"Huh? What number is that?" asked my waiter when I ordered a glass of Alsace Sylvaner. To be fair, the place had just opened, so probably the waiter wasn't yet familiar with the list. But a bit more enthusiasm wouldn't go amiss - especially as it was £12 a glass.
The chef-proprietor is a wine nut, so I expect that staff wine training will follow. But it would have been great if the waiter had not only complimented me on my choice (I had chosen a tricky starter of smoked eel) but suggested an alternative. That's not too much to ask these days, surely?
Apparently not, because an increasing number of operators are realising the potential of increasing wine knowledge among their staff to achieve better wine sales.
Pubs seem to have it the hardest. The odd gastropub excepted, I'm still frequently met with a sullen "Red or white?" when I ask about the wines on offer in a British bar.
One person who is only too aware how lack of wine knowledge among staff affects sales is Eileen Ginger, wine and spirits buyer for Whitbread. "People have finally realised how big an issue this is right across the trade," she says. "I want to improve the wine range, but unless the staff have the confidence to sell it, it's not going to work."
Excluding Costa Coffee, Ginger has nearly 1,000 businesses to look after on the wine front, including Beefeaters and Premier Inns, with wine accounting for 20% of wet sales on average - a marked increase in the past year alone.
Sometimes she does the wine training herself, but more often she gets her suppliers involved. They then deal directly with individual houses, offering talks and tastings on an annual basis - something Ginger is keen to roll out further.
"I'm urging suppliers to put the investment aside to increase those visits," she says. "It's key for them and key for us, and if we can get this right, everybody will benefit."
In another new development, Whitbread now employs dedicated trainers who cover wine as well as food, while the company intranet provides a useful learning tool that gives teams an incentive to sell certain wines and flags up the most profitable lines. Add to that some highly visible back-bar merchandising and simply laid-out wine lists with easy descriptions, and the wheels are already in motion.
"We want to show that we're serious about wine," explains Ginger, who has already made some key discoveries.
"How you engineer your wine list is important," she says. "For example, don't put your cheapest wines at the top of your list - people will always choose those first. And a good way of upselling is to highlight ‘favourite' reds and whites on the list. Customers really go for it, providing the wines you choose aren't the most expensive."
But although Ginger wants Whitbread to be seen as being serious about wine, she doesn't want to introduce Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) training any time soon. "That's too advanced," she says. "We are a food-led business. But I'd love to see a drinks champion on each site - that's my vision. And we as an industry should all be working together on this."
Someone else who is making good use of his wine suppliers is Will Beckett. As a director of the Underdog Group, which includes an award-winning gastropub, an award-winning Mexican bar and restaurant, a popular steak joint and a consultancy service, Beckett has no time to train his staff on wine - but he knows a man who can.
"We've found that trying to do everything ends up costing us more money in the long run, and staff training can fall into that," says Beckett. "But you don't have to muddle through suppliers can train staff. And don't be frightened to get people in. Wine consultants cost, but ultimately they will save you money."
Wine training is part of the induction process for staff when they join the Underdog Group, and Beckett encourages his managers to lay on a tasting session every Friday. "They open up a couple of bottles, get some food in and get chatting," he says. "We've even got lots of wine books for them to borrow if they want."
While upselling is clearly important to the company, Beckett believes that a more sensitive approach is needed to do it effectively. "People don't want to feel they are being sold to," he says. "Product knowledge is important for staff, but it's no replacement for experience and personality. You can only upsell if you have a connection with the consumer. I think it's almost impossible to train in that sense."
One of Beckett's goals is to see everyone who works for him trained to WSET Intermediate level - but without forking out for the courses. "I don't want to put my time and effort into staff who are constantly leaving," he explains, "so we are investing more heavily in four ‘wine champions' who have stuck around and who will impart their knowledge. Our suppliers can do the rest."
Over at the country's largest on-trade wine supplier, Enotria Winecellars, sales director Simon Treanor, whose mantra is "education, education, education", is unequivocal about the benefits of wine training. Treanor says that he has seen some of his customers increase their wine sales by as much as 13% after staff have been trained by him and his team. He also believes that increasing wine knowledge across the team has helped to reduce staff turnover.
The company is now WSET-accredited, so it can handle as many as 120 students a year for the keenest of his customers. "But an operator needs to help train both staff and the consumer," he insists. "You can train staff as much as you want but, invariably, the decision is made on a wine after looking through the wine list - so you must make that an easier process for the diner."
Beckett has many tips on that score, but one practice that continues to surprise him is that of operators who offer the most popular grape varieties at the cheapest price, even though consumers are happy to spend more on wines they are familiar with.
"There are loads of wine lists out there where Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc are positioned at entry level but, frankly, they should be much higher up the list," he believes. "Same goes for Merlot. And you don't just have to have one Pinot Grigio - have two, with one at a higher price point. The wine list is the biggest opportunity to upsell to the customer."
Another thing Treanor's trainers like to encourage their students to do is to drop in little nuggets of interesting information about a particular wine when talking to customers. "Not what it tastes like, but that the vines are 70 years old," says Treanor, by way of example. "It personalises it and brings the product to life. It's providing the waiter with info that doesn't scare them off, and they can relate to it the same way any man on the street can."
Treanor will be speaking at the on-trade-focused wine show Wine+ in January (see panel), where he will reveal some of the findings from new research into the way consumers read a wine list. This research is based on interviews with more than 200 customers and a study of 12 outlets, including Strada and Med Kitchen. Various types of wine list have been trialled and studied, including those laid out by style, those set out by country and wine lists linked to the menu.
"We are not going to give all the results away, of course, but we will certainly be revealing some key points," he promises.
Ginger and Beckett will also be talking at the show, with Beckett looking at the strengths and weaknesses of outsourcing. Bag your place now.
Wne Training providers
An alternative is to contact one of the many wine consultants out there.
There are also wine education courses available. Your first stop should be the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (020 8236 3551, www.wset.co.uk), which organises a network of wine courses around the country. Or, if being there in person is tricky, try a distance-learning pack from the Academy of Food & Wine Service (020 8943 1011, www.acfws.org).
Wine+, the UK's only event exclusively for the on-trade, will take place on 16-17 January 2008 at London's Olympia.
If you are responsible for buying or selecting wines, spirits, stemware or water for your restaurant, hotel, pub, club, bar or catering company, Wine+ will help you to increase your profitability and keep abreast of consumer trends.
For more details go to www.wineplus.co.uk.