Studying Wine with the CIA

Master sommelier Bob Bath instructs students.
Master sommelier Bob Bath instructs students. Culinary Institute of America

An educational getaway that builds better beverage menus, drives profits, and rekindles the love of wine.

Frankie Saunders, the head sommelier at The Miami Beach EDITION Hotel, isn’t just an expert wine taster—she’s a master salesperson, turning one to three cases of a specific wine in a week. In the beverage world, this is pretty impressive, especially considering that Saunders is often selling wine “the guest has never heard of or tried before.” In order to do this, she educates her staff on the offerings down to the last detail. “It’s just like a food item on the menu,” she adds. “The more the server knows about it, the more they sell that specific item.”

Where did she learn to make her wine program so lucrative? One acronym: the CIA.

The CIA, or Culinary Institute of America, offers a two-semester Accelerated Wine and Beverage Certificate graduate-level program—five 3-credit courses to be taken over two fifteen-week periods—at its Napa Valley Greystone Campus. Robert Bath, a professor of wine and beverage for the CIA, explains that this first-of-its-kind program in the U.S. is designed for those “who are hoping to accelerate their career in the restaurant, hotel, or wine industry by getting an experienced, intensive, practical look at wine and beverages.”

It’s almost impossible to overstate the exposure to winemakers, sommeliers, and hands-on experience the program provides. As famed sommelier Charlie Arturaola, recipient of the 2012 International Wine and Spirits Competition Communicator of the Year Award, says, “If you are a restaurateur and serious about pursuing a career in food and beverage management and good placement of product, the CIA is the only game in town. The possibility to learn from so many directors and buyers and makers in California! It’s the best system. Once you’re done, you’re ready to conquer the world.”

Or, at least, you’re ready to train a staff to open a bottle of good vino and serve it in stemware that enhances aromatics. As Karen MacNeil, the creator and chair emerita of the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the CIA, who holds an Advanced Certified Wine Professional credential from the program, notes, “Knowledge goes a long way. A wine-knowledgeable staff will be able to interact with guests and sell wine and food better, faster, more confidently, and more profitably. Operators who don’t train their staff are missing huge opportunities.”

MacNeil emphasizes that the CIA offers a wide variety of wine programs that can be customized to each operator for maximum efficiency.

To that end, all three American campuses—California, New York, and Texas—offer a complete set of classes that range from boot camp— style vacations and interactive weekend classes for quick-style learning, to advanced courses with the likes of MacNeil herself. Restaurateurs, general managers, and beverage directors can also customize programs for their staff, scheduling company retreats or trainings at the scenic Greystone campus. The Wine and Beverage Graduate Certificate also gives students a competitive career advantage.

MacNeil, who has won every major wine award given in the English language and is author of the award-winning book The Wine Bible, says, “Wine and hospitality are direct drivers of income. A small amount invested in these two areas generally pays big dividends for smart operators.”

Indeed, consider this breakdown from Imagin-Asia executive chef Ray Leung, a CIA veteran who helps direct three izakaya restaurants in Orlando, Gainesville, and Doral, Florida: “A good wine program can account for 20–40 percent of sales in certain markets while running 25–35 percent cost of goods,” which sets up a situation with a fragile profit margin and what he describes as an intensely competitive environment. “To be successful, operators are looking for every edge possible,” he says.

Hospitality strategic marketing professional Letícia de Mello Bueno says that time at the CIA does more than drive hard profits; it yields personal profits that reconnect students to the deeper-rooted meaning of wine. “It helps professionals realign and focus outside of hustle bustle and minutia. The connection with beauty and ritual is also important to put [owners] in the right frame of mind in approaching their businesses. Being sequestered at CIA means that they can let the rest of the world fall away and their bodies and minds open to let in new information in a relaxed environment.”

Still, while passion is what brings professionals into the hospitality business for a vocation, financial considerations are what keep them here for an entire career.

In Bath’s words, “Beverage revenue remains the most elastic of potential revenues generated in a restaurant. The quality and diversity of wine from around the world has never been higher. In addition, people are only going to eat so much food. Wine and hospitality can be key elements in separating yourself from the competition in an always growing marketplace.”

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