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One of the top challenges for any wine director or sommelier is educating the wait staff on the wine program. Not only are there a lot of details to convey – especially if your wine list includes hundreds of bottles – but also you have to keep in mind that the food menu of the restaurant is also changing. That being said, the more the wait staff knows about the wines in your wine program, the more wine they can sell on the floor of the restaurant.
First and foremost, you’ll want to make wine tastings a regular part of your overall schedule. One popular way to organize these wine tastings is to pick a general theme, and then encourage wait staff members to go into detail on this theme. For example, one theme might be “Sauvignon Blanc around the world.” And then you’d provide a sampling of Sauvignon Blanc from California, France, Chile and New Zealand.
Or, instead of picking a certain wine varietal to focus on, you could just as easily focus on a wine region. Thus, your theme for the wine tasting might be “the wines of Portugal,” and you’d then cover some of the trendy up-and-coming wine regions other than Vinho Verde.
At each tasting, you’ll want to follow a certain schedule or script. A basic three-step process might include each of the following:
The whole time, of course, you’ll also have the wait staff filling out tasting sheets. That way, they can commit their thoughts, feelings, and impressions directly to paper as they are having them, rather than trying to remember exactly what they feel later.
From time to time, you can contact a distributor or supplier to see if they would be willing to lead a tasting. At the very least, the distributor can show up at the beginning of a tasting and offer some overall thoughts and ideas about the wines that will be tasted.
Wine tastings can be fun simply as standalone learning events, but they are particularly effective when they are used to illustrate food and wine pairings. As part of any tasting, staff members should be educated not only on what wine goes with what dish on the menu, but also why. In other words, staff members should have a finer appreciation for the ingredients of the food being served, and how the wine pairing is particularly suited for drawing out the optimal taste and flavor profile of the dish.
As a rule of thumb, each wine on the wine list should have several possible options for pairing. Just looking at the food menu, then, wait staff members should be able to come up with a few quick ideas of which wines would work well with each starter or appetizer.
On a related note, it’s important to keep up-to-date with new food menu items. It is quite possible that menu items could be changing on a seasonal basis, and perhaps even on a daily basis, depending on what is fresh at the moment and what is in season.
And, just as importantly, it is important to review new wine items regularly as well. This might include new wines offered on draft (if any), new wine vintages and newly limited production wines that are now available. Or, if wines are being taken out of the cellar and being added to the by the glass program, that is also important to note.
Notes on any changes to the food or wine menu can be reviewed during pre-shift meetings, and also at any weekly, biweekly or monthly meetings. The important point is the following: it is important to keep wait staff updated on what’s new, rather than assuming that they will somehow absorb this knowledge simply by working at the restaurant.
Suppliers and distributors represent a tremendous wealth of knowledge about wines, and best of all, they have a vested interest in making sure that your staff knows as much about them as they do. After all, the more your staff knows about the wines, the more likely they are to sell them later. Distributors, for example, could come in on a regular basis to talk about a certain group of wines – such as French wines or Chilean wines – for 20-30 minutes.
Don’t hesitate to ask them, because these distributors want to spend time inside your restaurant. Often, distributors might be tasked to sell a certain group of wines that they are having trouble selling in the marketplace. They will be very much incentivized to come in and talk about those wines to the very people who are responsible for selling them.
Often, sommeliers and wine directors will find that all of the tasting events that they organize are made even better when they assign “homework” to the staff. Some even assign reading, such as Kevin Zraly’s “Complete Wine Course.” Or they ask staff members to take tasting notes home, where they can study them for quizzes later. Some restaurants even do a form of “call and respond,” in which a sommelier might call out the name of a dish, and the staff members are asked to chime in with the right answer of which wine to pair with that dish.
One fun exercise that can be used to make tasting even more enjoyable is to do a form of role playing, in which you or the wine director plays the role of a customer uncertain about which wine to order, and a member of the wait staff then guides “the customer” through a series of wine suggestions. Over time, it will become almost routine and commonplace, rather than something that might appear initially daunting.
Set Up Goals for any Wine Tasting you Conduct
With these tips in mind, it’s then possible to map out a strategy for what wine tastings are supposed to accomplish, and how they are supposed to train the staff. Remember – the primary goal is not just to make the wait staff more knowledgeable about wine in general, it’s to sell more wine to patrons. Thus, every wine tasting should be geared around the needs, preferences and behaviors of customers.
The main goal of any wine tasting event you host inside your restaurant might include any of the following:
The first of these goals – educating the staff about which wines are on the menu – might seem simple enough, but it also includes educating the staff about where to find those wines on the wine list, and about how to make a “counteroffer” to a customer.
And the third of these goals – being able to talk intelligently about wine with customers – also deserves further discussion. After all, most customers are not going to be professional sommeliers themselves. The way they talk about wine might be much more similar to the way they talk about food. Thus, it’s quite conceivable that a customer might request a “big, bold, spicy” wine, even though the tasting notes on your wine menu do not include those words at all.
One final thing to keep in mind is that no two members on your staff may taste a wine the same way. Often, the words we use to characterize the taste and aroma profile of a wine has a lot to do with where we grew up, how we learned about wine, and what types of food we enjoy. In short, we all enjoy wine differently.
As a result, don’t try to force staff member to describe a wine in a certain way that doesn’t feel comfortable. Instead, celebrate the diversity of tasting experiences, and encourage staff members to find a common vocabulary for wines that they feel comfortable using. Customers will immediately be able to tell whether or not you feel comfortable discussing wines, and will look for the words that you use.
Staff wine tasting events, when organized with forethought in advance, can be a remarkably powerful tool for helping to make your wine program really stand out. Once you’ve made wine tastings a regular part of your overall schedule, you’ll be surprised at just how much more effective your wine program becomes.