AttorneySomm’s Strategies to Maximize Wine Enjoyment at Business Dinners

August 6, 2019 | Insights

Beyond counseling clients concerning intellectual property litigation, data privacy, and cybersecurity, Jackson Walker partner John M. Jackson runs a wine blog on Instagram under the handle @AttorneySomm. John’s sommelier training consists of a WSET Level 3 Award in Wines from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, as well as personally visiting hundreds of winemakers in more than 35 wine growing regions worldwide.

Here is the full excerpt of John’s article, “AttorneySomm’s Strategies to Maximize Wine Enjoyment at Business Dinners,” published on LinkedIn:

As an attorney who appreciates both good wine and the importance of client development and retention, business dinners can be problematic from an expense reimbursement standpoint.

In most cities in the United States, restaurant markups on wine are 300-400% or more. This is especially true for wines that are commonly ordered for business dinners (e.g., well-known Napa Cabs at steak houses). For most business dinners, we are expected to follow the rule of reason, which means it is often impossible to just order the best available wine. By the same token, you will not endear yourself to clients who appreciate wine by ordering the cheapest bottles available. The goal should be to order interesting, exciting wines that everyone enjoys while still staying within budget.

In this article, I provide five strategies to try to maximize wine enjoyment at business dinners.

No. 1: Cabernet Is Not King

If you are at a steakhouse, chances are that someone in the group will want to order a Cabernet Sauvignon to pair with the steaks. The restaurant will likely also think that is a good idea, since they mark up these wines aggressively to capitalize on their popularity. For those looking for a wine from Napa Valley, try a Petite Syrah instead. For example, I recently reviewed a wine list where the Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon was $145, but the Stags’ Leap Petite Syrah was only $95. The Petite Syrah is a very nice wine that will offer a drinking experience comparable to a Napa Cab and pairs well with steaks (especially the Ribeye), but at a far more budget-friendly price.

No. 2: Say Benvenuto to Aglianico

At Italian restaurants, Italy’s Killer B’s (Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello) frequently suffer from the same pricing plight that plagues Napa Cabs at steakhouses. For that reason, I go straight to Aglianico (pronounced ahl-YAH-nee-kow), which is a full-bodied red wine with firm tannins but high acidity. If the Italian section of the wine list is divided by region, look for Taurasi and then try to find an Aglianico with some age on it—preferably at least 7-8 years or more. If possible, it also helps to order this wine at the beginning of the meal and ask to have it decanted immediately while you work on your starter cocktail or white wine, as Aglianico is far more enjoyable after 45 minutes of air.

No. 3: Decline the Wine Pairings

If the restaurant offers to pair each course with wine for a fixed fee (e.g., $80-$120+ per person), that is almost always a bad idea. These pairings are a huge profit center for the restaurants, which is why they push them so aggressively. Even with four or five pairings, the pours are very modest such that you end up getting about one or two glasses of wine per person for the entire meal. Even if that is an acceptable quantity for the dinner, for the price per person and the quality of the wine, it is most definitely not good value. Instead, try allocating the money that would be spent on the wine pairings and use it to buy bottles. This will result in much better quality and quantity. For example, if you have a party of four and the pairings cost $100 per person, you could likely take that same $400 and use it to buy a half bottle of Champagne to start, a very nice white wine for the appetizers, and a quality red wine to pair with the entrees.

No. 4: Cheaper Does Not Equal Better

Up to now, my advice has mostly concerned the risks of overspending. But underspending is an equally important concern – especially if you are trying to impress a client. For that reason, it is important to keep in mind that while there are some notable exceptions, at many U.S. restaurants, it is difficult to find good wines by the glass. Worse yet, your glass of wine will cost the same amount that the restaurant paid but for the entire bottle (from which they will pour five glasses!). For that reason, it is better to try to find common ground among your party and order bottles for the table. By the same token, when purchasing bottles of wine, restaurants often reserve the biggest markups for the least expensive wines. So that $50 bottle of wine you ordered could likely be purchased for around $10-$12 retail.

No. 5: Riesling Rocks!

This one was saved for last because many of you would have stopped reading had I started the piece by recommending Riesling. But trust me – it would be very difficult to find better value than what you can find with high-quality Rieslings from good producers in Alsace (France), Austria, and Germany. By this point, I know that at least half of you are having flashbacks to a glass of Blue Nun you tried 20 years ago and thinking to yourself, “But I don’t like sweet wine.” For you, my response is that not all Rieslings are sweet. I repeat: Not all Rieslings are sweet. In fact, in the highly regarded Wachau region of Austria, they only make dry Riesling. Similarly, in Germany and Alsace there are numerous excellent dry Rieslings that do not have any residual sugar. Better still, Riesling is incredibly food-friendly and pairs very well with a wide variety of courses. If you are not sure which Riesling to order, just let your sommelier or server know that you would like a dry Riesling. They will be more than happy to accommodate you since many sommeliers are huge Riesling fans.

Hopefully these tips will help you get the most value for your marketing budget and result in more enjoyable business dinners. I would love to hear from you. Let me know how these tips affected your next business dinner. In the meantime, you can follow me on Instagram (@AttorneySomm) on LinkedIn (John M. Jackson).

Meet John

John M. Jackson counsels clients concerning intellectual property litigation, data privacy, and cybersecurity. In addition, John runs a wine blog on Instagram under the handle @AttorneySomm, which is a combination of John’s dual passions. John’s sommelier training consists of a WSET Level 3 Award in Wines from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, as well as personally visiting hundreds of winemakers in more than 35 wine growing regions worldwide.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.