How to Navigate the Wine List at a Business Dinner

Published: Jun 11, 2010

 Workplace Issues       

Maybe you're out to dinner with some clients or you're celebrating a big sale with your boss. Whatever it is, you've found yourself out among people you need to impress and somehow the wine ordering has fallen to you. Don't worry! This could be a great chance for you to impress your boss, co-workers and clients. Even if the list looks like an encyclopedia and your only experience picking out wine is at your local grocery store, you can do this. Stay calm, champ, I've got some simple tips to help you out.

business lunch with wine

Red vs. white wine

The first decision you have to make is whether to order red wine or white wine. Try to get a consensus at the table, especially if you're entertaining clients--remember that at a dinner with current or potential customers it is your job to make them feel comfortable and special. Without any direction from the table--or if everyone is ordering different things--red wine is your safest bet. Red is thought to be more formal and is generally more popular than white wine.

There are a few situations, however, that call for white wine:

  1. If you know someone at the table (your boss in particular) doesn't like red then you should opt for white.
  2. If you are at a seafood restaurant, you should consider ordering white wine because it is a better match for the cuisine. That said, there are plenty of reds that can go with seafood (see Pinot Noir below) but white is probably still safer.
  3. If it's lunch or happy hour or any less than formal occasion then a lighter white wine may be the way to go.

If you think you need a white wine then go for a Chardonnay because it is by far the most popular white varietal. Another option, if you're feeling adventurous or you want something light in flavor and alcohol then try a Sauvignon Blanc.

Match the wine to the food

The easiest way to choose a red is to match it to the cuisine of the restaurant. If you're eating at an Italian place then look for a Chianti. Chianti is the most recognizable Italian region and no decent or even sub-par Italian restaurant doesn't have at least a few on the menu. Similarly, you can choose a Bordeaux if you're eating French, or a Rioja at a Spanish or tapas restaurant. When you're eating at a steakhouse, an American Cabernet Sauvignon--most likely from Napa Valley or Sonoma--is appropriate and usually welcome.

If all of that is too much to remember, or if you find yourself in some alternate situation, American Pinot Noir is a crowd pleaser and safe go-to. Pinot Noir is great for a group of people with disparate wine tastes and it goes with most any fare.

Celebration wine

In the instance of a celebratory occasion like closing a big sale or getting a promotion, Champagne or some other sparkling wine is in order. Champagne or other sparklers (like Prosecco, Cava or Cremant) can also work at the beginning of a long meal during which several different wines may be ordered.

Ask for help

Another critical piece of information to remember is that your server is your friend. If you are at a loss as what to do, ask her for some direction. You can mention that you need a "crowd-pleaser" and she'll be happy to point you in the direction of some of the most popular bottles on the list. Also, your server can help you figure out how much to order in the event that the entire office has shown up to dinner.

Price tags

Now for a bit of etiquette. Even though your employer may be picking up the tab, price is a good deciding factor once you've narrowed your choices down to a few bottles. Do your best to stay right in the middle of the price range offered on the wine list. You want to show a bit a savvy by not picking the cheapest thing you can find, but you must also show some respect because in these situations you are spending someone else's money. Also, never ever order wine unless you are invited to do so by the head of the table, who is presumably picking up the tab. This is particularly true during work lunches where drinking may be frowned upon.

When you order wine, the server is going to present the bottle to you to approve before serving the entire table. This is not a big deal and shouldn't intimidate you. Just nod to the server affirming that she brought the correct bottle and taste it to make sure the bottle hasn't gone bad (it almost never has). Once the wine is served, sit back, relax and gracefully accept compliments for a job well done.

--Written by Nancy Lind

Nancy has spent the past seven years in the wine industry in just about every capacity possible. She recently left her sales representative job at Avant Partir, representing the likes of Robert Chadderdon and Joe Bastianich, to pursue a career as a wine writer. She is a member of FourCoursemen, a progressive supper club in Athens, Ga., serving as wine expert. She and the FourCoursemen were recently featured in Food & Wine.