Power Play

Meeting Planning

When Eddie Osterland was studying for his diploma at the University of Bordeaux’s famed Institute of Wine, he recalls that wine tasting was always done at 11:30 a.m.—when one’s palate is sharpest—and ended at noon. He has known ever since that making an impact is best done early and quickly.

“People care about food and wine in direct proportion to their appetite,” says Osterland, who in 1973 became the first American to attain the Master Sommelier title (there are still only 140 in this country), and who now speaks and coaches on “power entertaining.” He notes that people generally come to events hungry, and if you want to make them remember yours, “you need to serve the very best thing in the first 15 minutes.”

This may mean Champagne and jamon iberico de bellota instead of garden-variety wines with boring crudites and dip. Not only does it make an impression on the palate, but it also makes your guest feel special. “It says, ‘I really care about you, look what we’ve done for you.’”

Which is all part of the experience you are creating through the event, the dinner, the reception. “Power entertaining,” according to Osterland, should be seen as part of a company or an organization’s brand-development strategy. More than ever in the global marketplace, you can’t afford to be naive about food and wine—the international currency for connection. Power entertaining helps you make an impact, forge customer relationships, grow business and rise above the competition.

Osterland, in fact, has written a book on the subject, titled—what else?—Power Entertaining, and will speak to it at the Smart Meeting Scottsdale on Sept. 7 at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess in Arizona.

Don’t think Osterland is only about the food and wine, however. A self-described “kid from New Jersey” who became an acclaimed wine expert almost by accident, he knows that crafting unique experiences also involves hospitality and ambience. Specifically, it requires gracious, social hosts who mingle and connect people, as well as a touch of the dramatic.

“We’re caught up in world that operates too fast, with Twitter, Facebook and cell phones,” Osterland says, stressing the importance of human warmth. “We do not take the time to take care of people. People like recognition and being addressed as individuals.”

Master Sommelier Eddie Osterland

Master Sommelier Eddie Osterland

Osterland himself is a master at working a room—on an individual level. “I ask the host, ‘Which tables need the love?’ then I go to those tables and talk eye-to-eye,” he says. “They leave saying, ‘I know the guy; we talked.’”

He says event planners should “think like a somm. Sommeliers choreograph events. [Particularly at restaurants], call them two weeks ahead to talk about it, and tell them how important this event is to you.” Tipping makes a difference, and should be part of the budget. “Tip ahead of time, and tell them ‘I need you to jump.’ Plant $20 in [the somm’s] hand, tip 25 percent. It’s called front-loading,” Osterland says.

Also, presentation is critical, and for Osterland, a matter of stagecraft. “It’s very important to have power tools that add panache and flourish to your events: decanters for red wine, wine openers, the right glassware,” he says. “It’s theater, drama, psychology—how often do you see [this kind of presentation]? Never! So you’re instantly looking different.”

But back to the food and wine. Osterland’s primary goal in staging memorable events is to take people on a journey and introduce them to tastes and combinations that inspire awe.

He points to an event he did with General Mills at The Langham, Chicago, some years back: “I picked Domaine Sigalas Assyrtiko from Greece, a dry white wine, and the Spanish white wine Godello. The hors d’oeuvres were no bigger than a quarter—they had crunch, texture, color, spices that dazzle. I asked people to put one bite in their mouths and follow with a sip of wine. They got a rush. It’s an ah-ha, light bulb moment. The right food and wine in the mouth together amplify each other’s assets.”

“Wine is not a beverage,” he adds. “It’s more of a condiment, the same as lemon on fish, or salt and pepper on steak. Most people eat their food and then drink their wine. But food and wine go together.” Pairings he likes include Riesling with smoked salmon and goat cheese with sauvignon blanc.

With Champagne, he serves “salty and fatty” foods such as Parmesan cheese. “The Parmesan should be at least 24 months old, because that’s when little crystal nuggets form that explode when you bite into them—it’s quite shocking. Or go with fried foods: squid, octopus, calamari.”

He also suggests pairing similar items, such as a buttery chardonnay with buttery lobster or crab. Or, he says, highlight the contrasts: “Spicy foods need wines like Riesling, which can be fruity or dry but has a lot of acidity.”

Power Entertaining book cover

Osterland has several foolproof ways to stage successful events, such as the standard opening-night reception.

“Every meeting has an opening-night networking reception. But you should take networking out of the title. Here’s why: People are tired, they’re creatures of habit, they station themselves maybe 15 feet from where the alcohol is, and they camp there for 45 minutes,” he says.

Osterland’s way: “I issue everyone a passport to encourage movement. I have five or six food and wine stations in the room, each with a chef on board, each where I’ve chosen two wines with a particular food pairing. It forces people to move from station to station, and in so doing, they meet people, they have fun.

“The passports have takeaway value, and they’re small, laminated, pretty and branded. They list the wines and vintages, and descriptions of why they go with particular foods, so people can tell others back in the office and recreate the experience at home.” He suggests that hosts stamp the passports at each station and offer prizes if they’re completed—again encouraging movement and engagement.

Osterland is proud of the fact that his power-entertaining tips apply to events and budgets big and small. Done right, his style of business entertaining results in unforgettable events and is a sure path for a company or organization to become a “center of influence,” he says.

His message is well-received, as the La Jolla, San Diego, resident is often on the road speaking, holding workshops and coaching.

Come October, though, he’s got his own event to attend to. Osterland is getting married to “an attorney and major foodie” in Bordeaux, France, at Chateau Troplong Mondot. No doubt sensational food and wine will be on the menu.

Where does Osterland see himself in the future? “Drinking a little more expensive wine, I hope,” he laughs.

To register for The Smart Meeting Scottsdale, Sept. 7–9, click here.

Eddie O:

  • Owns and rides a Harley and a turbo Porsche, and is an instrument-rated pilot.
  • Has a guilty pleasure: “Champagne from France, the most complex beverage in the world. But it has to be good—over $75 a bottle.”
  • Runs My Cellar Master, a corporate wine-gifting service that offers 24 pairs of wines as “experiential packages.” Each includes a lesson plan, instructions and a video guide, ideal food and wine recipe cards, and a message on your letterhead. mycellarmaster.com

Master Tips

Osterland delights in educating his audience. A few of his tips:

  • Pour two wines at the same time, so people taste the contrast between, for instance, “pinot noir from Oregon and California. Oregon is colder, so grapes have lots more acidity; in California, grapes get sweet, so pinot is fruitier.”  
  • Same with food. “I find two foods to compare, such as acorn-fed vs. grain-fed jamon iberico, or Nova Scotia lox and Scottish salmon.”
  • At dinner, serve wines before the food, so “[people are] into the intellectual component. For example, what is the difference between Bordeaux from the Left Bank and the Right Bank? Which tastes better with the entree?”
  • Keep hors d’oeuvres small, so no forks are needed and people can hold their wine glass.
  • Give guests a valuable memento of the event, such as a branded passport.
  • Red wine does not taste in balance unless it’s slightly chilled. The night before an event, put red wine in the walk-in fridge till one hour before serving, then open the bottles a half-hour before the event so that the wine is 55 degrees when poured, 64 degrees when drunk.
  • Easy and spectacular appetizers that go with Champagne: Parmesan cones—”put 24-month-old Parmesan in the frying pan till it melts, then shape it into little cones and fill with smoked salmon or some other salty/fatty item.” Or gougeres, baked savory puff pastries—”they’re like air, you can make them at home.”
  • Don’t waste good wine in noisy dining rooms. “Extraneous noise takes away from our ability to perceive subtlety. If you open a nice bottle ($70-$80), get a private dining room.” When he entertains on his own, “I invite people to my house first to drink good wine and eat the gougeres. Then in the restaurant, we drink simple.”
  • For those who don’t drink alcohol, “the Dry Soda company has all-natural sodas in different flavors, and Joia sodas have spices, herbs and unique fruits. They’re sexy, colorful. Let people try a side-by-side combo, so they’re playing same game [as the wine-drinkers]. It’s not about alcohol. It’s about hospitality.”
  • Entertaining a multinational crowd requires advance legwork and preparation. “Start with little touches that remind them of home. For example, the Chinese are into wine now; a lot of hotels have someone on board who knows what the Chinese want for breakfast, what kind of tea they like.”