Vino 101 Pop the Cork on Wine Training
By Jorge Castillo

Have you ever dined in a restaurant and asked the server for a wine recommendation to compliment your meal, only to receive a blank stare or an answer something like "this Merlot is pretty good"? As a restaurant operator, if you asked your servers to explain the differences between Syrah and Petite Syrah, would they be able to tell you? It has always been a continuous struggle for most restaurant operators to keep everybody on their service staff capable of recommending, describing, selling, and serving everything on the wine list that management used many hours and resources to create.

Common roadblocks
As mentioned, most restaurant operators face a challenge when it comes to implementing an effective wine training program in order to get their servers educated and their wine sales on the rise. There are several reasons this can be difficult for an operator (corporate and independent alike), including:

  • Limited wine knowledge of management
  • Lack of structure in overall training program
  • Cost of wines used at employee tastings
  • Employee (or lack thereof) cooperation

While these are all reasons restaurant managers will generally give up on creating an implementing an effective and comprehensive training program, they are easily alleviated if the trainer knows what he or she is doing.

Getting started
The key to building an effective training program and getting it in place is organization. It's logical that in order for someone to create something that is organized, that they themselves must be organized while creating it. Take a look at your establishment's employee training manual and use it as a guide; everything is clearly explained and is in some type of order that makes sense. You are going to be doing the same thing with your wine training program, although you won't be writing an entire manual. Besides being organized, there are several keys to building an effective program, including:

  • Keep it light and fun- learning about wine should be about as heavy and involved as drinking it, and your employees will stay engaged if you make it enjoyable.
  • Use the resources available to you- The internet, books, magazines, wine shops, and many other tools at your disposal contain valuable information that can be included in a comprehensive program.
  • Avoid relying too heavily on your wine reps- While most wine reps will happily conduct staff tastings and maybe even classes, you must remember that they have one goal in mind- selling THEIR wines. This leads to biased information that is passed on to your employees, which often does more harm than good.
  • Keep it light and fun- Just making sure you know how important this is.

Building Blocks
Since you will be teaching your employees about wine, act like a teacher and construct your program in lessons. There's no way for them to absorb all the necessary information in a day as well as taste accompanying wines, so you will need to separate the information in a logical manner. I recommend four lessons, constructing a short packet for each lesson:

  • Lesson 1: What is wine?- This lesson should include how wine is made, characteristics of wine, and flavors of wine, among other things.
  • Lesson 2: Grape Varieties- This lesson should describe the different types of grapes used to make wine, and the characteristics of each wine made with those grapes. A useful method is to make an index card for each grape and list the characteristics
  • Lesson 3: Winemaking regions- This lesson should describe the different areas of the world in which wine is made. Separating by continent is a good way to arrange them.
  • Lesson 4: Serving and selling wine- The final lesson should explain how to properly serve a bottle of wine, and should also describe certain selling techniques that are useful.

These four lessons will give your staff a solid knowledge-base with which to add when they encounter new information. It is recommended that employees be tested after each lesson to ensure they are internalizing the information. How you schedule "classes" is entirely up to you, but I would advise to set aside at least an hour per lesson.

Something I would recommend to make things go smoothly would be to have accompanying wines for your staff to taste as certain grapes and regions are being covered. Asking your reps for samples to taste your employees on is a good way to get these tasting wines at no out-of-pocket expense. Once the staff has completed all four lessons, let them taste a higher-end wine as a reward.

Taste, Rinse, Repeat
As with any type of learning, remediation is the key to making sure the information sticks. During every staff meeting, talk about something wine-related. Taste different wines often. Again, you can turn to your reps for samples. As long as they think your staff tastings could help sell their wines they are happy to donate. When you taste your staff on a wine, ask them what they think, what flavors they taste, and which dish on your menu it would best accompany. Have the chefs prepare a complimentary dish so you can demonstrate how certain wines go with certain foods. Don't be afraid to have fun with it.

You can also have sales contests in order to get your servers to concentrate on something specific. For example, whoever can sell the most bottles of Pinot Noir in a week gets a free bottle (which you can get from your rep).

Other options
If you feel that putting together a program yourself may be too time intensive, there are options available created by industry experts. Through the use of technology, namely internet-based programs, wine educators have made available wine training programs at the fraction of the costs of books and seminars. It is now possible to train your entire staff using an on-site PC, laptop, training kiosk, or POS terminal to train your employees. With internet-based programs, you can even have employees complete training on their own time from their home.

The bottom line
Every restaurant operator that serves wine is constantly searching for new ways to increase wine sales. That's why it's so surprising that very few realize how important it is to properly train the people whose job it is to sell and serve wine. Usually when an employee (or anybody for that matter) has a better understanding of something, they tend to enjoy it more. Wine is no different, and when your employees become enthusiastic about wine because of their newfound knowledge, your bottom line will reap the benefits.

June 2006

Jorge Castillo is a representative of Vino 101, which provides on-line server wine training.
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