Wine is hardly top-of-mind for the new crop of college graduates now entering the workforce, some for the first time. As reward for their hard study, many grads are hired for their academic achievements or scholarly promise. However, once hired, these former students learn about the other kinds of tests presented by the workplace, from tests of behavior and communication abilities to tests of professionalism and social skills. Wine may not seem very important to graduates eager to begin climbing the corporate ropes.
Yet, for those entering certain career paths, nailing a few wine basics can prove beneficial. While rookie teachers, research scientists or young health professionals might not give much thought to wine beyond their own personal enjoyment, young professionals embarking on careers in finance, sales, marketing, advertising and those in a variety of corporate or urban settings should make it their business to pay some attention to wine.
The reason wine awareness might offer such graduates a bit of an edge is that, like golf and sports chatter, wine can be a bonding experience between young hires and their new company peers. This is especially important in fields in which corporate client dinners carry significant weight. Moreover, wine savvy is absolutely essential for graduates whose careers involve international companies or anytime grads are expected to interact with many foreign clients or colleagues, particularly Europeans, many of whom are already rather familiar with wine.
Even though newly minted college graduates may feel more at ease ordering rounds of beer or shots of their favorite fire water, alums who seek to climb the corporate ladder can reap rewards from building a modicum of wine savvy by applying a few basic tips.
Here are a few ideas for recent college graduates to consider the next time they are invited to a corporate dining event.
Hold your wine glass like a wine glass. Hold your wine glass by the stem and not with your hand wrapped around the bowl. Hold the stem using your index finger and thumb, fanning out your last three fingers for greater support. If the stem grasp feels uncomfortable or effete, try supporting the base of the glass with your other hand.
Learn to swirl. No need to overdo here. Practice at home with about two or three ounces of wine in the glass by holding the glass on an even, low-friction surface and by making small circles while holding the glass at the base of the stem. Don’t belabor the swirling – just give the wine a trip or two around the bowl to release its aromatics. Avoid that half-hearted air swirl that not only looks silly but that also does little to help you appreciate the wine’s aromas.
Take a quick sniff. Begin to teach yourself to appreciate the aromas of wine, even if it just smells ‘like wine’ at first. If you’re that kind of novice, merely take a quick sniff and make a mental note of what you smell. Ask yourself the test question: Does the wine smell a) fruity, b) earthy, c) floral, d) spicy or e) all of the above? Don’t fret if you don’t seem to be making progress picking up on aromas – with time and experience, you should. If all that you detect at this time is the alcohol, make a mental note of that too.
Take small sips. Be slow and conservative with your sipping. Chances are pretty good that one or more of your older colleagues is keeping a subtle eye on you. Wine isn’t meant for gulping or to quench your thirst like sodas or beer. Quench your thirst first with water or a neutral beverage. Then, be quietly thoughtful with each sip of wine. Try to get a sense for the wine in terms of its flavors, how it feels in the mouth and how long it lingers after you swallow. Notice too how the flavors of the wine might change after you take a bite of food or after tasting different foods. Coffee or a very sweet dessert at the end of a meal will overtake your palate so avoid having any more of your dinner wine after coffee or sweets.
Know your limits and stay within them. Although this might seem like the most obvious tip of all, it’s also the most important. No matter how soused your junior colleagues or even your bosses might seem, stay inside the lines, especially in the earlier stages of your advancement. No one wants a guy or gal on his or her team who becomes a management problem or loose-lipped at social or corporate events. Nurse your glass to stay within your limits.
Start learning some wine basics. If it appears that client dinners and similar events will be a regular feature of your burgeoning career, start learning a few wine basics that you can always fall back on or use as stepping stones towards greater wine knowledge. For starters, become familiar with Champagne or another type of sparkling wine, Chardonnay, Cabernet sauvignon and perhaps a Port or another dessert wine. If you find that Chardonnay and Cabernet are most often the wines of choice at most of your events, go deeper into these wines. Learn about some basic styles, for example oaked vs. unoaked Chardonnay or Napa Cabernet vs. Bordeaux, or get to know producers whose wines are most consistently appealing to you or your colleagues. Pay attention to what more experienced colleagues are ordering and start learning a little bit at a time.
Observe the sommelier or wine steward. At restaurants with good wine service, watch how the wine staff pour the wine. Correctly done, only a small amount should be served into each glass, allowing plenty of room for swirling and also thereby conserving enough wine to go around the table. See how the somm or wine steward gives the bottle a slight twist as the pour is ended to avoid spills or dribbling wine down the bottle. Notice also that the wine bottle is held just above the glass and how wine is poured very differently from beer. Practice at home until it feels natural to you.
Begin to develop open-minded wine opinions. If your colleagues are wine lovers, they will inevitably begin to ask you about your favorite wine or wines. Even if your preferences are still up in the air, simply state that you are new to wine but that in general you prefer reds or whites or bubbles or another type of wine. If appropriate, say that you’ve begun to enjoy the wines of France, California or another region you’ve visited or a region whose wines are somewhat familiar to you. If you find that learning about wine is fun, express it. Rather than admitting to negative or narrow feelings about certain types of wine, try to convey openness about the huge range of wine possibilities, even within a certain region or style.
Defer to ‘the wine guy’. At some point in your corporate career, you are certain to meet a ‘wine guy’ or gal. Whether he or she actually knows much about wine at all is moot – all you need to know initially is that your colleagues consider that person ‘the wine guy’ (it usually is a guy), which in some circles can be as enviable an achievement as being a scratch golfer. Sometimes ‘the wine guy’ is the one who is presented with the wine list at client dinners, though that’s not a given. Your best bet is to be deferential and curious. Ask such individuals how they first got into wine or about their wine travels. Once you begin to understand whether ‘the wine guy’ mostly enjoys collecting or talking about his or her prestige bottles or whether he or she truly has a deep passion for wine, you’ll develop better questions to ask.
Remember that wine enjoyment rests largely on opinion. Be careful about judging another person’s wine preferences or opinion. Know that no matter how convinced you may be that you don’t like Sancerre or Sangiovese, there is a bottle or a pairing somewhere that will up-end your beliefs. Be open to new wine discoveries.
Colleagues who enjoy wine will be more likely to include you or to introduce you to new wines if you show genuine curiosity, flexibility and perhaps an interest in wine as a learning adventure. Wine lovers enjoy the company of other wine lovers. If you’re fortunate enough to have a few wine enthusiasts on your team, understanding more about the world of wine might open up new opportunities for social or professional interactions and greater collegiality in your working world. Embrace the journey.