Would steakhouses exist if people in sales weren’t entertaining prospects, then sending the bill to their company?

Pharmaceutical companies entertain doctors and hospital administrators. Vendors entertain buyers. Lobbyists entertain politicians. Agents and advisors entertain prospects. Wholesalers entertain agents and advisors. If you are the one handing over your credit card, how can you keep the wine bill under control?

First, the Basics

Let’s assume the server at the steakhouse approaches the table with a wine list. Job No. 1 is to gain control of it. Why? Because people who aren’t paying tend to choose familiar names or wines they’ve always wanted to try, but deem too expensive for their personal budget.

Also, the choice of the first wine is important. If you are entertaining a group and the evening progresses, your server will ask: “Should I bring another bottle?” With a large group of thirsty people, you can go through multiple bottles. One bottle might have been expensive. Four bottles is geometrically expensive.

Next, assume there won’t be any duds on the list. Assume this wildly generalizing statement. All the cabernets will taste similar. Ditto the chardonnays.

Many people will opt for familiar names. The steakhouse expects it and prices the California Cabernets accordingly. As the host, you want to deliver a good experience without breaking the bank.

Two Approaches: The Sophisticate and the Valuist

You’ve got the wine list in your hands. You intuitively know where its design is directing you. In the following examples, one direction is the Sophisticate.

You are showing your knowledge of wine by choosing something great that costs less than the usual default selections. The second direction is the Valuist. (OK, I made that word up.) You are suggesting a wine that tastes great, at a fraction of the cost of the usual selections.

Let’s start with Cabernet. This red wine is well represented on steakhouse wine lists. They want you buying the Napa Valley California Cabernets. The clue is the three digits to the left of the decimal point in the price column. (Don’t forget tax and tip will add 25-30% to the cost.)

Sophisticate. Look for French selections. Red Bordeaux is what the Napa Cabs originally tried to copy. The famous names are expensive, but in a good vintage, a simple “Bordeaux,” even from an unknown chateau, should be fine. Mouton Cadet is a shipper wine, which shouldn’t disappoint. A red wine reading “Medoc” or “Haut Medoc” should be fine.

Valuist: Chile and Argentina do a fine job. They should taste great. They are a great deal, relatively speaking.

Next, let’s consider Merlot. It’s softer and easy drinking. The wine list will have a lot, most likely from places in California like Sonoma.

Sophisticate: Back to France. Look for wines from the St. Emilion region of Bordeaux. They are primarily Merlot-based blends. They should be reasonably priced, too.

Valuist: Back to Chile and Argentina. The folks who didn’t disappoint in the Cabernet category come through with Merlot too.

Hitting all the greats, Pinot Noir is next. You’ll see some on the wine list from California locations like Carneros, Anderson Valley and Russian River Valley.

Sophisticate: Burgundy, France, is the spiritual home of Pinot Noir. Broadly speaking, it’s the only permitted red grape variety. Anything from Burgundy should be fine.

Valuist: New Zealand is doing a fine job with Pinot Noir. They’ve been at it for years, but it’s overshadowed by Sauvignon Blanc, the white wine that made their reputation.

Malbec goes great with steak. It’s associated with Argentina for good reason. They do a fine job.

Sophisticate: If they’ve got a reasonably priced Malbec from Argentina, go for it. If you want to be fancy, look to France. Wines from the Cahors region are Malbec-based.

Valuist: Stick to Argentina. Even if it looks deceptively cheap, it should still be very good. It’s tough to get a bad bottle or Malbec from Argentina.

White Wine, Anyone?

Let’s look at white wines too, in case you are out at a high end seafood restaurant.

Chardonnay is the most popular type of wine in the U.S. The wine list should have plenty from Sonoma County in California.

Sophisticate: The white wines of Burgundy are what the folks in California set out to replicate. Chablis is 100% chardonnay and often a good deal given it’s high quality.

White Burgundies from the high-rent district will have high prices on the list. Wines from the Macon region of Burgundy should have a good price/value ratio.

Valuist: Look to Australia. They do a fine job. It should be reasonably priced on the list.

Finally, we get to Sauvignon Blanc. It’s less popular than chardonnay, but has wide name recognition. There will be California selections on the list. Even if the wine list is almost 100% American wine, there should be some New Zealand ones too.

Sophisticate: Over to France. Sancerre is the wine region that gave many people their first taste of sauvignon blanc. It was considered the official white wine of Paris at one point.

It won’t be cheap on the steakhouse wine list, but not that expensive either. If your guests can’t say “Sancerre was sacked by the Saracens” they’ve had too much to drink. Put them in taxis.

Valuist: Stick to New Zealand. They do a fine job. The prices are usually very attractive.

As the host, you are walking a fine line. You don’t want to come across as a cheapskate, but you don’t want your expense account taken away from you, either.

— Related on ThinkAdvisor: