Once a week the staff at Charlie Bird in New York City gather to taste wines for an hour. What’s a little different about this is that members of the public also sample the wines, shoulder to shoulder with servers and sommeliers.
“We were continually being asked where to take lessons or learn about wine,” says Grant Reynolds, wine director and a partner in Delicious Hospitality Group, which owns Charlie Bird. “We didn’t feel there were a ton of programs that aligned with how we like to talk about wine and how we like to engage people, so we figured we’d open the door for our guests as well, on a weekly basis.”
And he decided to make the classes free—with a reservation. “It felt like the right thing to do. It was a way to give back and a way to engage with our community. I think we’d rather do something where a lot of people show up and don’t charge, than have only a few people show up. It gives us the flexibility to teach the things we want to teach.”
Charlie Bird’s wine classes are varied and include wines from all over the world, with a focus on Italy and France. The restaurant staff might talk about a specific producer, country, or wine-making style. Some of the more engaging classes have been a little left of center, Reynolds says, such as the one featuring second-label wines—“the other wines made by great producers.”
Each class focuses on a specific wine type and highlights three bottles from different regions. The teacher of the day talks about the producers and vineyards and explains what differentiates each. Participants then compare tasting notes. “People are most curious about the human aspects of wine rather than the technical aspects,” Reynolds says.
Reynolds himself teaches, along with wine directors of the other restaurants in Delicious Hospitality Group. The staff rotate to give people a fresh voice and a fresh perspective, he adds.
And the advantage of bringing in the public? “We learn from them,” he says. “It’s important for us in the industry to learn what our guests are most curious about so we can communicate more effectively. And it helps our wine sales if we help people get more enjoyment out of wine.”
The classes are capped at 40 people to ensure an intimate atmosphere wherein everyone can engage and ask questions rather than feel they are attending a lecture. The guests tend to be younger and “hungry for knowledge,” as Reynolds puts it. “It ranges from people who have studied wine or work as waiters in other restaurants to people who are just getting into it,” he says.
Wine education is crucial, says Eamon Rockey, director of beverage studies at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.
“Charlie Bird is one of many restaurants that takes education seriously. There are so many missed opportunities, so it’s a good idea to give a team a forum to converse with each other and to impart knowledge, top down, that one might not ordinarily get.”
“Whenever you have an open forum [like Charlie Bird’s] and have someone who doesn’t come from your background or have your training, they’ll see things from a vastly different perspective. They’ll ask questions and make comments that you might find are out of left field but might force you to understand things in a different way. That’s why it’s important to include community in these tastings.”
Mixing It Up
Dominick Purnomo is the owner of Yono's and DP, An American Brasserie, both in Albany, New York. “We try to make wine top of mind every day,” he says.
To do this, he holds daily tastings with staff, even encouraging kitchen staff to join in, Quarterly he hosts in-depth 90-minute wine classes focusing on certain wine-growing regions and grape varietals. These classes are designed to be fun and conclude with a 20-question test or “wine jeopardy,” and winners can receive gift cards, wine, and other prizes. These are mandatory for all service staff and strongly recommended for others. “Staff get excited, they get competitive,” Purnomo says.
He also hosts monthly wine dinners for guests and prior to each one, wine makers spend time with staff, educating them and offering tastings. “That gives the staff the opportunity to taste the wine so they don’t get tired of just hearing my voice or the sommelier’s voice,” Purnomo says. “It makes it a bit more exciting and connects them to the source and really helps tie it all together.”
It’s important to give the staff the confidence to serve wine, Purnomo says, “And great to see them take their enthusiasm to tables.”