What Do You Do When the Host Hands You the Wine List?

One of the more uncomfortable situations is when you are at a dinner and the host hands you the wine list and asks you to pick.  This usually happens when you are the guest of honor, and even more complex, when in a foreign country.  This is fraught with risk.  It’s very easy to embarrass yourself or your host with an inappropriate selection.  The biggest risk is around getting a bottle at an acceptable price.

So, what do you do?

This one is very dependent on your relationship to the host and the level of the people in attendance.

If you know the host very well and are comfortable with them, you can ask how much they would like to spend on the bottle.  When I do this, I’ll usually head over to the host with the wine list and put my finger on a price and ask if they are looking for something like this.  If the price is acceptable, they’ll agree and if not, they’ll direct me to a different price level – higher or lower.

The other option in this situation is a less formal approach.   Just ask the question, “How crazy do you want me to get with the wine?”  Sometimes I’ll add, “Respectable?” or “Sorry, Bobby, Dad can’t afford tuition next semester?”  Usually you get some solid direction from the response.

What if the situation is more formal or you don’t know the host well?

There is an expected level of spend for a bottle of wine in a restaurant with a senior audience (think presidents and business owners).  The first rule is $100 a bottle.  While that seems high, it does include the restaurant mark-up and is there are usually a few decent bottles within a few dollars of that figure.  You’ll rarely get chewed out at this figure.  If the audience is less senior, scale the price to $75 or even $40-50 a bottle.  Unless you are given permission, you want to skew on the side of conservative prices.

There is another gauge that I’ll use and that is 2-2.5 times the average entre price.  If I am in a fancy steak house where the average entre is $50-60 a plate, I don’t feel bad about $120 bottle of wine.  No clearly, if I am told to get crazy, I can double this figure to $200-250 a bottle.  Anything above level requires approval of the host by showing what you plan to order.

The other factor I take into account is the wine knowledge of the audience.  If we have a bunch of novices around the table out for a good time, there is no need to go crazy.  $50 a bottle is plenty.  If I have a bunch of snooty wine aficionados, we might head more towards the crazy or crazy plus side of the wine list.

I have mentioned before that there are a few wines placed on wine lists that are the “businessperson’s lifesaver”.  In other words, they aren’t too expensive and represent decent quality and brands that people know.  They’ll never get upset at ordering something like Silver Oak, Caymus or Jordan.  If I don’t want one of these volume producers, I’ll use the price on the list as a guide to find something else.  If the Silver Oak Alexander Valley is $125 a bottle, that is my target for the bottle I select.

When you are handed the list, the best option is to subtly ask your host the target price for a bottle.  Without input from your host, shoot for (1) $100 a bottle, (2) 2-2.5 times the average entrée price or (3) the price of the Silver Oak Alexander Valley.

Ideally, when you ask how crazy the host wants to get, they respond with “I want to regret I ever handed you that list when I get the bill!”   That’s time to as for the reserve wine list.


The Dirty Little Secret about Sweet Wines

One of the most commonly misused words when people order wine is “Sweet”.  When wine people say a wine is sweet, they mean that there is residual sugar in the wine, in other words, not all the grape juice has been converted into alcohol.  This is a winemaker choice.  When a diner asks for sweet wine, they normally mean fruity, lots of juicy fruit on the nose and palate.

But there is a lot more to sweet wines.

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How to Tell Your Server What Kind of Wine You Want

Clearly, the easiest way to tell a server or Sommelier what type of wine you want is to point to the one that you have selected on the list. Frankly, if you can do that and be comfortable with all the wine styles, you might know more than your server.  But that isn’t always so easy and the ability to give some useful guidance can yield you a better wine and dining experience.

There are a few basic approaches to communicating your preference

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Wine List Value Plays: Riesling

Dry Rieslings

All Rieslings are sweet and Yuck!  Perhaps double yuck and don’t you know sugar kills?

That’s how a lot of people feel about Rieslings and fortunately for the rest of us, they are dead wrong.  Rieslings are made in a range of sweetness from bone dry to luscious, dessert in a glass.  I suppose it is this preconceived notion that this elegant wine is always sweet is the reason it is out of favor and following the general and unfortunate downward slide of sweeter wines.

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Accessing Great Older Wines From Great Estates

It’s a little secret of the winemaking business – the makers don’t sell all their wine from their production.  They’ll typically hold back 10-20% of their production for future release.  These sit sleeping quietly in the caves and storage areas of each of the markers sometimes for 20, 30, 50 or even more years!  I’ve seen video (unluckily I wasn’t there) of European winemakers pulling our some wines that were 100 years old and drinking great.

So the question is, be sides buying the winery, how do we access these incredible gems?

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A Simple Way to Find Your Wine Glass at a Table

I have worked with hundreds of CEOs and executives over the years in my career as a coach. We’ve accomplished great things together like building game-changing business models, upending entire markets, and taking companies public.

Yet, in all that time, and among all the suggestions and feedback I have ever handed out, there is one piece of advice that my clients tell me is the best I have ever given. It involves a simple tip to remember which bread plate and water glass is yours when you go out to dinner.

I know: not what you were expecting, right? Well I can’t tell you how surprised I have been by the number of times my clients have come back and told me how useful this piece of advice is.

Now I’ll share it with you.

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