Posted on | March 26, 2014
Written by | Jim Clarke
We’ve got a reputation for education,” says Chris Tanghe, MS and wine director at Aragona in Seattle. “It constantly came up in interviews: ‘I want a place that invests in me and challenges me when I go to work.’ That’s what I try to provide.” That reputation helped Tanghe put an enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff in place when they opened in December.
Whether your business is new or established, turnover and Americans’ growing appreciation for wine makes training is a constant challenge. Even when you’re starting from scratch, like Aragona, you can’t give your staff all the information at once and expect them to retain it; Tanghe started with 45-60 minute sessions. “It’s a lot for new people to take in, and for people not seriously into wine, longer can be taxing,” he says.
“Pre-opening can be a firehose of information,” agrees DC-based MS and consultant Kathy Morgan, “about food, the concept, the people—not just wine.” She advocates “cheat sheets” that give servers and bartenders an outline of important information in a quick, easy-to-use format. “I always make a pairing grid for the menu and wines by the glass, for example,” says Morgan. “There is only so much information a staff can absorb pre-opening.”
Now that Aragona is open, Tanghe schedules classes every two weeks or so, in addition to tasting wines as part of their pre-shift line-up. There’s always an element of practice, not just tasting. “Everyone practices their spiel and how to sell it; it helps give them more confidence. Speaking about it out loud is a lot more effective,” he notes. Service practice might also include how to quickly give guests the lay of the wine list, how to decant a wine, or how to open bubbly correctly.
NOT ONLY ABOUT THE PALATE
Tasting is an important part of any wine training, but remember: “Servers always fixate on selling wines they have tasted!” says Morgan. “That’s why it makes sense to have a sommelier on staff if your list is too large for every server to taste every wine. With smaller lists, say under 100, it is definitely possible for the staff to taste everything.” Obviously not all at once, and, “it’s important to teach the staff to spit.”
The cost of tasting can add up, but Morgan notes that in most states distributors are able and even eager to provide training samples; some reps will even come in and do the training. Don’t rely on them to do all the work for you, though. “I do not believe it is a substitute, because it never reinforces the philosophy of the program or puts the wines in perspective within the list as a whole.”
At City Winery in Chicago, Beverage Director Rachel Driver Speckan does a lot of blind tasting with her staff, following the Court of Master Sommeliers format but often switching things up. She may bring in dried and fresh herbs and fruits to familiarize people with different aromas; compare four Pinot Noirs from different places; or only explore one aspect of tasting at a time—just the visuals, or just the nose, without tasting, for example.
She also likes to use maps, which help staff “learn why a wine tastes like where it’s from, and be able to say ‘this is Italian,’ and ‘this is French’” when they taste it. Pronunciation guides—you don’t want your staff turning “Pinot Gris” into “Pinot Grease” at the table—and books are also useful aids.
“I found that counting inventory is a great training tool,” says André Mack, today the proprietor of Mouton Noir Wines but formerly the head sommelier at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York. “It allows the staff to be introduced to all the wines in the cellar, and touch some of the most priceless wines on the list. It’s like ‘wax on, wax off’—learn by doing and gaining respect for the wines.”
Mack also kept his eyes open for teachable moments during service. “I always took every situation in the restaurant to train staff. If I encountered a difficult cork I would invite staff that had a minute to watch how I approached and solved it.” Faulty wines, too, would be set aside so staff could taste them later and learn to recognize TCA, volatile acidity and the like.
LEARNING THAT STICKS
Seize opportunities, but try to keep a plan. The Stock & Bones group has four restaurants on the West Coast. “We have a beverage manager at each location,” says Wine & Spirits Director Haley Guild Moore. “I have them develop a 90-day education plan, outlining areas of weakness and things we need to talk about.”
Moore also isn’t afraid to outsource training, subsidizing WSET classes for particularly interested staff so they can take a $1,400 course for just a $150 “co-pay.” About 30 of them take advantage of the opportunity each year, and since knowledge isn’t reward enough for many people, she offers big incentives: “We partner with local wineries, and we’ll do quizzes every week. The one with highest points at the end of the quarter gets a weekend away up in Napa.”
Of course, not every restaurant is a stone’s throw from wine country, but even small prizes like wine keys, meals and bottles of wine can get staff motivated if the improved tips aren’t enough. “Sales and service tie in together,” says Moore. “We’re not trying to upsell, we’re trying to give the best possible service. They need to be able to explain why a wine’s that expensive, to back up a recommendation with knowledge.” It may be a lot of work, she says, but it’s worth it if you start with servers who are nice and interested. After all, teaching people about wine is still easier than teaching them to be polite and kind.