Wine-intensive curriculum is no longer just for enrollees of CMS (Court of Master Sommeliers) or WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust). In-house hospitality education is expertly crafting the next generation of sommeliers through ongoing programs from six-month and 13-week prepared classes to weekly and pre-shift tastings.
Bringing no-cost courses inside the restaurant’s four walls provides uncommon and invaluable opportunities (many of them paid) for team members to experience high-quality wines as they add more body to their knowledge base, create better sales opportunities and margins, and form richer guest experiences.
“It’s essential to invest time and energy into education and training because the most important thing is your team can walk up to the table, read the guests accurately and skillfully, and use information from the first 15 to 20 seconds of talking to build a full experience,” explains Mia Van de Water, master sommelier and director of education at Gracious Hospitality Management.
Gracious owns COTE Korean Steakhouse, COTE Miami, and Undercote in New York City and Miami. COTE blends the dining experience of Korean barbecue with the hallmarks of a classic steakhouse, and the New York location has earned a star from the Michelin Guide each year since opening in 2017.
“If you don’t have an understanding as a server or sommelier on how to read someone or craft more complete experiences…you’re not creating relationships that lead to long-term repeat guests,” she adds.
Training has to be a consistent part of the everyday restaurant life, advises Serena Harkey, wine and spirits director at San Francisco’s Vine Hospitality. That includes “daily lineups allowing staff to taste wines and making it incredibly immersive; having tech sheets available is one thing, but truly creating opportunities to experience and talk through wines on a daily basis is absolutely essential,” she says.
As full-service restaurants sharpen the next generation of sommeliers, their hospitality education seeks to find the right balance of complexity. “When you’re teaching, sometimes you need to lecture, but it’s better if you discuss. Team members learn better when they have a conversation and talk about what the wine is way more than if they just listen to what you’re saying or read what you wrote down,” Van de Water explains.
Gracious Hospitality’s innovative wine intensives span from a six-month sommelier internship to 13-week COTE College to Wine Wednesday. “It’s three different levels of commitment and engagement,” explains Van de Water; all are no-cost opportunities where employees are paid for their time.
COTE’s Wine Wednesday offers “bite-sized, digestible wine education” on Wednesday pre-shifts with an emailed detailed doc while 13-week COTE College mirrors a CMS introductory course or WSET Level 2 with 90-minute bi-weekly classes surrounding 4-5 regional wines with tastings, quizzes, and a final exam.
And the hands-on Sommelier Internship is an eight-hour day per week plus bi-weekly sessions over six months with extra studying. It’s designed for staff wishing to become sommeliers, wine directors, directors of operations, general managers, or owners.
Ongoing conversations about wine poured over the restaurant’s culture, staff, and guest experience are key. And when COTE increased team education on specific wine products, “We’ve seen we get better wine by the glass sales,” says Van de Water.
Throughout Vine Hospitality’s nine restaurants, they use a similar range of knowledge. Harkey’s weekly team meeting empowers beverage managers to build wine lineups for daily staff education, and a monthly 90-minute formal presentation, tasting, and comparative analysis allows her to infuse deeper knowledge. Vine also invests in CMS and WSET certifications, with their three- to five-year company plan including even more robust and interactive in-house wine education.
“We want to continue investing every day in people on the floor who are talking to guests and building their knowledge because it creates more confidence for staff when they’re knowledgeable and excited about our menu,” Harkey says, “Not just creating an intellectual experience for guests, but a trustworthy experience when our staff knows and understands what they’re selling.”
You have to provide reasons to work at your restaurant beyond financial ones, says Van de Water. “It’s always been important to us to create a restaurant culture where people come to work because they feel energized and respected, not just because they make money, and it’s really valuable to work somewhere you feel is actively invested in teaching, mentoring, and coaching you to help you grow whether you grow with us or somewhere else.”
Serious restaurant wine programs backed by education also draw traffic to increase revenue and profits, adds Harkey. “I can definitely attest to investing in employee education having a profound impact on wine sales. When your staff drive that revenue because they’re so empowered and passionate about what they’re talking about, [the investment will] come back to you easily,” she says.
It’s the profound wine list knowledge and ability to eloquently tell wine and vineyard stories to the customer that cuts the bottom line difference. “Your knowledge is when you can actually upsell. Upselling is not just a suggestion for the server trying to add to the check; upselling is based on knowledge,” explains Thomas Price, Master Sommelier at 1856 Culinary Residence and director of wine education at Auburn University in Alabama.
“Knowledge drives restaurant sales, so the big benefit is knowledge and product familiarity enable the sommelier to sell more,” Price says, “That investment in team member knowledge will translate into enhanced sales on your restaurant floor.”
Profits and revenue bumps from in-house wine education are a plus, but to see the bonus, you need to create an education budget. “It doesn’t have to be a ton of money,” Van de Water explains, “It has to fit into your prime cost somewhere, but I think the numbers can be pretty small.”
Working with distributors and wholesale partners for trainings can help with cost as “they go into the storytelling component of wine and how to present it,” says Price, who adds that it helps “1,000 percent” to have different educators teach, from wine directors to sommeliers and distributors to wholesale partners.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to watch people grow and blossom,” says Van de Water. And education gives exceptional restaurant team members intimate knowledge on how to weave wine into the larger dining experience because they know the brand inside and out as they leveled up from server or bartender, she adds.
In-house wine education “just drives revenue, and it’s a solid business investment,” explains Harkey. When your staff members move from selling $80 to $120 bottles of wine to being comfortable talking about $250 or $500 bottles, that’s from creating “an environment where not only do guests take you seriously, but everybody around you respects and honors the craft, product, and restaurant so much more,” Harkey says. “Education develops respect, trust, and honor for what you have within your four walls, but also helps improve your business, its growth, and draws more guests in.”