Red, white, I haven't a clue
When staff wine knowledge amounts to little more than an awareness that it comes in three colours, you’ve got a problem. Henrietta Clancy goes back to school for a course that aims to inspire confidence in the uninitiated
Lesson one in traditional wine education tends to concern the grape: its basic biology, what soil it likes, what weather it favours, and the way in which it’s grown. Then you learn about different grapes – loads of them – what ones tend to be mixed with other ones and what countries they come from. Then you start to acquire a tasting vocabulary.
But for every person who picks up on the suggested notes of ripe plum, damp tobacco and old leather, there will be others who only get ‘wine smell’ and are intimidated into feeling like they’re incapable of speaking about wine. And if that person is a member of your staff, that’s a problem, because an unsure customer paired with an unsure waiter makes for a swift decision to stick to house red, rendering your carefully compiled wine list redundant.
Not all members of restaurant staff have a burgeoning desire to know their Gamay from their Grenache, but they need to be able to confidently respond to customers who turn to them for recommendations. Customers, too, rarely want more than some simple advice.
Such is the thinking behind Enotria’s new service-led, four-hour wine course. Taught on site – and short enough to be neatly tucked in between lunch and dinner service – the course draws directly from the restaurant’s own list and menu, coming with a custom-made Enotria-emblazoned folder that has a section dedicated to each Enotria wine on the list.
Back to basics
So here I am at the Cornish outpost of Jamie Oliver’s restaurant, Fifteen, with five staff: head sommelier Gordon Lawrence, his assistant Elly Silburn (here to pick up teaching tips), and three floor staff.
FROM THE STAFF AT 15
Gordon Lawrence, head sommelier
‘I think we all need to look at ways to break the mould with wine, especially the way we teach people about it. You
become fixed in your views and ways, so it’s great to be provoked into looking at things
Elly Silburn, assistant sommelier
‘It was a good way of assessing how to teach other members of staff how to deal with customers, and how to introduce the wines in a way that feels familiar and natural.’
Kevin Taylor, restaurant supervisor
‘It was great in the way that it took some of the elitism out of wine – simplifying things and making them user-friendly and universal.’
Debbie Warner, wine & front of house
‘It was really nice to bring things back to basics. The most minute details actually don’t matter to a proportion of customers. A lot of them just want the basic information.’
Enotria’s Lily Hicks begins our session with the theatre that surrounds wine. Everything from the correct way to open a bottle, to how to react when it’s rejected, is covered. We diligently fill in exercises that relate to each topic discussed, and I note that I’m the only one who’s completely failed to ‘hand my guests a wine list’ when they sit at their table. At this rate I’ll be lucky to shift a bottle of house anything.
Next topic in the session is wine itself – how to taste it, and how to classify it. Lavish descriptors don’t even get a look in; instead we are introduced to a refreshingly straightforward idea that wines can loosely be slotted into one of four boxes.
Thus, white wines and rosés are either delicate and dry (Pinot Grigio, Chablis, Sauvignon Blanc) or full and fruity (Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Viognier); while red wines are either light and lively (Beaujolais, Pinot Noir, Chianti) or big and bold (Rioja, Merlot, Malbec). We’re all handed a copy of the Fifteen wine list and asked to categorise each wine accordingly.
The adjectives are easily memorable and, as Hicks points out, they’re words that anyone would feel comfortable using. We also get a flavour wheel – one that’s been scaled down to accommodate some vital taste characteristics on one side, and, when flipped, offers suggestions for what wines can be paired with spiced, light and heavy food styles.
Food & Wine
Armed with our wheel and our four categories, the food menu comes under scrutiny, with each dish being assigned a wine. Or two or three. Working in pairs for this exercise, my partner and I have discovered that our confidence is suddenly so damn high that we’re showing off.
I suddenly realise that this is the most confident about wine I’ve ever felt, and I’m meant to be au fait with the jargon. Similarly, the qualified sommeliers are revelling in the approach, because it genuinely feels new. As I listen to the suggestions being shouted out for each dish, I can hear some pretty persuasive arguments for bottles that, if ordered, would please everyone involved.
The customer would relish the wine, happy to have discovered something new; the sommelier would congratulate himself on having included the bottle on his list; and the waiter would get a warm fuzzy feeling for a job well done – doubtless enhanced by a generous tip.
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – March/April 2011