Stop and Smell the Rosé: Wine knowledge is an executive skill

When wining and dining a client, potential business partner or colleague, remember: dining is only half of the equation. Knowledge of wine is embedded into the business world as part of an executive skill set, much like, say, a firm handshake, a game of golf, or buying a well-tailored suit. Although wine culture is bigger in other regions of the nation than Utah, the state’s exploding economy is rapidly bringing transplants to the business community.

“Whether you’re a recent MBA grad or a seasoned veteran, knowing how to navigate a wine list at a big important business meeting is essential,” says Jim Santangelo, founder and educator at the Wine Academy of Utah. “You’re trying to show off your expertise—you don’t want to show a weakness.”

Even non-drinkers can get a lot of value out of wine education. If someone gifts a bottle—or it’s up to you to do the gifting—knowing how to select a wine will make that gift more meaningful and thoughtful. If you’ve invited potential clients or partners out to dinner, etiquette states that the host selects and orders the wine. Not only that, when the wine bottle is presented to the table, it’s also up to the host to sign off on the bottle, whether he or she is partaking or not.

Santangelo teaches an executive wine course, which is designed to give the participants a solid basis of wine knowledge. The course is split up into two separate classes: one on how to read and navigate a wine list, and the other on tasting and pairing wines. In the first, Santangelo goes over 10 rules on how to order wine off a wine list. He then stages a mock restaurant scene, allowing students to feel more at ease with the process, which includes not only selecting a bottle, but also checking the bottle, its cork and the wine itself before the sommelier pours for everyone.

“Students should feel confident handling or ordering a wine, selecting a wine, having it presented to them and confirming the wine,” says Santangelo. “We practice that. We break it down, so you know the purpose of all the process, what you can expect. That’s half the battle—if you know what to expect, you can fill in. If you don’t, it’s hard to navigate through that. We role play that, we demonstrate it.”

Wine, he says, should flow in the same way as the dinner. Wines should start light and become richer and bolder in flavor as the meal progresses: a sparkling wine or a lighter-styled white with an appetizer, and something bigger, richer and more savory with an entrée. “It’s a good rule of thumb: match the style of wine to the style of food,” he says. “Otherwise, you run the risk of overwhelming that food.”

Santangelo offers other tips: Try reading a wine list from back to front instead of starting at the front page. The back pages of the wine list often have seasonal selections, older wines or even discounted selections that don’t quite fit other places in the list, but are still excellent choices. The front of the wine list, he says, are the “purchase display,” or the wines the restaurant prefers you to buy.

“Let’s face it—you’ll just look until you find something. You won’t keep looking after that,” says Santangelo. “So by forcing you to the back, you increase your chances of finding hidden secrets or deals.”

Some Dos and Don’ts

Don’t smell the cork. When you’re given the cork while confirming your wine, put it in your hand and squeeze it. This is to verify that it’s not rock-hard and dry, which might show that oxygen might have entered the bottle.

“The cork will smell like cork. It won’t tell you anything about the wine. Don’t smell it to show off,” says Santangelo. “People smell it and say: ‘Oh, this takes me back to Tuscany.’ It doesn’t. It takes you to raking leaves in your yard.”

Do smell the wine.

You don’t even have to taste it. It’s if the wine smells fresh and fruity, then you’re good to go.

Don’t be afraid to ask for the wine to be decanted.

Decanting, or transferring a wine to a different receptacle to let it breathe, enhances the taste of wine, especially high tannin wines such as syrah, Barolo or Chianti. Tell your sommelier that you want to decant something for the entrée. “When you decant a bottle of wine for four people, letting it open up, it shows class and command,” says Santangelo.

Don’t be afraid to give the sommelier a price range.

If you’d rather not select a wine, try telling the sommelier what price range you’re interested in. “Sommeliers like the challenge of finding a good wine for you,” says Santangelo. “It gets you out of jail, so you don’t have to make a decision, but you’re still delegating and showing your comfort and control. That’s entirely appropriate and empowering.”