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Teaching wine to your staff

How operators are doint it - and increasing sales and morale along the way.

You might have an enviable wine list, a great by-the-glass program and maybe even a wine professional dedicated to overseeing beverage service. But if your waitstaff doesn’t know wine—and how to sell it—you might as well keep the wine cellar shut.

Morton’s The Steakhouse, with 80 locations worldwide, has developed in-house materials on wine and wine service—covering guest services, terminology, Morton’s culture and wine list—as part of a two-month training for new staff. In 2007 they bumped that up with an initiative for managers to enroll in the Introductory Sommelier Course given by the Court of Master Sommeliers, a leading international educational and certification organization. So far, 65 managers out of 85 have passed this first (of four) level course which covers wine-production methods broken down geographically, tasting skills and fundamentals of food and wine pairing. Several are working toward passing the Certified Sommelier Exam, the next level, with the company footing the tuition bill of between $295 and $495.

“We believe in investing in our employees, for one thing,” says Tylor Field, Morton’s Vice President of Wine and Spirits. “And when up to 29 percent of your sales are wine, you have to be the expert. Of course, a diner expects to order a bottle of a big red with a steak. But now we have floor staff who can suggest enjoying, maybe, an Albariño from Spain with a seafood salad starter, then a glass of Inneskillen to go with dessert.” Although Field can’t specifically quantify the increase, he says wine sales have shown an “uptick.” And, he adds, it’s helping with staff motivation and retention: “We have a proud group of employees who feel good because now they know what they are talking about.”

At 2941 Restaurant in Falls Church, Virginia, general manager John Leinhardt had the same idea. “The waiter interacts with the guests. And we want the waiter to feel comfortable answering questions about our tasting menu which has a lot of wine pairings.” In addition to staff tastings a few times each week, he had staff sommelier Stefano Cappeli develop an on-line training manual. It covers nine wine regions. A staffer can log in and move along at his or her individual pace. “Then we give the staff weekly written tests: multiple choice, facts and pairing questions that a guest might ask, maybe to suggest some of the best whites from Bordeaux. If you don’t pass, you take the test again until you do. Then you are allowed to go out on the floor.”

Restaurant management keeps tabs and, after six months, the waiter with the highest cumulative score is given a pin. “It’s kind of like putting on the green Master’s golf jacket,” Leinhardt laughs. “And our customers do want to know who is the new pin-holder.” The restaurant also picks up the tab for the highest scorer to take the Court of Master Sommeliers introductory course.

Besides intangible positives, Leinhardt mentions that with formalized staff wine training at 2941 there has been a definite increase in sales from the Champagne cart and tasting menu dishes paired with wine. And several applicants have mentioned the attractiveness of wine training in their job interviews.

The hospitality group B.R. Guest, with properties in New York, Chicago, Las Vegas and elsewhere, had the foresight to start an internal “Wine College” about 15 years ago to increase sales and the comfort level of staff. Roughly $300 per month per restaurant is spent for daily wine tasting, and another $500 per month for Wine College wines. “At first, it was an eight-week course,” says Laura Maniec, director of wine and spirits. “But there were too many dropouts. Now the 101 course, mandatory for all servers and bartender, lasts one intensive day. Those who are interested can go on to Advanced Wine College, which covers a different topic—comparing rosés or Champagne or pairings—each month. It is expensive to take [outside] wine classes so many [new hires] will stay [to take these classes].” It's no pressure and low key—there are no tests, no competition. “Still, we can track individual staffers’ wine sales increasing as their knowledge does.”

Expert tips for staff wine training

  1. It should be a low-pressure, confidence-building experience for the staff.
  2. Build in elements of fun (e.g., with staff competitions).
  3. Start with general knowledge—e.g., style differences between Chardonnays from California and Chablis—then move on to your specific wine list, covering things like producer, winemaker and techniques, terroir, pairing suggestions and more.
  4. Use handouts, maps, tastings, etc. to back up and illustrate.
  5. Encourage development of lasting knowledge, not tidbits; remember that uninformed opinions can be dangerous.
  6. Food and wine pairing is an art that benefits from tasting experience and palate training.
  7. The Court of Master Sommeliers (www.mastersommeliers.org) has geared its courses toward restaurants and hotels, and includes service of beer, spirits and cigars.

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