As the world’s youngest master sommelier when she earned her certification and the owner of two successful Chicago restaurants—The Boarding House and Seven Lions— Alpana Singh, who also served as host of the popular TV show Check, Please! for a decade, knows a thing or two about entertaining.
Seven Lions, her newest spot, sits on Michigan Avenue adjacent to Chicago’s business district, so Singh sees plenty of business meals in progress. She offers up tips on how to order . Take notes.
Pick wines by surveying your guests.
“I like to tell people to do a quick survey and go around the table to ask what people normally drink. Then you work your way through spectrum. For whites, you have Sauvignon Blanc on one end and Chardonnay on the other. If more people say they drink more Pinot Grigio than Sauvignon Blanc, you want to go light side. If they say Chardonnay, go heavier. The good host takes their taste out of it and tries to find something to appeal to the guest. You become the somm of the group and pick based on what the people are asking for. Sometimes people just say, ‘Well, let’s drink what you drink.’”
When in doubt, stick with Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
“A Sauvignon Blanc is light and crisp, has no oak and is budget friendly. It’s really hard to screw up. It’s pretty innocuous, neutral and has crisp, grassy notes to it. If someone likes wine on the Pinot Grigio side, they’ll be happy. If they want something fruity, they’ll still like it. Pinot Noir is lighter in tannins and tends to go better with everything. If you’re having pasta with cream sauce or fish or steak, it’s a nice catch all red.”
But if Pinot Noir doesn’t fit the budget, Côtes du Rhône is a great budget red.
“The best bottle for your budget on any wine list is from Côtes du Rhône. You get a lot of older vine material, but you also get that robustness, black pepper, smoke, plums and you get a lot of value for your money. If I gave you $20 to go to the wine store, you could get a killer bottle of Rhône. A wine list isn’t that different. I find Cabernet, unless you’re ready to spend money, is a difficult proposition. The challenge when entertaining clients is you have to be prepared to buy two to three bottles. If that’s the budget, that’s great, but if you have to justify the expense account the next day? Not so much.”
Dream vacation spots make great wines.
“Choose wine by thinking about anywhere you would like to take a vacation like Greece, southern Spain or southern Italy. I assume most people want to go there on vacation. If you’re going to a hot of-the-moment spot, chances are they have a good beverage director and if they put a wine from Uruguay on the list, it’s probably good. It also adds a good talking point to pick a wine that’s different. If you’re trying to seal the deal with a client, it shows you’re willing to think outside the box.”
Don’t be a know it all.
“You don’t want to make clients uncomfortable. If you’re trying to sell your services and then you intimidate someone with your knowledge? I wouldn’t want to hire someone who makes me feel stupid. Again, it’s about making people feel comfortable and not intimidated. Humility goes a long way.”