prefer red or white?” provides ample information for making a decision while showing you are mindful of others’ preferences. Unless everyone is having steak, which calls for a hefty Barolo or a left bank Bordeaux, a bottle of white or a bottle of light red plus a bottle of medium bodied red should cover a wide range of tastes.
- Take care of the special guest – “You consider all key stakeholders.”
With people becoming increasingly health conscious, it’s likely that one or more of your guests would have special dietary preferences. They probably know what they want. So be sure to ask them or suggest a wine by the glass, a beer or a non-alcoholic drink.
- Consult the sommelier – “You are able and willing to leverage subject matter experts.”
The sommelier is there for a reason. Maximize his or her contribution by indicating the meal selections and red/white preferences. You could say something like, “We are having…, and would like a medium body red / white around this price range (subtly point to the preferred price range on the menu), what would you suggest?”
Paradoxically, spontaneity is often enhanced by a little bit of pre-orchestration. With these strategy tips and some preparation, you will ace your next “wine list test.”