How to order wine like a pro at your next business dinner

SCENES FROM A BISTRO: If unsure what to pour, say Bin 77’s Brian Dykes, left, and certified sommelier Mitch Rodgers, don’t be afraid to ask questions before ordering a glass of wine. (Photo by Don Kadair)

You’re hosting an important client at a fine dining restaurant and along comes the wine list.

One of two things is about to happen.

You start to sweat, searching for a pronounceable option you hope is an appropriate match with the fare. Or, you welcome the list, calmly weighing your options and settling on an impressive, but expense account-friendly bottle with confidence and aplomb.

How to get yourself in the latter camp is the goal of anyone who wines and dines clients, but even insiders admit that the wine landscape is confusing terrain, chock-full of intimidating terminology, hefty markups and endless choices. It also doesn’t help that a wine list, unlike a restaurant menu, is usually void of descriptions that describe flavor profiles, making the bottles on it that much more cryptic.

“I’ve seen it on both the retail and restaurant side, that fear of saying the wrong thing,” says certified sommelier Scott Higgins, who owns the White Star Market bar, Mouton, as well as the soon-to-open Square 46 wine and cheese shop, Three Tails. “It can seem like there’s a huge barrier of entry for wine.”

That’s where a little advance planning and a good rapport with your server can be a lifesaver, say Higgins and other insiders. Gone on are the days when snooty waiters looked at you askance. Instead, a good server’s job is to help you find a comfortable starting point, says Bin 77 Bistro and Sidebar General Manager Brian Dykes.

“If a customer doesn’t quite know what to order, we ask ‘what do you like?’” Dykes says. “They might give us a name or show us a picture of a label. We pay attention to the varietal (type of grape) they’re looking for and the region, and if we don’t have it, we find something comparable.”

Things unfold similarly at Ruffino’s, a fine dining restaurant known for steak-centric business dinners.

“I think a lot of times diners think they’re supposed to come in knowing everything about wine already,” says Executive Chef and Partner Peter Sclafani. “But restaurants don’t expect that. We want to help you find and experience something you’re going to like and that you’re going to leave excited about.”

A little preparation can make that initial conversation with the server go smoothly and give you the confidence to make the right selection.

1. Do your homework

Prior to your dinner, drop by a retailer or independent supermarket with a good wine stock and knowledgeable staff. “All of our store managers do training with liquor companies,” says Ernie Matherne of Matherne’s Market. “You ask a question on wine, and you’ll get an educated answer.” Gather recommendations for high quality reds and whites—preferably selections that are also found on local wine lists. This isn’t hard since restaurants and retailers share common distributors. Taste a few wines at home and notice what you like. Even if the restaurant you’r at doesn’t feature the same bottles, you can mention them as personal favorites. This helps the server steer your selections. Note that the wine list mark-up is typically three times the wholesale price and is even higher by the glass.

2. Call ahead

When you call the restaurant to make your dinner reservation, take a little time to talk to the general manager or wine manager. “I think it’s a great idea if you’re hosting a business dinner to call ahead and say, ‘here’s my budget and here’s how many people I’m entertaining’ and discuss some good options,” says Higgins. “You can also ask to get a copy of the wine list in advance and familiarize yourself with it.” Every fine dining restaurant has a fool proof set of big reds and sumptuous whites that appeal to most wine drinkers.

3. Lean on your server

Remember, this person is there to help you look good, and in a restaurant appropriate for high stakes client dinners, they should arrive the table with a certain level of training. Think of your server as a translator, someone who can identify options that have a similar profile to what you already enjoy. “When I go out anywhere, I tell the server I’m looking for something like a Howell Mountain Cab,” says Sclafani. “It’s a part of Napa Valley where I love the wines, so if I start with that, then that helps a server find something that I’m going to like.”

4. Take the reigns

It’s fine to solicit your guests’ wine opinions during a social gathering, but not during a business dinner where it erodes your command of the table, says Sclafani. “Ordering the wine is seen as a power thing,” he says, adding that servers are hip to this as they observe table dynamics. “We’re going to see you as the host of the gathering and look to you to make the wine selection.”

5. Welcome the ritual

Tasting the wine is mostly ceremony, but it’s one you should embrace. Allow the server to present you the bottle to ensure he or she has selected the correct one. He’ll uncork it, pour a small amount in your glass and wait for you to swirl, sniff and sample. If something tastes really off, this is the time to speak up. But more than likely, the wine is fine and it’s up to you to nod accordingly.

6. Continue your education

There are thousands of wines on the market at any given time, but you can narrow the field by through tasting dinners or wine classes. Matherne’s Baton Rouge location, for example, has hosted monthly wine dinners by reservation for more than 20 years. “It gives you a chance to taste different styles and expand your portfolio,” says Matherne. “And if gives you more confidence to buy that bottle when you’ve been able to sample a glass.” Bin 77 offers tasting menus that also pair wines by the glass with each course. “We can introduce you to wines that you might not be familiar with, but that we think you’re going to really like,” says Bin 77 certified sommelier Mitch Rodgers. “And it let you see how wines pair with different foods, which is really the end game.”

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