“And who will be ordering the wine this evening?”. The waiter is standing there with, what looks like, an encyclopedia and the words “Wine List” embossed on the fine leather cover. They are waiting for the host - which is you - to identify themselves so he or she can offload the enormous selection of the restaurant’s global wines and proceed with the service.
You’re taking a new client out for a business dinner. If things go well, and you land this account, you can start making plans for that incredible vacation to Hawaii. Crash and burn, and you can go ahead and count on microwavable ramen for the rest of the quarter.
If you are like most people, this can be a very stress-inducing situation:
“What wine do I order?”
“I don’t have a humongous expense account, but I don’t want to look cheap”.
“If I order something that is too expensive, I might look desperate or, even worse, I might give them the wrong impression about my company”.
“What if I order something they don’t like?”
The waiter asks if you want the wine list. They have clearly deduced by the ocular direction of your guest that you are, indeed, the host of tonight’s hopeful transaction. You begrudgingly accept the offering and begin the monumental task at hand.
But wait. Before you excuse yourself to the restroom to start Googling “Where the hell is Jura?”, or dowse yourself in the high-proof liquor from behind the bar and go out martyr-style, THERE IS HOPE.
Working in restaurants for most of my adult life, I have seen this look of panic far too often. The new guy in sales has gone all out. He’s taking the new client out to a high-end restaurant. He’s got on his “nice suit” that he just picked up from the dry cleaners this morning. He has the company’s American Express "Black Card" and is ready to spare no expense. Except that when it comes to ordering wine for dinner he has no clue what he’s doing. He doesn’t know Alsace from Austria, Pinot from Pinotage, and certainly has no idea what pairs well with cotton candy foie gras.
If he’s lucky enough to be at a restaurant with a knowledgeable sommelier, he may escape this ordeal unscathed and no one will be the wiser. If he simply informs the somm of the dishes they will be having, he may never have to confess that he’s really more of a “beer guy”. But what if there isn’t a somm or they are busy with another guest? You could just pick something in the middle price point or break the bank and go with the usual suspects like Silver Oak or Caymus or (God forbid) Opus One. However, if your impetus for attending this business dinner is to make a good impression on your new client, then you may have missed a golden opportunity.
I will admit - I secretly find these situations somewhat amusing. Here we have this individual trying so hard to make sure things go well, they have worked out almost every detail regarding dinner. Almost, but they have completely overlooked a great area of opportunity for elevating the dining experience…the wine list.
I mean, most people in these scenarios will read reviews about the restaurant beforehand. Some will even look over the food menu online or scout the spot over cocktails. But I don’t believe I have ever seen anyone scout a wine list. Think about it - you have invested so many hours leading up to this point. Why stop now? And trust me, it’s easier than you think.
First of all, actually look through the wine list. Most high-end restaurants will have them posted online. If not, just snap a photo (or one of the pages) while you are enjoying happy hour one night, or just stop by on your way home from work. Start with a category that is straightforward. Domestic Cabernet Sauvignon or a red blend perhaps?
Now find the wines that are in your price range. You don’t have to write them all down (remember, you can just take a photo). Pick a few out that you might be interested in. Maybe some from different places (Napa, Bordeaux, Australia, etc.).
Here comes the hard part….GOOGLE THE WINES! That’s right. Almost all somm’s and wine directors do this. There are plenty of websites that specialize in reviewing wines. Both Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast are great examples where you can look up reviews on wine. See what the experts say. It doesn’t guarantee the wine will be amazing but is usually a great indication of good vs. bad. After you've found a few that sound nice, you're ready for the fun part. Order the wine and enjoy!
Any website or magazine can try and tell you what the “best” wine is for an occasion or circumstance, but it won’t help you actually learn more about wine. Using this approach each time you head out to an important dinner will enhance your knowledge of information about wine from all over the world. You'll become a oenophile in no time!
Christopher Webb is an L.A.-based sommelier who is just trying to prevent his puppy from chewing up dress shoes. You should follow his adventures on Twitter.