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Training Matters: 8 Effective Strategies For Efficient, Effective Staff Education

Posted on  | October 30, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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Bar manager Chantal Tseng and proprietor Derek Brown analyze a Sherry pour at Mockingbird Hill in Washington, DC. New employees must train for a full week and pass an exam before starting work behind the bar.

Standing before a wall of tequilas, I tried to make sense of the riot. I know a lot about wine, but very little about tequila, except that it was a favorite of a friend of mine, and I was on my way to his birthday party.

A store clerk approached me and offered to help. Gratefully, I explained my predicament. Could she suggest a bottle? “This one’s popular,” she said, pointing to one with an amber hue.
“Really? What makes it popular?”
“A lot of people buy it,” she said, without apparent irony. “Plus, it has a worm.”
“And that’s good?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” she said, then added conspiratorially, “Most of the alcohol is in the worm.”

I left empty-handed, thinking: staff training matters. It matters for your brand and for your bottom line. If you stock 30 agave-based liquors—or even half a dozen—your floor staff should know the difference between tequila and mezcal, some basics on why they cost what they do, and maybe a thing or two about alcohol chemistry.

But training is expensive, time-consuming, resource-intensive. Employees turn over, wine lists turn over. Training never ends. What works best? How can you maximize the effectiveness, the efficiency, of your training program? And is it really worth the effort?

To find answers, we spoke with restaurateurs, retailers, bar owners, importers and distributors who run successful training programs for teams as small as eight and as large as 8,000. Tactics differ, but all agree that training indisputably sells more wine.

“You can’t teach passion,” says Timothy Nishimoto of Coppia, a 50-seat restaurant and wine bar in Portland, OR. “I always ask them, ‘Do you love wine? Do you have a passion for wine’” That zeal for wine translates into a desire for learning.

“It’s all about passion,” agrees Giuseppe Capuano, operations manager at Vias Imports, a New York-based importer devoted to Italian wine. “When a restaurant or liquor store hears someone with a passion, who loves what they’re doing, they get the message.”

Wine is an experiential product: to know it, you must taste it. Staff tastings build palate knowledge along with an understanding of the inventory. Tasting with food is especially important for restaurants focused on pairing.

“It’s just constant tasting,” continues Nishimoto, who tastes with his staff before service. “I’ll look at our glass list and say, ‘Which one wine should go perfectly with this dish? What is it about the wine that makes you think it’ll sing?’ They’re not being told what to say—it comes from them.”

Damien Casten of Candid Wines, a boutique natural and organic wine importer in Chicago, likewise believes in the power of tasting, so much so that he recently pulled a cache of aged Muscadet from his personal library for a staff tasting at Pastoral, a local wine and cheese retailer. Pastoral packed the room.

“It turned into an all-staff, all-store tasting, every dishwasher, every cheese cutter— everybody. I was laughing, because I only have a certain amount of aged Muscadet to offer!” he says. “But the questions blew me away, and some of the best comments were from the guy who was a delivery driver.”

This didn’t surprise Mark Hayes, beverage buyer and educator at Pastoral who coordinated the tasting. “You can walk up to anyone in our company, and through training, they’ll have something they can talk about. Like, ‘I love Falanghina and water buffalo mozzarella!’ And then the guy goes off to fix the refrigerator.”

Tasting builds the visceral understanding of the wine, but it’s equally important to develop a vocabulary to describe those flavors and style to customers.

At wine retailer 21st Amendment in Indianapolis, staff are encouraged to speak up during weekly training seminars. All opinions are welcome, but there’s a ban on simplistic words like “big” or “smooth.” Staff are instead encouraged to use more nuanced wine terms, like “full-bodied,” or “fine tannins.”

As staff gain command of the language, even the most shy begin to feel more confident. That makes them better salesmen, says Jim James, the company’s president. If you can teach staff to speak intelligently about wine, the sale will take care of itself.

It’s one thing to be able to describe the difference between Barolo and Barbera d’Asti. It’s another to be able to tell the customer about tasting the ’08 Bartolo Mascarello with his daughter, Maria Teresa, after wandering through the Cannubi vineyard.

Brands come to life through storytelling. Visits from producers—and better yet, visits to producers’ properties—give a product personality customers can connect with. The Craft movement is emblematic of this: customers appreciate that the liquid in their glass was made by a living, breathing, person—a person with a story.

“The key is to travel to Italy, to touch, to feel the story, to listen to the story from the winemaker,” says Capuano of Vias, because after all, “we’re selling emotion.”

Casten of Candid Wines has likewise spent countless hours visiting producers, capturing their work on video. “The single most important thing is to spend time with the producers, to understand why they’re making the choices they’re making,” says Casten. Video is one way he can share that story with those who lack the luxury of travel.

Trade tastings and distributor or importer market work—often with winemakers in tow—provide more tasting opportunities. Larger operations layer-on formal training opportunities designed to build account business through added-value services rather than just sell-sell-sell.

Wirtz Beverage Group has built a 2,000-square-foot bar training facility in Las Vegas: the Alchemy Room. “The idea came to me based on the Tuscan Kitchen at the Bellagio, a training kitchen for chefs,” says Drew Levinson, director of strategic activation for Wirtz Beverage Nevada. “I thought, why not a full-sized bar, with all the bells and whistles, focused on bar staff, for them to learn?”

Since casinos and restaurants are open around the clock, staff need an off-site venue for training. The Alchemy Room is in use eight or nine times per week, and even though training is free of charge, Wirtz’s investment paid off in 18 months. They’ve since opened a second facility—Alchemy Room 2.0—in Chicago.

Republic National Distributing Company developed an online training tool for their 8,000-member salesforce plus RNDC customers (see sidebar). Since going live in 2004, over 15,000 outside users have enrolled in their 101 and 201 level courseware. This service is also free of charge. “We used to say, ‘Pick up The Wine Bible,’” recalls Dean Fiala, director of sales training at RNDC. “Now we have this.”

If you specialize, training is even more critical. Derek Brown is a sommelier and cocktail expert who runs three bars in Washington, DC. This spring he opened a Sherry bar called Mockingbird Hill, styled after Spain’s cozy neighborhood joints. “Being the only Sherry bar in DC—and the only Sherry bar I know of—we want to make sure we’re comprehensive in our knowledge,” says Brown.

Brown developed a training curriculum on Sherry history, production and pairing. New staff train behind the bar for a full week and attend two 2-hour training sessions on the material. Afterward, they must pass a 25-question exam. Anyone who doesn’t pass must go through more training. The program’s critical for his specialty business, says Brown, because “We sell not just drinks. We sell information.”

While most proprietors compensate staff to attend on- and off-site tastings, many also pay fees for formal coursework and industry credentials like WSET Levels, Court of Master Sommeliers certifications, Cicerone, CSS and CSW. Allocating the resources sends a strong signal: training is part of your job.

But does the investment really pay off? Yes, and not just in brand credibility. “You can manage a lot of HR issues through having education in your company,” says Mark Hayes, of Pastoral. “You’re going to have a more engaged staff, and people stick around longer.”

Low turnover isn’t just about cost savings, either: Customers love a familiar face, especially if that face looks happy. Trust and loyalty are the net result. “Education is a protection to be differentiated,” Hayes says. “Even if someone else opens across the street from us, selling exact same products, we’ll keep the customers.”

Monetary rewards for advanced training are fine, but money isn’t everything. Staff thrive in a workplace where they’re encouraged to speak up, experiment, explore and learn, and where it’s okay to make mistakes. Just the mere act of sitting down to taste together—swirling, spitting, talking and swapping stories—helps build culture.

Staff carry that spirit with them onto the floor. “There’s a time and place to sell, but for my team to have a level of trust with our customers, our customers have to feel we’re not giving them a sales pitch,” says Wirtz’s Drew Levinson. “As soon as we become that salesperson, customers close off.”

Capuano agrees wholeheartedly. A staffer who really cares about the product, who can speak about it authoritatively, enthusiastically, knowledgeably, will earn the customer’s loyalty. “They have to be on a mission—not to sell, but to educate,” he says. “Because when you accomplish the mission to educate, you’re going to sell.”


WSET Online Courses: ($)
The International Wine Center in New York City offers online training for Wine and Spirit Education Trust Levels 2, 3 and 4. Students take classes in a digital classroom under the leadership of a WSET instructor, then sit for exams at IWC. Students log-in at their convenience, review the summary of weekly or biweekly topics, study, complete tasting exercises (students must purchase their own wine) and participate in online class discussion. Outside of NYC? The IWC site links to other education centers offering WSET instruction. The site also has a nice section featuring the WSET’s “3-Minute Wine School” videos (free).

Candid Wines: (free)
About 300 video clips featuring producers in the Candid Wines portfolio, mostly small family winegrowers in France, Italy, Germany, and parts of the New World.

Ask A Winemaker: (free)
About 100 short video interviews with winemakers. Topics include whole-cluster pressing, night-time harvests, and German terroir.

Wine Glossaries: (free)
Wine Spectator offers an extensive Wine Glossary at winespectator.com/glossary
Wikipedia’s is pretty good, too: wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_winemaking_terms.

Palm Bay Pronunciation Guide: (free)
Under a “Tips & Info” tab, importer Palm Bay’s site has basic 101-type information, plus recommended reading (books, magazines, blogs); what sets it apart is the pronunciation guide to Italian, French and German terms.

RNDC Academy: (free)
Online training classes in wine, spirits, beer, and mixology, with culminating exams. Visit rndc-usa.com/salesacademy/ and register to create a free account.


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