This year the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, the largest global provider of wine qualifications, is celebrating 50 years of educating on terroirs and varietals. Fiona Sims joins the party
Last week, the world's largest food and wine pairing event took place at the Kia Oval in London. More than 330 people attended the event, hosted by wine celebrity Olly Smith and sommelier Virgilio Gennaro, wine director at Giorgio Locatelli Consultancy, breaking a Guinness World Record.
The taste-a-thon was synced with similar events in 24 countries around the world, from New Zealand to California, to mark the first-ever global Wine Education Week (9-15 September). It was launched by the UK-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) – the largest global provider of wine qualifications, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Today's customers want more than a simple ‘red or white', with many demanding to know which smaller producers making wines with lesser-known grape varieties from emerging regions are on a wine list. Some can even hold their own when talk turns to lees ageing.
"Ten years ago customers would choose a bottle of wine for the table or choose the tasting menu with pairings. Now customers prefer to go à la carte, and choose wines by the glass for each course, with the focus less on sommeliers and more on knowledgeable front of house staff; while wine lists have shrunk, and the dining environment has become more casual," observes Gennaro, who also teaches consumer courses at WSET.
But has the hospitality industry kept pace with consumers' newfound passion and knowledge for wine? Yes, if you clock the figures of attendees on WSET courses, an estimated two-thirds of whom are in some way connected to the wine and spirit industry, from serving in a restaurant to working for a wine buyer. According to Ian Harris, WSET's chief executive, there is a 15% rise in students year-on-year, and in the last academic year (2018/19) an impressive 108,557 people sat a WSET qualification somewhere in the world.
The UK is the biggest market for the WSET – but only just, accounting for 19% of the total number of students enrolled. WSET courses are available in 75 countries, with the US and China hot on the UK's heels. Even India has found its way into its top 20 for the first time.
"It's incredibly exciting to have got wine education onto the radar screens of so many people all over the world," grins Harris.
And it is still growing in the UK, at a more modest 5%, which is pretty good in an industry struggling with closures, soaring business rates and minimum wage issues.
This is due in large part, says Harris, to the wine wholesalers, who are running many of its courses, among them Bibendum Wine, Jascots Wine Merchants, Liberty Wines, Hallgarten & Novum Wines, Enotria & Coe and Matthew Clark. "The majority of those sitting WSET qualifications are coming through this route now," he confirms.
Indeed, some wholesalers have created additional wine educational initiatives, such as Jascots, with its WineEd – a wine training company run by ex-sommeliers, that includes workshops and mobile-friendly online courses.
Last year Bibendum launched its Wine Minds programme, open to all in the hospitality industry, "to empower emerging industry talent by creating a network of like-minded individuals", and promising to help develop skills and career development. Earlier this year it launched its six-month, part-time Wine Minds apprenticeship, which includes an internship with a wine producer and trips to wineries around the world, as well as WSET courses.
A lot to learn
"The key difference between now and a decade ago is that the industry is recognising that the investment in WSET qualifications is not a cost they can cut. They recognise the value it can add to their staff, and that it puts money on their bottom line," says Harris. Ah yes, the upsell. Nothing sells a wine better than a back story. But to deliver that back story, you need wine knowledge and passion. But how much?
Vincenzo Arnese, head sommelier and wine buyer at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at London's Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, who runs WSET courses both for his and the hotel's staff, says: "The answer is simple – the more our staff know about wine, the better it is for both them and the guest. Even with our extensive sommelier team at Dinner by Heston, it's useful for our front of house staff to have some wine knowledge, as they are in direct contact with guests.
"They should be able to answer simple questions about wine, even direct guests to the right wine option. At the very least they should know the selection offered by the glass, from the provenance to the flavour profile of each wine. Guests are more knowledgeable about wine these days – they know what they want. Wine is a big part of the restaurant experience and guests are searching for the perfect combination of flavours to satisfy and impress."
A little wine knowledge can go a long way, says Harris, who spent 25 years in sales and marketing for the wine and spirit industry before joining WSET as chief executive in 2002. "It's important for everyone in the hospitality sector to know something about wine, whether they work in the kitchen or front of house."
Romain Bourger agrees. As head sommelier and wine buyer at the Vineyard in Stockcross, Berkshire, and current holder of the Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year, he has been running WSET courses at the hotel for six years. "Because so many more customers are interested in wine, it's important, now more than ever, for all the staff to have at least the basics when it comes to wine knowledge.
"Wine is an integral part of a meal, and an important part of daily life. Knowing how wine is made, and which are the main wineproducing regions and their key grape varieties, is the bare minimum you need – not to mention having basic wine service practices, such as knowing the correct glassware and how to decant a wine.
"But the main thing I look for these days is passion. Knowing about your wines by the glass is one thing, but being able to transmit your passion is something else. This is what makes the customer experience," declares Bourger. That goes for pubs, too. Henry Harris, chefdirector of Harcourt Inns, is a firm believer in showing passion about wine, not least because it boosts his bottom line. "Our staff's enthusiasm for the wines we list – especially those at a higher price point – transfers directly into sales," he reports.
"We believe wait staff should have equal enthusiasm and passion for both food and beverages and have a desire to know as much about them as possible. We would expect our staff to be able to speak confidently, knowledgeably and enthusiastically about everything on the list. And yes, that wine knowledge has had a very positive impact on sales.
"Customer interest in wine has grown dramatically in the last decade. They want to know more about all of the wines available, rather than simply ordering a generic style of wine. Because of this, staff have to have a more in-depth knowledge of the entire beverage menu, so we have dedicated more training to this as it is of great importance," says Henry, who reckons staff enthusiasm for wine has been ignited, in part, by the closer industry access to smaller independent producers – an opinion held by many in the industry, among them the folks at the WSET, who champion smaller producers from emerging regions in their tastings.
"One of the big changes is how the industry is now looking at smaller independent producers, especially those that source grapes from lesser-known regions and make wines with more unusual grape varieties. It makes wine lists far more interesting. When you look at wine lists today it's no longer France, France, France and a bit of Italy. It's important for people to understand the emerging wine regions in the world," declares Ian Harris, who reveals that one of the highlights of his day is walking the corridors at WSET headquarters in Bermondsey when classes have finished, listening to students chatting excitedly about some of these newfound wines.
That's the spirit
In fact, it's not just wine that WSET students are talking about excitedly, but spirits, too. New for WSET this year is the spirit qualification, Levels 1 to 3, for which demand is growing fast from mixologists and bartenders, reports Ian Harris, such is the interest surrounding the craft distilling and cocktail industries.
"As it is with wine, customers want to know what's in their cocktails and where those spirits come from, so it's important for staff to know what they are selling," he reasons. There are now 273 different places in the UK where you can attend a WSET course, but if you can't find one near you, then go online, as the WSET is continuing to invest in the development of its online programme.
"But when it comes to learning about wines and spirits there is an element of networking that goes on – the people you meet in the classes sometimes remain friends for life or act as a conduit for a career move. I'd love to know how many marriages have happened thanks to meeting at a WSET class," grins Ian Harris. So as well as learning a bit about wine, you might meet your life partner, too. Who needs online dating when you've got the WSET?
How to engage your staff in the wine list
Vincenzo Arnese, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
"At the restaurant, we organise various wine-related activities, from masterclasses with suppliers and producers, to winery visits and blind tasting sessions. Recently, we introduced a monthly newsletter with stories and info from the wine world.
"The subject can be a tad heavy for some, so it's good to find a different way to talk about it, through visual elements, such as maps or diagrams. You can interact with people by using questions and help them understand what is in the glass; help them build their vocabulary.
"I think that the WSET Level 2 qualification is a good base for anyone who wants to start their wine journey. A sommelier must have WSET Level 3, along with the courses offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers. But what is most important is that they never stop learning and never stop challenging themselves, as the wine world is continually evolving."
Henry Harris, Harcourt Inns
"Each venue runs its own in-house training programme on a weekly basis. These are usually run by the general manager or the bar manager and will focus on a couple of specific items from the beer, spirits or wine list each time.
"Often, Harcourt Inns invites wine makers, brewers, spirit distributors and brand ambassadors to the sites to run tutored tastings for the staff – again focusing on two or three items. Regular training and tasting sessions spark staff's interest and passion.
"But the very best way to sell a wine is through the winemaker's tutored tastings – they're really effective. Alternatively, take your staff to the vineyard for a tour."
Virgilio Gennaro, Giorgio Locatelli Consultancy
"First of all, try and involve all the waiting staff in the wine programme – tasting all the wines offered by the glass daily helps a lot; first, because they can improve their tasting skills, and second, because they are repeatedly exposed to the wines – they will learn. We generally focus on one wine per day.
"And always tell a story – when tasting wine, we always share something that is linked either to the producer or to the wine, because generally stories are easier to remember.
"The sales incentives you offer should be open to everyone – restaurants should avoid sending the same staff on trips or dinners. We always organise for both front and back of house staff to be involved in winery visits if we can.
"Use suppliers visits and supplier training sessions as much as possible; suppliers are not just there to sell wine but to support the sale and promotion of brands by different means, one of them being training. We also offer daily training on wines by the glass, weekly training and tastings with suppliers for sommeliers and chef de rangs."
About the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET)
Set up in 1969 and celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019, WSET is the largest global provider of qualifications in the field of wines, spirits and sake. It offers qualifications across four levels, from one-day beginner courses through to an expert level diploma. Courses are available in more than 15 languages and more than 70 countries and are open both to industry professionals and interested enthusiasts.
Qualification Levels 1 to 3 (with the exception of the Level 3 Award in Spirits) are recognised by the UK government (Ofqual) and all WSET qualifications have a reputation worldwide as the industry standard. In the last academic year (2018/19) more than 100,000 candidates sat for a WSET qualification and, since 1969, WSET has awarded more than half a million individuals a WSET qualification.
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