During my five-year tenure as a sommelier for Charlie Trotter’s, I was exposed to a great deal of Champagne and sparkling wine. Since the restaurant did not serve cocktails, sparklers took center stage as the aperitif of choice and sometimes as the wine throughout the meal. I witnessed the capacity of bubbly to transcend its role as a celebration enhancer to be seen as a wine to celebrate for its versatility.
Whether your restaurant serves cocktails or not, a motivated and well-trained staff is essential for any sparkling-wine program to be successful. Here are some training tips.
Set the foundation for knowledge and excitement by providing basic training on Champagne and sparkling wine.
The Champagne region should be your point of reference, so start with a discussion on the influences of climate, soil, and grapes and an understanding of méthode champenoise. Once Champagne is fully understood, explore other regions that produce sparkling wines. Highlight the markers that separate them and those that they have in common. This type of training will provide the staff with the tools to navigate the restaurant’s guests throughout the dining experience.
Demonstrate proper service. This should include correct glassware; proper service temperatures according to style, age, and quality; and the ritual of opening a bottle of sparkling wine tableside.
Opening a bottle of bubbly can be a daunting experience for anyone but particularly for those with minimal experience. Wanting to execute the task with grace and elegance and without breaking anything or—much worse—injuring a guest, a colleague, or yourself makes the process a no-joke situation. Practice makes perfect.
I will always remember the first bottle of Champagne I opened on the floor; it was embarrassing. The cork flew, struck the ceiling, and ended up hitting my head. The following day, I volunteered to work a large banquet function for over 500 guests. My job was to uncork more than 100 bottles of Champagne! This exercise certainly gave me the confidence I needed the next time I faced the same situation in the dining room. I learned that you should never take your thumb off that cork once you have loosened the cage!
Acquaint your staff with the restaurant’s selections, both by the glass and on the list. When referring to sparkling wines, particularly Champagne, house style is a very good reference point. Explain the reason for such styles. For example, is the style influenced by its varietal composition or by winemaking preferences? Have the staff taste different styles, including older vintages, side by side; promote discussion; and have them come up with their own conclusions. The team will feel more confident articulating style distinctions at the table and providing accurate recommendations according to guests’ taste preferences and food selection.
Provide insights for your staff on how sparkling wine interacts with food. The level of acidity present in sparkling wines makes them agreeable with an array of different preparations. One example is sparkling wine’s affinity with fried foods; the wine cleanses the palate after every bite. The wines’ acidity and moderate alcohol levels allow them to withstand hot, spicy dishes. Light and delicate seafood items are complemented by sparkling delicacy. One of my favorite pairings that best displays sparkling wine’s capabilities with food is sashimi-grade fish and brut Champagne.
Placing Champagne and sparkling wine in a food-enhancing role can stimulate staff and guests’ curiosity, but always remember to keep it fun, because that’s what bubbly is all about.
Serafin Alvarado is the director of wine education for Southern Wine & Spirits of Illinois. He is the former sommelier at Charlie Trotter’s Restaurant in Chicago and a Master Sommelier.