We need to move people along rapidly---but not without detailed instruction. The wine-drinking public is expanding in size and wine knowledge, and they are thirsty for excellent service from informed, well-prepared, guest-oriented sommeliers. A comprehensive, hands-on program is necessary to instill the skills and responsibilities required for today’s sommelier.
At Mary Elaine’s, we divide wine training into two parts: one, concise restaurant procedures; and two, continuing education---often formal reading, testing, and tasting, which can lead to certification. Here are some training suggestions.
Floor training. Create a mise-en-place list, especially when using multiple glasses, and stipulate the wines intended for each multiuse glass. To build teamwork, track a complete shift with specific times for setup, preshift meetings, service hours, and closing duties. Many organizations want new employees to get an in-depth feel by spending a day or two in each area of their program: for example, lounge, raw bar, kitchen, and front-of-house. Teach good work habits such as updating “86” items, repeating bin numbers to guests, keeping accurate vintages, and insuring that the “last bottle” is acknowledged before opening.
Demonstrate cordiality and helpfulness. Have you made your opening greetings friendly and accessible? How is the wine list presented? Start with the table of contents and briefly explain, “Napa Valley is here, European wines are next, lighter whites are there,” and so forth. Translate abstract descriptions such as velvety, buttery, bitey, and big. Remember, wine speak is challenging for many of our guests, and our goal is to reassure.
Break down ingredients from your creative chef’s recipes, categorizing them as bitter, salty, acidic, sweet, textured, and umami for wine pairings. Then have the new sommelier match the wine list to the menu. Discuss why pairings work.
Besides recommending and opening wines, we need time for decanting, the chef’s dégustation glass placement, re-filling glasses, and service support. When entering your section, observe the wine glasses. Are any in need of refilling or clearing? Emphasize eye-to-eye communication with your teammates and guests. Instruct your trainees about prioritizing guest needs. Discuss being precise and articulate with wine language. Be cautious when giving “wine lessons”; guests may not be interested or they may want more than time permits. Measure advice out at intervals. Avoid interfering with food service.
Allow trainees to complete a wine-list study and find some easy sells. Explain why all listed wines need to be supported. When offering suggestions, think in threes: three producers, three prices, three dry intensities, three drinking time frames (immediately appealing; requiring 20 minutes of aeration; approachable with the cheese course), and three impressions of fruit (savory versus sweet). Talk about encouraging doubtful guests.
Organize wine tastings aimed at discovering dynamics of aroma and taste. Use familiar house wines or samples of varying styles of quality. Pay particular attention to flaws.
Start your sommeliers on independent study; there are many excellent programs available---The Court of Master Sommeliers, the Society of Wine Educators, and the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, to name three. Find their knowledge level, and ask how they want it to grow.
Encourage attendance at trade tastings and warn about intimidating arrays of wines, beers, and other products. Have them concentrate on a specific variety or style. Caution them about palate fatigue, intoxication, and the sometimes distracting but enjoyable social interaction. Don’t forget to mention attire. Ask them to come back with a suggestion for the wine list.
Give new sommeliers a chance to meet their favorite winemaker. Invite them to important wine events. Applaud their efforts for contributing to staff education. Delegate several important responsibilities and introduce them to your VIPs. Keep them busy and focused on having fun!
Train new staff by implementing a concise program in proper restaurant procedures. And maximize your training investment by encouraging them to pursue professional advancement through continuing education.