The Entertaining & Wine Etiquette Guide

We all know something about wine. But I can recall early days of client dinners where I felt like a bit of a wine imposter. I thought I knew about wines but when it comes to the social etiquette side of wine and entertaining, I realized that I needed to learn more ..well, I’m still learning today.

Recently, I had the chance to meet with Sue Sterling (awesome name, right?), Wine consultant and educator, at the Spoke Club in Toronto to gain some insight to share with some of you who may feel the same way as I did.

What are some rules or tips for someone who’s just starting out in the corporate world and entertaining clients say, at dinners?

Be true to you.  Genuine trumps fake all day long, in my book.  Take your clients to restaurants that you know and enjoy.  You will feel comfortable in the environment, which will help you show yourself at your best.  That said, consider your clients when choosing restaurants, i.e. is this a formal business dinner?  If so, you may not want to go for wings and beer.

Is there any etiquette when it comes to wine in restaurants?

There is, and how much of it is applied will depend on the restaurant.  If you are hosting the dinner, you can opt to let your guests choose a wine they like, although you have to be prepared to pay the money if they choose an expensive bottle.  In my opinion, if you are the host, you are in charge.  You should make the decision regarding the wine.  Many wine lists are posted to restaurant websites now, so you can study them in advance to get a sense of what is on offer, and the price range.

When at the restaurant, if there is a sommelier, take advantage of this resource.  Tell him or her what you are ordering, point out a wine in your preferred price range, and then ask if the sommelier has recommendations.

If the wine has a cork closure, you may be offered the cork when the bottle if opened.  There is no need to smell it, as it tells you nothing about the wine.  Simply accept it if offered, and put it on the table.  When wine if poured into your glass, you only need to smell it to determine if it’s sound.  There is no need to taste it to decide this, although some servers will wait for you to do it.  If you smell vinegar or wet paper bags, the wine is flawed, and should be sent back.

Sue SterlngCan you briefly explain out popular wine grapes?

There are many popular grapes, so a brief explanation of all of them is difficult.  I’ll cover three of each colour.

In order of acidity, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio are popular white grapes.  Sauvignon Blanc is dry, and can taste like citrus fruit.  It is excellent with seafood.  Chardonnay generally smells of apples, and is fuller bodied.  It is a good choice when there are many different types of food on the table.  Pinot Grigio tends to be lighter in body, and has less obvious acidity.  The main flavour is usually peach.  This wine is good for sipping on, or enjoying with lighter food, such as salads.

In order of weight, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz/Syrah show up on many wine lists.  Pinot Noir is a light-bodied red wine that often tastes like cherries.  A trendy food match for this wine is grilled salmon.  Cabernet Sauvignon shows up as a varietal bottling, as well as part of many blends, including Bordeaux-style wines.  The main flavour is usually black currant.  Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be high in tannin, so it’s a good match for red meat.  The tannin is softened by the protein in the blood of the meat.  Shiraz and Syrah are two names for the same grape.  The name usually indicates a style.  Shiraz wines tend to be jammy and plush, while Syrah wines tend to be more elegant and restrained.  Common flavours are black plum and smoked meat.

What are some “safe” wine regions that you would recommend choosing from?

Since we live in Ontario, it makes sense to order wines from this region.  Look for the VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) symbol on the label, as it indicates 100% Ontario content.  Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Bordeaux-style blends (Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) from Ontario are magnificent.  It’s difficult to pinpoint an entire region as “safe”, since so much depends on the producer.  A good guideline is to consider the type of cuisine, i.e. Italian, and look for something from that country.  If a restaurant specializes, they likely have wines to match their food.

Does price point matter?

Only in the context of your budget.  There are plenty of wonderful wines priced around $15.

What happens if you try a wine in a restaurant and it turns out you don’t like it?

If you find it really distasteful, you can ask for a different bottle, although you will likely have to pay for the original one, since personal preference isn’t the responsibility of the restaurant.

About corkage fees…it’s clearly not to save money but for serious wine connoseuers. Can you explain out?

There are restaurants that offer  $0 or low corkage fees on slow nights to drive business, and you can save money in these places.  Crush Wine Bar has long had $1 corkage per bottle on Mondays, and they have a very good kitchen, so this is a good deal.  Even if you’re not a dedicated wine connoisseur, you may not mind paying $30 or so to have a special bottle opened at your favourite spot on a Friday.  The one thing to remember is that you should not bring a wine that’s available at retail.  The corkage fee will cost you as much as the restaurant’s mark-up on the same bottle from their list.

Sue SterlingYou host wine tasting/learning parties, what would one expect at your party? 

My wine “edutainment” sessions are fun, easy-going, and full of useful information.  I make wine accessible to even the most novice drinker, and I love sharing my passion with everyone.  The environment is relaxed, so that people feel comfortable asking any question.  The fact that I hold the Diploma certificate from WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) means that I can share insights with even the most sophisticated wine lover.

If you’re interested in finding out more information about Sue Sterling or hosting a fun night of wine tasting with Susan, visit her website at Sessions are ideally for 8 to 10 people.

Sonya is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of She is also a well-established contributing lifestyle writer to other sites and magazines sharing her passion for arts & culture, fashion, beauty, travel and food. Sonya is based in Toronto, Canada. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @theculturepearl

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