Generally speaking, there are many basic “essentials” that executives need to refine in order to operate in a professional context. An executive must understand how to dress formally (or at least appropriate to one’s profession), how to shake hands properly, how to dine with proper etiquette, and how to interact comfortably in certain social contexts. This understanding is not acquired as an investment in fashion, food, or socializing. These are the elements of professional etiquette that an executive typically needs to master in order to move forward, and upward, in corporate life. This need for refinement and professional etiquette is particularly acute for client-facing and sales functions, but it is fundamental to a wide variety of professional roles. A certain level of wine fluency is a skill set that should be added to this list of essentials when it comes to executive refinement.
I would argue that this information, a fundamental understanding of wine, constitutes a class that business (as opposed to culinary) school should teach. It represents information that could very reasonably have been offered as executive education through your company, though I am sure it is not in the curriculum.
Throughout your professional career you will invariably come into contact with wine. This is true even if you don’t care for wine. This is true even if you do not drink at all. You will attend client dinners, corporate functions, cocktail parties, and other events where wine is present. With a degree of wine knowledge you gain opportunities to connect, build rapport, and share common understanding. You become confident in ordering wine and pairing wine with food, and you can comfortably “join the conversation” on this subject. Without this knowledge you open yourself up to etiquette mistakes and you lose opportunities to connect. For many individuals (and countries) wine is intertwined with culture and understanding this connection can draw you immediately into conversations close to the heart. I’ve experienced this many times and it can be a powerful tool for connecting and building rapport.
Let me tell you a story to bring this into focus.
A very important client is coming to town tonight and you intend to take him to dinner. You spent the day going through your preparations and you invest time in ensuring that the odds of a successful evening are stacked in your favor. Your suit is elegant, your shoes are shined and your cufflinks are selected. You understand this basic etiquette very well.
You are waiting outside the restaurant and your client pulls up and gets out of his car. He walks up to greet you and you give a firm handshake and exchange small talk casually as you enter the restaurant. You understand the etiquette of such social exchanges.
You sit down at the table and your client tells you that he is in the mood for Bordeaux. Do you know what that means?
The waiter hands you the wine list because you are the host, but you notice that they do not serve Bordeaux wines. Do you know how to substitute?
Your client then indicates that he has changed his mind because he has decided to have the fish. Why is having the fish relevant to his changing his mind about drinking Bordeaux?
Your client then indicates that he grew up in New Zealand and would love for you to pick a wine from New Zealand. As you look over the wine list, are you familiar with the iconic bottles of this region?
In this situation a natural reaction is to simply indicate that you are not knowledgeable about wine and you may ask the server (or sommelier) to select something suitable. But could this have gone differently had you known a bit of essential information? Yes.
These are lost opportunities to demonstrate that you speak a common language. These are lost opportunities to build rapport through common understanding of an aspect of culture close to your client’s heart. These are unfortunately also opportunities for you to expose certain etiquette gaps. And the evening has just begun.
I do not suggest that executives need to become sommeliers or Certified Specialists of Wine. I do assert that executives need to understand the essentials of wine.
What are the essentials?
For an executive, the “essentials” of wine entail an understanding of:
• The grapes used in certain key wine regions
• The aromas and flavors typical of these regions and grapes
• A comfort level in pairing wine with food
• Recognition of certain iconic wines which many of your clients and colleagues will recognize
Understanding and being able to converse in this language will serve you well throughout your professional life. Don’t be intimidated, and don’t make the mistake of assuming that this does not apply to you. For most professionals it is important. I can also assure you that gaining this fluency is enjoyable and rewarding along the way!