Wine knowledge for servers is important, but a lot of restaurants spend way too much time training their staff about beer, wine and spirits.
Don’t get me wrong, I think a certain level of wine knowledge is important for every server and bartender to have. I just think that that level is often misread by restaurant managers. More importantly, the type of wine knowledge servers should have is often misunderstood.
To understand this approach, it is important to ask yourself a question first: why do I want my staff to know about wine For most restaurants and bars, the answer to this is simple. To be able to effectively and comfortably sell wine to the guests. So, tailor your wine training appropriately. Some basic wine knowledge is a must. Staff should know that in most European countries, wines are labeled by region and in most new world country they are labeled by grape varietal. They should understand the layout of your wine list, in this context. They don’t need to know all of the allowable varietals in a Rhone or Bordeaux blend.
Spend the time you would spend training them on the history and intricacies of French winemaking going over your wine list with the staff. And when you’re doing so, don’t think about what you can teach them about the wine. Think about what guests will ask them about the wine.
“What is your sweetest wine?”
“What is your driest red?”
“What is the difference between the two Chardonnays by the bottle?”
“What is albariño and what does it taste like?”
Those are actual questions that your servers will probably get asked every day, or pretty close to it.
Instead of starting with “The Wine Bible” or the Sommelier Program, start with those questions. That being said, make sure that you are giving your staff correct information, but also the context to use it appropriately.
A great example is “what is your sweetest wine?” You absolutely should not be telling your staff that a sauvignon blanc is your sweetest wine. Even if you have a fairly rudimentary list, and customers who might not be wine experts. Your staff, if you serve a sauvignon blanc, should understand the difference between sweet and fruity. They should understand that a wine can be dry and fruity. They should also understand that sometimes, when people ask for a sweet wine, what they really want is a fruity wine.
Why don’t they need to know what grapes are in a Rhone or Bordeaux blend? Three reasons. First of all, almost nobody cares. Your average wine consumer wants a wine they will like the flavor of. They care a lot more that a red Bordeaux tends to be flavorful and full bodied than they do about exactly what grapes are in the bottle. Second, most of the people who do care already know. Most people who know enough about wine to care more about the technicalities of what’s in their bottle than the end result and flavor know enough about wine to know what grapes are in a Rhone or Bordeaux blend. Third, that information is readily available! Grab the bottle, and often more details are listed. If not, ask a bartender or manager who knows a little more about wine. Worst case scenario, go out of sight of a guest, and google it.
Bottom line, a server who can tell you which of your reds by the glass is lightest bodied or easiest drinking is more valuable than a server who can tell you the history of French wine making laws. Also, a server is much more likely to retain information when they use it repeatedly than when they had to memorize it for a test when they first got hired.
Now, there are some exceptions to this rule, mostly when your concept demands a deeper knowledge. If you are a wine bar, your guests can reasonably expect your staff to have a pretty good general wine knowledge. If you are a Greek restaurant, it may very well be worth spending a few hours teaching your staff about Greek grapes, Greek winemaking processes, and Greek styles of wine. I worked at a restaurant where our service style was based on storytelling and creating unique memories and experiences for guests. When we did wine trainings, we would taste the staff out on wines, but also tell them any unique, interesting, or fun stories about the vineyard or wine maker.
In short, what your staff should know about wine is different from restaurant to restaurant, but should always be based on giving them the tools they need to sell wine in your restaurant.