How to Keep It Professional When the Wine Starts Flowing
Guides to workplace etiquette rarely include advice on how to handle ordering and drinking wine in a professional setting. Here, our wine columnist fills in the blanks with some practical guidelines
By Lettie Teague
Aug. 29, 2019
I’VE READ LOTS of rules regarding proper workplace etiquette but have found surprisingly little guidance relating directly to drinking wine in a business setting (apart from “Don’t drink too much”). While wine at a working lunch or corporate event might be a minefield for the inexperienced or the overindulgent, it can also be a great social tool and even a potential bridge between colleagues. With that in mind, I adapted some common rules of business etiquette to include corresponding wine advice and asked a few businesswomen and men to share their thoughts on workplace wine etiquette.
Good business etiquette is the art of building good relationships, whether with a colleague, boss or client. Wine can help foster a connection-especially, it seems, when the wine is Cabernet Sauvignon. Gino Perrina, chief investment officer of Laird Norton Wealth Management in Seattle, Wash., recalled a business associate who introduced him to Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon while celebrating a deal. Mr. Perrina loved the wine, and now every time he drinks it he remembers both the associate and deal. Bill Furtkevic, vice president of marketing for Party City, forged a bond with his then-boss, former executive chairman Gerald Rittenberg, thanks toCakebread Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. Mr. Furtkevic now collects the wine as well.
Showing up on time for a meeting or interview is obviously smart; less obvious, perhaps, is the need for speed when ordering a glass or a bottle of wine at a business meeting or meal. Yet there are few things more irksome to fellow diners or colleagues than someone who dawdles over a decision between Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, or worse, asks the waiter to pour a taste of each one.
Decisiveness when choosing a bottle for a group of business contacts will likely endear you to them. They probably just want wine in their glasses so they can concentrate on the real business at hand.
Before an important dinner, I always look at the wine list online or call or email the sommelier to discuss a few choices. Jay Hack, senior partner at the New York law firm Gallet Dreyer & Berkey told me that he does this too, though he added a cautionary note: “You rarely know if the sommelier is good unless you have been to the restaurant before.” Because Mr. Hack is a serious oenophile and wine collector, he is often asked to recommend wines for the business dinners of other colleagues or clients. “If I can’t look at the wine list beforehand,” he said, “I will give them a list of wines that are usually fairly priced-Côtes du Rhône, Gigondas, white wines from Greece, anything from Ridge Vineyards or an off-brand Barolo that has at least 10 years of age.”
Revealing too much about your personal life can be considered unprofessional if not downright unseemly in a business context. When it comes to wine, this generally means bragging-how many bottles you have in your cellar, how much you paid for a particular wine. I’ve been on the receiving end of this sort of boasting, which seems especially common among lawyers I’ve met. My friend Richard Feldman, a New Jersey-based litigator who is, thankfully, not given to this sort of bragging himself, speculated about why others might do it. “Lawyers are schooled to rate everything,” he said. “It’s in their professional DNA.” Richard actually does like to boast in one respect: about how little he spent on a wine. (He’s particularly partial to cheap Barolo.)
‘Don’t be a complainer.’
Nobody likes a workplace whiner, and that certainly applies to oenophiles at working meals. Maybe the wine list is lousy, or his or her chosen wine turns out to be the wrong vintage or out of stock. I’ve dined with wine whiners, and their chronic dissatisfaction can envelop the table like a cloud. It might be because the waitress brought flutes and not Burgundy glasses along with the Champagne, or because the red wine was too warm or the white too cold. (Full disclosure: I once had a hard time getting over the fact that my table’s bottle was placed in a bucket on the other side of the room, not next to the table.)
Sharon Love, CEO of TPN, a New York advertising and marketing agency, dines out a great deal on the clock and has more than a few stories, good and bad, involving clients or colleagues and wine. She recalled a dinner that included an important client and representatives of an ad agency whose “very senior” partner ordered all the wines and then proceeded to reject each one he’d ordered with a “dramatic sour face.” The client finally suggested everyone order cocktails instead.
‘Show interest in others.’
Successful business people let clients or colleagues know that they matter. In a wine context, that translates to small, thoughtful gestures such as filling someone else’s glass before your own. I’ve dined with quite a few selfish pourers over the years who help themselves to the bottle before serving or even offering the wine to anyone else. It’s not hard to imagine how such me-first drinkers treat colleagues in other work situations.
‘Wine at a working lunch or corporate event can be a minefield.’
A close second in terms of rudeness are the men who hijack the wine list at a business dinner-and it’s almost always a man. Ann Piccirillo, a New York human resources executive, has rarely attended a business dinner where a man didn’t take over the list. A former boss even insisted that the wine be an Italian red because that was what he wanted-never mind that not everyone else did. A far better role model was another former boss (a woman). “She asked everyone what they wanted and always ordered both a white and a red,” Ms. Piccirillo recalled.
This rule is especially important when it comes to wine. Ms. Love even teaches a class for agency personnel called “Everything Matters” that touches on this subject. She discusses appropriate alcohol consumption at work-sponsored events and notes that while drinking has long been part of the culture of the advertising and marketing fields, it is no longer acceptable to drink to excess. We’re a long way from the “Mad Men” era.
Ryan Sutton, Boston-based district president for Robert Half Technology and the Creative Group, the executive search firms, would counsel job seekers to abstain from drinking altogether in an interview, even if it takes place in a restaurant. While wine might seem like good “conversational fodder,” Mr. Sutton advised that the focus should remain on “the position, roles and responsibilities, culture and fit.”