Training Days

Wine GlassesWho Needs A Sommelier? Training Bartenders and Servers About Wine Won’t Break the Bank but Will Add to the Bottom Line

When it comes to ordering wines, most patrons and servers go with the old — actually, antiquated — adage of red with meat and white with fish. But with a knowledgeable, trained server, ordering a glass of vino to accompany those shrimp skewers or beef burger sliders at the bar can go from a quick decision on the house wine to an intriguing journey through different regions and varietals, arriving at a more satisfied guest and a more satisfying check for the establishment. Training bartenders and servers in wine gives customers the chance to experience unknown flavors and also allows servers to upsell to brands guests might otherwise be wary to try.

While consumers are becoming ever more wine-savvy, not everyone is a master sommelier, so patrons rely on servers to lead them down the gilded vineyard path and not the rabbit hole. Here are some sure-fire tactics for developing a wine-knowledgeable, vino-selling staff who can build your revenues. 

Your first order of business? Finding the right training program. New servers tend to be timid when diving into an extensive wine list, but by participating in a few interactive wine training seminars, on-site wine tastings and even online training programs, they will quickly whet their wine whistles.

The bottom line: If servers know their stuff, they’re more confident and effective in selling both the high-profile and the lesser-known wines on the list.

At Flûte, a Champagne and sparkling wine lounge with two locations in New York and one in Paris, founder and owner Hervé Rousseau doesn’t hesitate to hire someone who can’t tell a boxed wine from a $200 bottle; it’s the desire to learn and the capacity to sell that matters.

“When we hire someone, it’s OK if you don’t have a strong wine knowledge, but you have to be willing to give it some time to learn,” he explains. With each Flûte opening, management conducts a mandatory three-day Champagne Academy training, where staff taste and try everything in the bar. “It’s time consuming but completely worth it,” he says. Each new employee goes through similar training within the first few weeks of employment, tasting different wines and working with experienced staff members.

Sip, Study, Click, Succeed

Wine training seminars and pre-shift tastings are all tried and true methods for wine training, but to enhance server credibility and encourage a deeper breadth of knowledge, technology is a vital tool in continuing education. Online training is feasible for most operators and always readily available. With this constant training, servers can remain on top of their game and be more comfortable talking through wine lists. This translates into more sales for the server and more profits for the restaurant.

The Melting Pot, the Tampa, Fla.-based chain of more than 135 fondue restaurants, uses Gallo Wine Academy, an online training program from E. & J. Gallo Winery and the Society of Wine Educators, to conduct online training and teach about the chain’s core offerings, says Kendra Shier, vice president of branding. As an added bonus, staff members receive special incentives to continue education through private tastings at local wineries.

Additionally, Parsippany, N.J.-based Wyndham Hotels and Resorts partnered with WineQuest, an online beverage training and wine menu design company, to develop training modules for its wine, beer and spirits menus. WineQuest also created a Progressive Wine List that puts wines into categories such as robust reds or sweet whites, making it easier for servers to understand the complex range of wines.

Fernando Salazar, Wyndham’s vice president of food and beverage, credits this training program with increasing guests’ overall wine experience satisfaction as well as server sales. The interactive online exercises culminate in short tests, where a score of 85 percent is mandatory to pass the course. This allows managers to monitor employees and training compliance in each of its 100 North American hotels.

“The Progressive List empowers our guests and servers to make better decisions. The server can enhance the interaction by asking proper questions and by guiding the guest to the right wine for [them],” he says. “The intent is to help servers sell more wine — not to become sommeliers.”

Although online training is readily available, Hyatt Hotel and Resorts’ Corporate Director of Beverage Barry Prescott says learning about wine firsthand is the real secret to success. “The retention rate of a live, interactive session is much higher than online seminars because servers can ask targeted questions,” he explains. “It’s also best to let the servers make up their own minds about the wines.”

Hyatt Wine Room
Broad wine collections such as Hyatt’s (above) and Flûte’s (below), dictate servers be well-educated.

Flute Midtown

Wine training is undoubtedly an intense process, one that calls on servers to commit time and memory to the nuances of specific varietals, but learning the basic tenets of wine cultivates confidence in servers, as they become better able to talk with guests. Flûte’s Rousseau says that by continuing this education, servers can connect to the wine, sharing recommendations that put patrons at ease while opening up their minds, palates and wallets.

The Soft Sell

When guests are handed a wine list, the choices, price points and descriptions can seem overwhelming, often leading customers to resign themselves to the house wine or, worse, sticking with tap water — subsequently lowering or even losing the sale for your establishment. That’s why it’s important to equip servers with pearls of wine knowledge they can casually dole out to patrons without coming off as pretentious.

The easiest way to make guests comfortable is to ask questions and listen to them. “We train our servers to discuss wine in a natural way, not too pushy, but to make suggestions when asked and to recommend particular wines with specific foods,” Prescott says.

Rousseau advises against using wine terminology that might make the guest uneasy. His advice: Don’t try to be a sommelier. “It’s important to ask the people what they want,” he says.

Prescott agrees. “We’ve found that the average guest does not want a detailed origin of a particular wine but usually prefers flavor information like, ‘Is it dry, sweet, oaky, etc. and will it pair well with [what] I’ve chosen to eat?’”

Rousseau also notes that servers who share personal experiences about wine or personal favorites connect with the guest, putting them at ease and ultimately making the sale. A good story that evokes passion about wine, he says, is pervasive, getting the customer just as excited as the staff.

No matter what their technique, make sure employees understand it’s better to be pragmatic in selling techniques, reading a guest and understanding him or her before approaching. Being too aggressive is a turn off.

Vino Promos

If a bartender or server has a working knowledge of your wines and an arsenal of anecdotal information about each varietal, then he or she will be able to sell any of the selections on your list. However, bars and restaurants need promotions that encourage guests to try things they normally wouldn’t while also serving as teaching tools for both servers and patrons.

At The Melting Pot, successful promotions such as ladies’ night out or “Wine Down Wednesday,” a popular wine flight program featuring local wineries and special wine dinners, are marketing tools that help servers upsell to guests. Shier says using events to showcase different styles allows servers to suggest wines that otherwise may have been overlooked.

The special wine dinners at Melting Pot are, in fact, an opportunity for both guests and servers to educate and ingratiate themselves into the wine world as well as interact with local winemakers and learn about specially selected five-course wine pairings.

“Everyone from wine connoisseurs to people eager to learn more about wine are attending our wine dinners or special dinner and wine promotions for an unforgettable food and wine experience that is also educational,” Shier notes.

At its 400 hotels worldwide, Hyatt uses wine promotions to not only sell products but also as a source for on-site training. Prescott says Hyatt employees are visual and self-motivated. They “want to look, taste and feel the product,” which is why ongoing training through promotions, weekly and monthly wine seminars and tastings is important to wine selling success.

Proper and thorough wine training can result in increased profits for any bar or restaurant. Taking things slow and emphasizing simple, uncomplicated descriptions will keep customers interested in and intrigued by your product. Rousseau’s two main tools to ease patrons into sipping new wines are listening to the guest and knowing the product, but he advises against an elitist attitude. “It’s just wine. It’s a pleasure item. It’s a fantastic product, but at the same time it’s a product to be enjoyed.” NCB


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