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01.08.2007

Why Waiters Should Know Wine

sommelier.jpgBefore I continue, I want to go on record as having acknowledged how lucky I am. I live in San Francisco. We have great restaurants that are generally very friendly to wine lovers. We have liberal and pervasive corkage policies, and the wine lists in the average restaurant are good. Heck, even the wine lists in the average Thai restaurant are pretty good. In our finest restaurants the lists can be phenomenal. In more and more restaurants I am also finding a proper selection of good stemware -- a big plus. Things are good for wine lovers in San Francisco, and they seem to be getting better.

Except in one area.

I continually run across waitstaff who are seriously clueless about wine. And I don't mean someone who can't tell me the different varietals that are in a particular wine labeled as "Red Blend" on the wine list (although that would be nice, too). I mean so clueless that, when the Pinot Noir poured by the glass is sold out, they suggest a Zinfandel because "it's similar." I mean so clueless as to not know how to pour wine into a decanter (hint: turning the bottle upside down vertically and sticking it into the neck of the decanter is NOT the right way). I mean so clueless that they've never even tasted any of the wines on the by-the-glass list.

My point here is actually NOT to complain about restaurant service, if you can believe it. When stuff like that happens, I just let it slide. It's certainly not the server's fault, and while I am a serious wine geek, I don't go around imposing my type-A sense of wine on everyone else.

I'm actually trying to talk about what an enormous business mistake restaurateurs are making by not educating their servers about wine in general, and particularly, the wine they serve in the restaurant. Take a look at this (somewhat oblique) study. Among other things, it points out just how powerful a sales tool the average waitperson is when it comes to wine. According to this study, a waitpersons recommendation is the single most effective tool for getting diners to purchase wine, and then to purchase wines that the restaurant might be interested in guiding them to for economic reasons. And given that wine (and other liquor) is usually the highest margin sales item for any restaurant, there is a significant and direct cost to having wine-ignorant waitstaff. You're leaving money on the table.

Let me turn that around and state it in the positive converse: the more your waitstaff know about wine the more money you stand to make as a restaurateur.

Apart from simply being able to sell the wine better, a wine-savvy waitstaff are much more likely to guide diners to wines that they will actually like, which makes for happier customers and, I'd be willing to bet, even more wine sales.

Now it's easy for me to sit here (a blogger, not a chef or restaurant owner) and spout off about how restaurants should take the time and energy to train their staff better, but honestly, it's not that hard. Many of your distributors will even do it for you, in case you didn't know. I'd bet many of them are happy to come in and educate your staff about the wines you serve, mostly because they probably know how much better a knowledgeable staff sells their product than an ignorant one.

Of course, it would be great if more restaurants would also focus on the skills of wine service, so I don't have to leap up from my chair and grab that bottle of old Bordeaux from the server before he or she pours all the sediment into the decanter, or tell them to stop before they fill my wine glass up to the very brim. But I know that's asking a lot.

Comments (37)

Ken wrote:
01.09.07 at 2:51 AM

Amen!! I have had so many experiences like this in Boston. Simple things like bringing the wrong bottle to the table and saying. "I thought this was wrong when the beverage manager gave it to me. But he insisted it is what you ordered." I said "it's a different winery?" My favorite is the change on vintage. "It doesn't matter sir, it's the same wine." Oh I can rant on this topic forever. But I suppose that is why I have a blog as well. Great piece.

Ken

Richard wrote:
01.09.07 at 3:39 AM

As a former restaurateur who loves wine, I can tell you that your comments are right on the money. Selling wine is the simplest and easiest way for restaurants to increase the check average for all diners and improve profitability.

But even more importantly, wait staff should be selling wine to their customers because it makes food taste better.

I do have a bone to pick, however, and I'm sorry to be so pedantic, but it's in my nature as a writer. And that's your use of the word varietal, as in the "different varietals that are in a particular wine labeled as Red Blend."

Varietal should be used an adjective, and so it should only be used describe a wine. As in: Pinot Noir is a varietal wine, a wine made from a single grape. Unfortunately, so many 'respected' wine publications (and wine books) use the expression 'grape varietal' when they mean 'grape variety' that the word's meaning has become muddied.

jade wrote:
01.09.07 at 6:23 AM

AMEN! Nowadays when I walk into an unfamiliar restaurant, I try and sneak a peek at the stemware before figuring out if I want to order wine. If the place is using the standard "teardrop-style" glass with the blunt-edged lip, I'll pass on wine. And don't even get me started on knowledgable servers - and I mean knowing more than which bottle is the most expensive on the list.

Arthur wrote:
01.09.07 at 7:15 AM

I have had servers try to pull substitute the vintage a number of times. It's a pain.

Rosi wrote:
01.09.07 at 8:23 AM

Here's an embarrasing one: A French couple visiting Key West order a bottle of wine at a restaurant only to discover it was corked. The waiter did not know what corked meant.

Rosi

Rosi wrote:
01.09.07 at 8:24 AM

oops! I meant Key West

Rosi

Alder wrote:
01.09.07 at 9:04 AM

Richard,

Thanks for the comments. I'm aware of the grammatical error, but it is so widespread that everyone understands it. Like the word "artisanal"

William Safire would side with you, of course.

el jefe wrote:
01.09.07 at 11:12 AM

Add another amen! To flip it around, several years ago we visited an expensive restaurant in a Vegas casino, which had a very French Maitre d', and a very American waitstaff. The Maitre d' kept trying to push these expensive French wines on us that we didn't want or understand, and told the waiter to bring us these wines instead of what we had ordered (I think it was a nice Oregon Pinot.) The waiter literally had to sneak us the Pinot. It was actually quite hilarious...

ps: The headless Alder is creeping me out...:)

Jennifer wrote:
01.09.07 at 1:25 PM

I was just talking with a woman who sold wine to restaurants over a decade ago. She was trying to get them to educate their waitstaff on wine back then, but not much changed...until she spoke directly to the waitstaff, and showed them, with simple numbers, how much more they stood to gain in tips if they knew their wine and were able to recommend wines their diners might enjoy.

Natester wrote:
01.09.07 at 4:07 PM

I must argue on behalf of waiters as a former waiter. It takes years to know wine and once a waiter has achieve a solid wine knowledge he/she is probably moving on to a different line of work. Basically, I'm saying that witers who have the capacity to become knowledgable and passionate about wine can also do so about life and will undoubtedly get better jobs through their skills.

This does not solve the problem in any way, but I understand the really high turnover rates of waitstaff. As long as the manager of sommelier can select wine its all good. Plus most of us wine lovers can select on our own accord.

Alder wrote:
01.09.07 at 5:34 PM

Thanks for your comments, Nate. Based on your experience, do you agree that it's in the restaurant's best interest to have their waitstaff at least know something about the wine that is being served by the glass (for instance, having tasted it before?), or does your experience show that even that may be too much to ask?

Alan wrote:
01.09.07 at 5:36 PM

To some extent I agree with Natester, but there are some basic skills that waiters should be familiar with. While I may not expect them to know the Anderson Valley from the Russian River Valley, I do expect them not to fill my glass to the point where it is going to tip over. Pay attention to what was ordered and bringing the right bottle, thats just reading!

Farley wrote:
01.09.07 at 6:28 PM

As a person who waited tables for years and who loves to eat out in nice restaurants, I couldn't agree more. Wine service is a must.

It is the managers and owners who should be training the staff, but even if they don't, that shouldn't be the end of the story. One fine dining restaurant where I worked didn't have any wine training, so I asked if I could start giving classes, including one on food and wine pairing, which everyone loved. But even if there's no one to do that, look at this abundance of info on the internet. I had no idea how many wine blogs there were until I started writing one :)

johng wrote:
01.09.07 at 11:17 PM

Hmm... my experience is different, both as a resturant type and as a customer.

I was a waiter and manager for many years, and everywhere I worked the staff was serious about wine and food and serious about learning as much about both as possible, and management not only made sure there were plenty of staff tastings of wines already on the list, but got everybody to to try every sample that came in the door just in case they made it onto the list. A serious staff will also taste whatever dribs and dregs are left over at the end of the night too, and we did that religiously. Probably the worst impediment to wine education is a stern policy against drinking on premise, which is understandable, but counterproductive. If you hire grownups and treat them like grownups, they actually can be capable of acting like grownups and sampling a few wines responsibly.

I guess I also seem to be lucky as a patron, because the majority of restaurants I visit in our stomping ground in the North Bay and in San Francisco seem to be staffed by people who love wine enough to know both the difference between zin and pinot, and the difference between the RR and Anderson Valleys.

Travis wrote:
01.10.07 at 7:33 AM

As a chef, I stand and salute your astute obsveration. I've opened many restaurants and can atest to how important that training is and Yes, distributors practically bend over backwards to help with education. Up to and inculding tastings of every one of the wines on your list. They'll even host tastings four your customers. Generally free of charge because ultimately it helps their bottom line. I can understand how you feel. I just recently moved from Los Angeles to the Portland area and miss, truly miss, the wines accessible in California.

barbara wrote:
01.10.07 at 10:05 PM

When I worked in the wine industry one of my duties was to train the staff at the duty free stores about our wine. The lack of knowledge from an ever changing staff was astounding and they tended to sell what ever was on staff incentive that month. Great when your product is on incentive but not in the best interests of the customer. I sometimes wonder if Restaurant staff are on incentive when they push a particular wine.

Erika wrote:
01.11.07 at 6:03 AM

I would also like to speak on behalf of servers in fine dining. I worked for a five star chef outside of Chicago, and at that time hardly had a clue about the wines we served. The costomer on the other hand knew what we had, and usually chose their wine themselves by wlaking up and down the isle of wines. My boss also liked having the control of suggesting the perfect wine to compliment their meal. I was just the friendly face to pour and deliver food. :)

Alder wrote:
01.11.07 at 9:34 AM

Thanks very much for the comments. What kind of effort did the restaurant make to educate you about the wine? Any at all?

frank Haddad wrote:
01.13.07 at 10:49 AM

I have had many varied experiences with waiters even at high-end establishments. The vintage year seems to more of an issue than I thought. I have had wait staff tell me that the vintage really did not matter, the producer was the same. I am not so sure that is true for Bordeaux and Burgundy. The other issues the wait staff seems to have problems with are the differences between village wines and Premier Crus in Burgundy and some other areas. My thought is if you have invested in the wine list you should take some time and money and invest in your staff

Jean-Louis wrote:
01.15.07 at 12:49 AM

Good thinking! Here is a nother cuuuute story. The last time I visited a certain Michelin rated restaurant South of San Francisco, and North of Carmel (and it has more than one star...) we ordered a couple of glasses from the by the glass menu. It turned out the wine was corked. But that is not the point of the story. The point is that the bottle the wine was poured from was already half empty, i.e. the waiters had already dished out half a bottle of corked wine on unsuspecting guests.
That leads me to underline the justified wine service provided in most (but not all)three stars in France, with the waiter/sommelier actually taking a sip from the bottle (and this is what the sommeliers' tastevin stuff--the stuff hanging on a chain from the sommelier's neck-- used to be geared for).

Bernardo Silveira wrote:
01.15.07 at 9:41 AM

I have to say, you ARE a lucky guy. I live in Belo Horizonte, the third biggest city in Brazil, which is not much if ever compared to US' biggest cities.
Service in restaurants is absolutely bad, wine lists are often hideous and whenever they are good, the prices are absolutely prohibitive for most of us mortals.
I used to be the manager in a bistro, where all wines in our small, but constantly renewing, list are sold by glass and ALL of our waiters are welcome to taste and discuss every one of them. I'm glad that even afer I left my job the house keeps using my policies of waitstaff training and that they are more and more interested in their own education. I now work for a wine importer in São Paulo and one of the most important initiatives they have is to finance this education despite the lack of interest of restaurateurs, managers etc., offering the staffs around the country the possibility of learning, growing and working better.

Joanna wrote:
01.15.07 at 10:24 AM

Alder -
Thanks for your comments on this eternal issue. I tell our servers that they are picking their own pockets if they are not able to navigate the wine list and make informed recommendations. There is only so much food people can eat, and only so much you can charge them for it. Many people are willing to splurge on wine, however. Those who purchase the most expensive wines usually know what they want. But in the middle range, where most sales occur, they often appreciate being led to something good that they would not otherwise have tried. And finding a wine by the glass that goes with someone's meal may not crank up your check average that night, but may gain you an appreciative repeat customer.
That said, one small point: percentage-wise, wine is generally not a high-profit item for the restaurant. Cost of sales for liquor and, in most establishments, food are much lower. This is why my colleagues and I go bonkers when critics (not you) complain about wine markups that are within industry standards.

Paula wrote:
01.16.07 at 5:09 AM

In general I think the wait staff can make or break the entire dining experience. It's bad enough to have wine staff clueless in a restaurant that has fine wine. What gets me even more are the supposed "decent" or "nice" restaurants in say small town usa where my family lives. When I ask them what kind of Chardonnay they have -- they say "white". Um... OK, but what vineyard is this stuff coming from?!?! I ask these questions because they believe wine from a box constitutes house wine there and, well, I don't care if your food is half decent for a casual meal, don't charge me $5 a glass for undrinkable box wine. I'd rather stick to water than try & swallow something that is really just short of bartles & james.

Besides the economic point you make in terms of restaurants being able to make $ on wine with knowledgable staff, I would hazard a guess that servers in a better restaurant could be motivated by the fact that they will receive a better tip. I know if I get a fun, knowledgable server who knows the food and knows how to recommend a wine & pace us through the meal and the bottle -- they get a far better tip than the clueless who are just trying to get to the end of their shift.

Nicole wrote:
01.17.07 at 8:06 AM

As a San Francisco girl temporarily living in London I have to say that your beginning disclaimer was a wise move! I could go on for pages about how many restaurants in the business hub for the European wine trade are completely useless at selecting wine, serving wine and training their staff. Many of them are not even on the same playing field as most SF restaurants. It has been an amazing experience living here but it will be an eagerly anticipated day when I return to SF and the many restaurants (not to mention wines) that I miss so dearly!

Alder wrote:
01.17.07 at 3:13 PM

Thanks Nicole. I knew some people would roll their eyes. Bummer that it's so bad in London, especially when the brits are the #1 world consumers of wine these days, or something like that...

01.17.07 at 4:39 PM

Richard,

I'd agree that Alder's use of the noun varietal is incorrect (sorry Alder), but the word does have a legitimate, dictionary-approved noun form. Specifically, a varietal is a bottle of wine marketed as being made predominantly with one grape. You can call it a varietal wine, but you can also say "makes a varietal."

Alder wrote:
01.18.07 at 8:08 AM

Nicole, looks like you're not the only one complaining in London.

http://www.decanter.com/news/106318.html

Richard wrote:
01.19.07 at 9:52 AM

Hey Derrick:

Thanks for the comment. I did know that varietal could be also used as a noun, but I didn't want to muddy the waters with a long explanation. For readers to the site who actually care about the issue, an example sentence using varietal as a noun would be: I actually prefer drinking Malbec as a varietal.

But you shouldn't use it as Alder did in this article when asking about the red grape varietals in a blend. We already have a perfectly good word for that sentence, and it's varieties.

Now, having said that, I'm impressed with Vinography and Alder's attention to detail. In fact, I'm impressed with the work produced on a number of blogs, including yours.

I was actually a food and wine writer in Canada in the early 1990s, selling articles to several magazines, including Britain's WINE, enRoute, Wine Access, Wine Tidings, and Endless Vacation.

But I stopped writing about these things in 1993, when I developed chronic daily migraines, and couldn't drink wine or beer without getting sick.

Fast forward to last November. After more than 4,500 migraines, a neurologist actually figured out what was causing my daily descent into purgatory (and anyone who wants to know can connect me off-site). So I've picked myself up, dusted myself off, and started looking around.

I'm amazed at what I'm seeing in the food and wine world, and I'm amazed by the breadth and depth of the culinary blogosphere. Real people communicating with readers in a real and vital way. It's so refreshing!

I don't know what's going to become of me, after so many years. My tasting skills have seemingly left, and my old contacts at magazines are gone.

But it's an exciting time to write about food and wine. I'm excited by the prospects!

Richard wrote:
01.19.07 at 10:20 AM

When I managed several restaurants in the 1980s, I made wine tastings a regular event for all dining room staff. About every six weeks or so, we’d sit at a table in the lounge, taste five or six bottles from the wine list, and talk about the wines, ways they could sell them, and things that I could do to make their life easier. I mean really, if wait staff have to go down two flights of stairs into a dark, dank cellar every time they sell a good bottle, they’ll soon start recommending the house wine to everyone.

We’d also have wine and food staff meetings every Friday night, so staff could taste one of our dishes, and a decent wine to accompany it. Those short meetings are invaluable.

But it’s not easy. Professional wait staff are hard to come by. It’s too often a job that people do while they’re waiting for something better to come along. I used to post wine articles and information sheets for them to read on slow nights. And I let my staff know that I expected them to purchase the inexpensive bottles on our list to try when they went to dinner, suggesting that it was their responsibility as a professional server.

But sometimes it was discouraging. Honestly, the best way to train your staff is to show them how selling wine adds to their check average, and that means more money in their pocket at end of every shift. I’d also show them how wine makes food taste better, and helps their customers have more enjoyable evenings. (Again, with the result of more money in their pocket).

When I was effective in doing that, you could see their eyes shine with understanding. And then you’d see them reading The WIne Spectator or Decanter in their spare time.

But honestly, if someone like Alder came in, I’d tell them to tuck away what little knowledge they had, and do what they can to learn from him over the next few hours. Wine connoisseurs are usually very generous with their knowledge and their wines.

That’s the only way I managed to taste some real beauties like Chateau Yquem 1976 and Chateau Palmer 1967. I sure as hell didn’t purchase them on my salary!

01.19.07 at 12:48 PM

Richard,

This is obviously a bit of a diversion from the topic at hand, but that sounds like quite the tale. I'm glad you're back in the drinking realm, even if you had to step away from it for a long while.

But to the subtopic at hand, I couldn't agree more about varietal as a noun. I did a post about the topic (I hate being one of those people who pimps their own post in someone else's comments, but if you search for varietal on OWF, it comes up) and a number of readers said "well, it's common usage and dictionaries should adapt" but I contend (as I'm sure you'd agree) that the noun varietal is always jargon and should thus be left by the roadside when one can use a non-jargon term instead. Since there's no non-jargon equivalent for "bottle marketed as from a single grape," one might as well use varietal in that context.

Welcome to a recent bee in my bonnet :)

And Alder, I'll try to stop reveling in pedantic comments.

Jessica wrote:
03.21.07 at 3:32 PM

Alder,

Sorry for the delayed comment; however, thanks so much for this article! I feel that any place offering a decent wine list, especially one with several pages should have someone in the joint who is educated on what is on those pages. When asking a waiter if he was familiar with a specific wine, he proceeded to point out 3 others that seemed "popular". Now, I didn't ask about those wines, nor do I care if many other people are drinking them. Finally, I had to ask if he could ask someone else on the staff if they were familiar with it. Isn't that the age old routine in a service industry if you have to admit that you don't know, to at least offer to find out? I just don't understand the point of offering so many wines if the "middle man" doesn't know anything about them. I'm glad I'm not the only one who gets annoyed by this! Thanks again for the great article.

Jess

TimmyCee wrote:
04.18.08 at 4:36 PM

I'm a waiter who wants to be as educated as I can be about wine, particularly the immediate and practical matter of pairing wine with food.

Because, although knowledge of regions, vineyards, wine science and vintage history is impressive, let's face it: knowing that the grape was grown on the north side of the mountain or seven yards from a bog doesn't tell the guest whether or not it will go well with the striped bass and braised fennel.

But here is the rub. I am a recovering alcoholic and cannot taste wine safely. I did enjoy a brief career as a wine hobbyist before things got too bad. So I do have a bit of memory reference.

My question is this:

How do I best educate myself and give good advice without first-hand tasting knowledge of the product. I certainly can't be the only waiter who doesn't drink (for whatever reason).

I've resisted being too studious about wine for fear that I may talk myself into thinking it would be okay to just "taste" the wine, for educational purposes, of course. But believe me my friends, my history many times over bears out that this is just not possible. Still, I recognize the fact that wine knowledge=wine sales=higher check averages=greater gratuities. And this appeals to me.

Your thoughts?

P.S. Like many waiters, I am an actor supporting myself with restaurant work during the times when I cannot make ends meet through my craft. So I've started to see developing my wine knowledge as an acting exercise.

Alder wrote:
04.19.08 at 5:44 PM

TimmyCee,

Thanks for the comments. The first thing I should tell you is that I'm not qualified to give advice in this area. This is something you should discuss with your doctor/therapist/addition group, etc.

As far as learning about the wines themselves, depending on the type of restaurant you work at, there may or may not be an opportunity to talk with the wine buyer and/or the chef and learn what they think of the wines and what their suggested pairings are.

But at the end of the day, if you're working in a place where customers really demand detailed explanations and recommendations about wines, it may be that you need to have a colleague stand in for you at that point in the customer interaction, and then slip them a little out of your tip for their help.

You're definitely in a tough spot. Good luck.

06.11.08 at 7:43 PM

When I was a restaurant manager I always had to drill it into the waiters head that "selling wine" was the easiest way for them to get a bigger tip (plus more revenue for the restaurant). They would rather work harder and sell another course instead of pouring 4 glasses of wine from a bottle to make the same money. It drove me nuts. I guess it comes from the lack of understanding of wine from both the server and managers.
I gave up restaurants, now I'm a banquet manager.

Mark R wrote:
07.17.08 at 9:43 AM

I am a semi-career waiter who is embarrassingly naive re. wine, but have finally resolved to take that final, and critical step in my education to be able to recommend a wine to each and every person to fit their taste and pocketbook. I'd like to know if any commentators that follow me would please recommend the best book that they know on wine, specifically one that would best help me, the waiter, do my job effectively, more enjoyably, and more profitably, which, of course, would naturally follow. I'm not a novice, but need a great reference book. Thanks in advance to all.

Alder wrote:
07.17.08 at 1:37 PM

Mark,

Karen MacNeil's The Wine Bible is an excellent starting point. I recommend it highly.

Beef Booze wrote:
07.24.08 at 7:20 PM

I'm a part time career server. Always thought i'd be done with it by now. However, I keep falling back into it. I know about wine, but never have the money to drink the good to great stuff, and thats the problem. We servers taste stuff on the list occasionally along with many other bottles from the rep or off the list. But how do you remember 1 oz. of wine after tasting 4 others and be expected to comment on it 3 weeks later when asked about it? I find that my knowledge of styles from countries, regions, and varieties combined with food pairing rules works well for me to give informed opinions. But "I'm sorry Sir, I have not tried the $178 bottle of Chateau La Snob, but for that price how could you be disappointed?"

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