Staff Training Tips: How to Teach a Wine List

How do successful restaurants train their staff to guide customers through their wine lists? Not just their wine directors with letters after their names, or their rising star sommeliers with Instagram audiences. Not just in very fine dining establishments whose budgets allow - and reputations require - professional wine qualifications and fine-tuned salesmanship.

How do moderately priced restaurants - where foodies go for a great burger or a homemade French onion soup on a weekday night - train their servers to sell from their wine list in a friendly, helpful way that generates sales and increases profitability? How do they do so cost-effectively? Below, two industry leaders in wine distribution and restaurant management who have figured it out share their tips.

Leverage Distributors

By working with a distribution partner’s resources, a restaurant can generate free education for staff, and both partners can grow sales.

Max Perkins, VP of Sales at Tryon Distributing in North Carolina, has a large, varied portfolio of wines. Promoting it effectively to restaurant buyers throughout the state is a task, especially when it comes to small-production wines from less popular regions.

Luckily, Tryon’s owners were restaurateurs before they were distributors. They know that wine is a relationship business. They empower Perkins to organize tutored staff tastings that highlight non-core parts of the portfolio. Originally an internal exercise for Tryon’s staff, these two-hour, rapid-fire tastings were quickly opened up to Tryon’s restaurant buyers, too. Now they welcome anyone from the company’s restaurant accounts. Because there’s so much turnover in restaurants, this tactic has proven very effective for both short-term sales and long-term relationship-building. A server with an avid interest in wine but little knowledge today may become a buyer at another restaurant tomorrow – and a loyal one, having been treated well. The restaurant owners benefit, too. Instead of paying for staff to attend classes, they can provide free instruction in the very wines their staff are paid to sell.

Restaurant group Doherty Enterprises Inc., includes several national franchises and two independent restaurant brands in the New York metropolitan area. At Spuntino Wine Bar & Italian Tapas, Kerry Doherty runs morning wine tasting classes for staff before their shifts begin. These classes are not compulsory, but her best staff members tend to show up for them without fail. These are the staff members who tend to stay engaged, stick around, and advance more rapidly in their careers. By working with her suppliers to help her staff sell more effectively, she also improves staff engagement and retention.

Leverage Wineries, Associations and Importers

Perkins uses a training tactic he learned during a trip to Chile led by Lizzy Butler of Vine Connections, one of Tryon’s suppliers. After visiting each winery, Butler conducted a short quiz. Perkins was skeptical until he realized he was competing with other trip attendees. “We’re all in sales, so we’re competitive. By the second quiz, I was paying attention. I brought it home and found this approach to be a way to get my staff to pay attention, too.” 

Perkins puts a good bit of minutia into his quizzes, with an equally healthy spread of incentives. There are prizes for the high scorers. There is the pride that comes from a shout-out in an all-team email. The biggest carrot is travel – often sponsored by the wineries themselves. “Trips are the biggest incentive we have. When our sales staff takes trips to winemaking regions we have a lot more success selling those brands, particularly for boutique brands, than we do with cash incentives. It creates so much loyalty. Somebody else will always have deeper pockets, but you can’t take away the memory of great hospitality.” 

Tap Into Institutions

‘Institutional’ or ‘generic’ campaigns, typically run by trade associations that represent many wineries located in the same country or production zone, often with subsidy from their governments, can be a restaurant’s best resource. A restaurant owner in a major metropolitan area can sometimes access fully funded buyers’ trips to regions of interest by paying attention to which regions are actively marketing in their area. 

The classic institutional approach is to send promising staff for certification through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) or Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) program. These programs can be expensive, but for staff members with serious focus and good test performance skills, they can have a big impact.

Still, goodwill and a confidence boost get a restaurant much of the way to the same end.

“We get people from our restaurant accounts really excited about our products – because we’ve treated them well and haven’t been condescending to them,” says Perkins. “There’s so much burnout and turnover in the restaurant industry that we wanted to tap into good vibes. We also tend to do a lot of sales in the follow-up to these trainings.”