Vintage Education: Teaching Servers About
Wine Can Uncork Sales


Vintage Education: Teaching Servers
About Wine Can Uncork Sales

The key to selling wine successfully is education. Allow your waitstaff to
sniff, swirl and savor the wines so that they may more fully describe the
selections to customers and guide them to make the right choice.

In restaurants across Europe, wine is typically the beverage
that accompanies a meal, and that custom is catching on in the United States,
too. Americans now frequently choose wine over other alcoholic beverages for its
taste and its perceived health benefits. According to Consumer Reports on Eating
Share Trends, from NPD located in Rosemont, Illinois, during the past three
years the growth in orders of wine by Americans has risen an average of more
than 10 percent per year.

The outpouring of interest in wine is both a potential boon and a potential bane
for restaurateurs. Handled properly, it gives operators an opportunity to build
sales and profits by the bottle or by the glass and to heighten customer
satisfaction with their establishments’ service. However, unless wine is sold
and served the right way, it could diminish customers’ dining experience and
leave a bad taste in their mouths. Wine connoisseurs might be disappointed or
insulted. Wine novices might be too intimidated to order wine at all.

The key to selling wine successfully is education—for both servers and diners.
Operators need to make customers feel comfortable about ordering wine,
encouraging them to ask questions about and experiment with different varietals
and vintages. Since servers do most of the selling and will be answering most of
customers’ questions, they need to receive wine education on a regular basis,

A server’s syllabus

Waitstaff can never receive too much wine information and education. Simply
lecturing servers about wine can be helpful and furnish lots of facts and
figures, but experts contend that the best way for people to understand wine is
to taste it. “The most important element to the success of your wine list is to
get staff buy-in,” says Evan Goldstein, director of the Sterling Vineyards
School of Service and Hospitality in Calistoga, California. “That’s achieved
through providing your staff with regular training opportunities.”

Giving staff members ample chances to sniff, swirl and savor the wines they’re
trying to sell can enhance the descriptions they give to customers, which in
turn can increase sales. “First-hand knowledge goes a lot further than saying
Wine Spectator gave it a good score,” says Goldstein.

When tasting wine, servers should not think solely about its taste. Instead,
“servers should think about what they would say if they had to spit out one
sentence or two to customers to tell them why they should buy the wine,” says
Steve Morey, Bordeaux and Burgundy specialist for Seagram’s Chateau and Estate
Wines Company in San Mateo, California. Morey adds that servers should be taught
to use simple terms that all customers can understand.

During daily wine tastings at the LaSalle Grill in South Bend, Indiana, Charlie
Ryder, beverage director and sommelier, instructs servers about new wines that
have recently been added to the wine list, making sure to pair new bottles with
wines that have similar tastes so servers can compare and contrast them. Or,
he’ll choose a few bottles from his restaurant’s 400-plus wine selections to
reinforce old lessons. He also tests servers on their wine knowledge once a
month. “The goal is to try to get everybody to at least have a glass of wine
with their entree,” says owner Mark McDonnell, “because wine is a part of fine

Restaurateurs should strive to make wine-tasting sessions more than just another
training task. A wine consultant can add an expert touch and a wealth of
information to staff tastings. Wine suppliers, distributors and sales
representatives can also tell servers about their wines. “It’s amazing how many
restaurateurs throw wine lists at their servers and say, ‘Knock yourselves out,’
” says Goldstein. “Tastings can be a lot of fun. Get the kitchen involved and
provide appropriate food accompaniments.”

Wine teachings should go beyond tastings to cover the entire experience of
serving wine. Servers should be taught such basics as which glasses to choose,
how to open bottles and how to pour properly.

It is always helpful to have service staff involved in the decision-making
process. For example, when searching out a new Chardonnay to serve by the glass,
operators might want to make the initial cull and then have servers taste and
sample final wines and let them make the final decision. By allowing them to
participate in the decision, restaurateurs are virtually guaranteeing
enthusiastic support for the wine on the floor since service staff made the
final call.

Tasteful tips

Wine tastings can do much to teach customers about wines as well, although
scheduling can be difficult. It’s hard to accommodate many patrons at one
tasting, and some customers may not want to attend formal sessions. Long
lectures from servers may be perceived as inappropriate or intimidating. In such
situations, many customers might be afraid to ask questions.

The key to educating customers is to put them at ease so they feel free to
expand their wine horizons and ask questions about unfamiliar wines. To do that
effectively, operators must insert subtle educational messages or questions into
the menu or the waitstaff’s service style that will elicit a response from

After operators have created an environment that encourages exploration and
questions, the answers need to be easy to swallow. That’s the reason Morey
advises servers to describe wine in simple terms. Laymen’s language is more
accessible for everyone and can ease patrons’ fears about discussing wine. For
example, describing a wine as “fruity” educates customers about a wine but does
not confuse them.

Morey also believes it is important for servers to assess their customers’
knowledge before approaching them about wine. “Knowledgeable ones may not want
your recommendation,” he says. “They may even be offended.” Morey suggests that
servers avoid asking open-ended questions like “What are you looking for in a
wine?” because less knowledgeable customers may not know how to answer. “Don’t
put them on the spot,” he says. “Ask them, ‘Tell me about wines you’ve enjoyed
in the past,’ so you can understand their tastes.”

“It’s like a needs-analysis survey,” says Goldstein. “Then they’ll be much more
likely to listen to your servers’ descriptions.” Other questions that Goldstein
likes servers to ask customers include “Do you like American wines or imported
wines?”; “How much do you feel like spending?”; and “Are you feeling

At the LaSalle Grill, McDonnell has trained his host staff to assess customers
over the phone. “When they call for a reservation, we ask if it’s their first
time here,” he says. “If they haven’t been here before, we know to take them
through the entire menu and make appropriate wine suggestions.”

Creating a winning wine list

Another way that operators can boost their customers’ interest in wine is to
simplify the ordering process. It starts with a solid but simple wine list that
doesn’t overwhelm guests with too many choices. According to Goldstein, the
traditional wine list as big as a phone book is now passe. “There’s no need for
500 wines at a casual place when 25 wines will do,” he says.

Restaurateurs can take this less-is-more concept even further by providing focus
to the wine program. “Do you have a mission statement for your wine list?” asks
Goldstein. “You need to have a focus.”

Wine lists should match the taste and sophistication of the restaurant’s market
and its menu. Wine drinkers in New York City and San Francisco probably won’t
need a wine primer and would probably prefer a larger selection, whereas diners
in less-sophisticated markets might need a more basic wine list and more
information about those wines. A wine list’s prices should relate to those on
the menu. If the average entree costs $10, the average bottle of wine should not
be $50.

Restaurateurs should use their main menus to support the wine list. Menus can
help educate patrons by means of suggestions for an appropriate bottle or glass
of wine to accompany an entree or appetizer. Special tasting menus—prix-fixe
menus showcasing several wine-and-food pairings selected by the chef—also
provide great opportunities to increase wine experimentation and sales.

Finally, for the most apprehensive customers, operators can make no-fault
offers. Morey suggests serving small 2-ounce wine portions, while Goldstein
recommends a satisfaction guarantee. “If they aren’t wild about the wine, I’d
take it back and pour it by the glass for other customers,” he explains.

Profitable lesson plans

Educating waitstaff and customers can be a tough assignment for a restaurateur,
but with proper planning and careful study, the extra effort can send increased
wine sales and profits pouring into the bottom line.

The formula is simple: The more staff members know about wine, the more wine
they’ll sell; the more customers learn about wine—and the more comfortable they
feel asking questions about wine—the more wine they’ll buy.

“For restaurants to have a successful wine program, they have to take an
interest in education,” says Goldstein. “Because wine can be a
revenue-generating area.”