Grape expectations: Smart business professionals use wine to break the ice, build team spirit — and close the deal. Do you know enough?

You are two weeks from the company golf outing. You’re not a great player, but you know how much the game means to the C-suite officers, so you get serious about the all-day event. You are a professional, so you focus on the details. You’ve got the right gear, the right clothes and have been hitting balls every day after work to impress your playing partners.

You don’t lose a ball, help your team finish in third place and earn an invitation from the boss to play at his club. Mission accomplished!

Fast forward six months. That impossible-to-close prospective client has finally agreed to a dinner meeting. You find the CEO’s favorite restaurant and secure the perfect table. Twenty-four hours from dinner, you start panicking over the wine list. You recovered quickly, calling the restaurant’s sommelier to see what the CEO’s favorite wine is, to save the dinner. But it’s taught you the value of knowing that wine can be an essential tool in your professional skillset.

Use what you know

I was in my late 20s, just starting a career in the executive-search business. I had neither a lengthy list of impressive clients nor a decent golf game to catch the attention of senior executives. I did, however, really know my wine. This came at a time when wine was considered more sophisticated, part of the trappings of executive success, not something as widely accepted and consumed as it is today. But, when the CEO of a client company called me to say that the Champagne toast for an IPO led to a conversation about me and wine, I knew that I had found a skill that was just as important as hitting a driver 300 yards.

Three decades after my early-career experience, the U.S. has become the largest overall consumer of wine in the world — and New Jersey is among the U.S. leaders in per-capita consumption.

There is still a perception by some that drinking — and knowing — wine is linked to education and income, but the statistics don’t match the myth. Your wine collection, or your understanding of the grape, means nothing more than that you have an affinity for it. That person sitting across from you in a business meeting or at a happy-hour event might be just as interested in making small talk about wine as discussing the intricacies of a business or kids’ soccer matches. Especially around the holidays, you’ll be more likely to be drinking wine than playing golf, so don’t ignore the opportunity to raise a glass to find common ground with your peers or clients.

The business of bonding

Through my business, The Grapes Unwrapped, I run events of all kinds and give talks on all aspects of wine. I work regularly with clients who, in a never-ending search to capture business and solidify relationships, look for new ways to engage existing or prospective customers. Wine-focused events seem to have gained a foothold over the standard reception or dinner, helping client-facing employees have a fun evening of entertaining.

In one case, an executive who runs trade shows and conferences for a prominent global financial publication has seen not just an increased interest in wine, but a request from employees and guests to incorporate wine into the events they host. He was particularly struck by the request because the employees admitted that, as a group, they were neither well-versed in nor comfortable with wine, but they loved to drink it — even if they didn’t quite see the business tie-in. That gave the executive a reason to invite me in to guide a tasting to give them a better perspective. As their employees got more educated about wines, they would connect to an app on their smartphones to get more details about the wine, from its origins to pricepoint and ratings, which triggered more conversations with peers and business associates.

In another instance, the client-relations team from major hospitality group connects regularly with top franchise owners, some of whom own as many as 200 properties. The group often entertains these owners, whom they found to be incredibly knowledgeable and invested in the wine space. A tasting and presentation helped their client-relations team get comfortable and better prepared to speak with these sophisticated, wine-focused franchise owners. I discussed how to gain better wine knowledge, how to prepare ahead for business dinners and events, how to deal with different wine personalities and, perhaps most basically, how to navigate a wine list:

Five ways to navigate a wine list

  1. Learn some wine basics. You don’t have to be a certified specialist. But knowing what is typically in Bordeaux blends, or that white Burgundy is Chardonnay and red Burgundy is pinot noir, or what pairs best with an aged steak and other little pieces of useful information help bring a wine list into better focus. Don’t try to fake it, but check out our wine-lover’s vocabulary guide or our maps of wine regions.
  2. Know your customers. You focus on meeting every one of their business needs, so make an event special by being just as meticulous about their specific tastes, dietary challenges or requests. One way to help the meal run efficiently, which will allow you keep your focus on the client, is to do your homework before you get to the restaurant …
  3. Check out the wine list itself. This might be obvious, but planning will help you avoid any mishaps. Stop by the restaurant ahead of time to check out its wine list or meet the beverage director/sommelier. Remember, they are here to help you. Tell them what you are considering. All this extra work will show its value when everyone senses the relationship that you have with the restaurant and its staff.
  4. Yes, remember your budget. The deal you are anticipating, or celebrating, will be sweeter if you don’t get sticker shock when the check comes. Discuss your wine budget with the beverage director when you are preparing for the dinner. Working within your budget will help you avoid the steep mark-up added to the wine lists at many “power” restaurants. You don’t want to be the guy in Atlantic City who, when told the bottle was “thirty-seven fifty,” didn’t realize it was $3,750. You do not want your business dinner to go viral on social media.
  5. Enjoy your experience — and your wine. It may be a business tool, but it is also enjoyable. Hemingway described it this way: “Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world … and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.” Your preparation will only enhance the experience.

Make wine work for you

Other than bringing in a wine professional, there are ways to go about increasing the wine business skill on your own and throughout your company. If you keep notes on clients, include what you know about their preferences in wine and food. Next time you order off a wine list, think through how you might handle such an interaction in a business situation.

The need and frequency for better understanding will only continue to evolve as wine continues to show up more in business, and social, settings. Just as you do not have to be a scratch golfer, you do not have to be a master sommelier. But if you can establish a level of competence and comfort around a wine list when entertaining clients, it will free you up to do what is most important — conduct business.

You can learn more about wine and food, especially in New Jersey, by logging onto