Remember when a night out didn’t involve a glass of wine? Or wine wasn’t the go to drink for celebrations and commiserations? When going to dinner with family or work colleagues and having wine with it brought you out into a cold sweat?
Wine comes with a heavy dose of social expectation and cultural value attached, and because of that, it feels daunting to almost everyone. The majority of people I meet tell me that they love wine and would like to know more, but they never get round to learning about it. Over the course of time people pick up bits and pieces of wine knowledge that help them feel like they know something, and make sure they know what they like.
But it could be so much easier!
I’ve worked in wine for 15 years (always at the practical side), and for a long time my speciality was supermarket own label. As part of that I’ve run thousands of tastings for consumers and hospitality, initially as an importer, and then for my own business. I developed the WineTubeMap to help people explore wine more easily without feeling overwhelmed by everything you don’t know!
Working in and around food and wine, it’s sometimes hard to remember that the thought of having to talk to someone else about wine can be so stressful… so spare a thought for the people who work front of house and aren’t wine drinkers yet but are representing you and your winelist.
“When I give a customer the winelist I avoid making eye contact with them so they don’t engage me in a conversation”
“I’m ashamed when a customer asks me about wine and I don’t know the answer, it makes me feel stupid”
Real (and pretty shocking) answers from a young front of house team I was working with recently. I hear a lot of criticism that people don’t care about their jobs and are just doing the bare minimum to get by. Not the case here. They were genuinely bothered that they couldn’t do more, but their lack of knowledge and (more importantly) their lack of confidence meant they were actively avoiding wine conversations, and ultimately impacting the customer’s experience.
In fact, over 90% of them said that knowing more about wine would help them do their jobs better. They also saw it as a huge personal benefit, saying that ‘wine is a life skill’ and that if they knew more about wine they would drink more wine and spend more on it for themselves.
Customers are often just as terrified of the wine conversation as the staff. It’s a fine line to tread between drowning them in wine blah blah and having a genuine conversation that inspires them to try something different, something better or something that will enhance their meal. Knowledge isn’t the key thing here, it’s connection.
So, what can you do to improve wine chat?
For many, formal wine training doesn’t work. It’s expensive, tricky to get the right people in the room together, and you lose the knowledge as soon as a team member leaves.
Instead, there’s some good practice that anyone can do regardless of budget…
Change the language – if everyone feels a bit of an idiot describing the flavours get them to describe the wines as football teams, music or something else. For example, taste two wines and get the team to describe them as artists, which is more ‘Adele’? Inherently people will say that the ‘Adele wine’ is smooth, rich, powerful (maybe a barrel aged Chardonnay or Viognier), something more ‘pop’ would be a lighter, fresher, sweeter wine. You don’t need to explain, people generally get it. Same with football teams. Which is wine is a first division vs a second division? Which is ‘Barcelona’? Sounds silly but it works.
These are all small things which I've used repeatedly in tastings, to help people feel more confident about talking about wine. In doing so, it opens conversations about wine up to everyone and makes it feel like a joy and not a test. Once you’ve opened that door, my experience is that people are hungry to know and learn more.
The key thing here is that making eye contact with the wine list doesn’t have to be a huge amount of work or a massive change. Too much information in one go can drown people and make it feel even more daunting. Instead, go for the drip effect: gradually build confidence across your team, leading to better customer engagement and sales.
Artist Credit: Ross Macrae