In Wine Staff Education Programs, Passion Meets Practicality

What do you love—really love—about your work? If you’re a winemaker, maybe it’s those walks in the vineyards, testing fruit for ripeness while the morning fog burns away. If you’re a salesperson, perhaps it’s the giddy high that comes from spreading the gospel of fine wine to thirsty masses. A somm? It could be the ecstasy you see on a guest’s face as they touch that first sip to their lips.

Whatever you love, you feel compelled to share it. If you work for a wine brand, you naturally you want your colleagues and direct reports to share the love, too. Infectious passion for the work not only invigorates a team, but—importantly—it also invigorates your brand.

But love and passion will get you only so far. The case for cultivating knowledgeable staff runs beyond the romantic to the practical. If you want to be part of a successful wine program, you also need a staff education strategy, in particular one centered on wine, wine service, and sensory development.

Yvon Chouinard, a pioneering outdoorsman and founder of outdoor gear company Patagonia, famously quipped, “The more you know, the less you need.” In other words, an increase in knowledge—both yours and your team’s—can help a business run more efficiently. Training helps both performance and retention.

6-30_StaffTraining_CookNeed proof? Chew on these tidbits:

  • According to Harvard Business Review, staff training can improve performance by 22 percent, while training accompanied by coaching can improve performance by 88 percent.
  •  In a study conducted by the employment service firm Spherion Atlantic Enterprises, 61 percent of respondents who received professional development said they were very likely to remain with their current employer for five years or more.

Matt Fern believes in the gospel of staff education. A longtime manager and partner in AC Restaurant Group in Raleigh, North Carolina, Fern has seen the establishment grow markedly, and he now directs the beverage program for seven restaurants.

“The enjoyment for me is to take someone with little to no wine knowledge and show them that they can not only learn about this fun drink, but become a champion of it as well,” Fern says. “The obvious advantages of training in specific are increased sales, but the one that may not be obvious is the ability to develop trust with returning guests.”

That dynamic of guest rapport—along with an inimitable menu of food, wine, and cocktails—has made AC Restaurant Group a culinary crown jewel of the Southeast United States. In 2014, Chef Ashley Christensen brought home a 2014 James Beard Award. Clearly, Fern and his crew are onto something.


Before You Dive In

While a wine staff education program certainly has benefits, there are a few caveats in setting it up. First, any program must have a clear direction. If it fails to dovetail with your company’s mission, you could be wasting time and money and frustrating the team in the process. Also, your educational program shouldn’t negatively affect day-to-day productivity. Monitor your employees to ensure the training makes them feel engaged, not distracted or stressed.

Finally, be aware that well-trained employees are more marketable to competitors. That’s not a reason not to train people—it just means you’ll need to consider developing an incentive system to keep strong staff on board. Plus, employees who feel like their company is investing energy in them tend to be happier and more loyal. Christian Oggenfuss, founder and chief educational officer of the new Napa Valley Wine Academy, agrees. “A well-educated staff tends to stay with you longer.”


So, Who Should Get Training?

AntoinetteMoranoA key step in setting up any training program is deciding who gets training. Nomacorc’s Antoinette Morano, an expert in sensory science, was hired in 2003 to monitor both the quality of its products and consumer reactions to them, and she quickly made training a priority. Morano started by working with the companies making ingredients for Nomacorc products to realize immediate product benefits. Then she moved on to train Nomacorc’s internal staff.

Inevitably, employees bring different strengths to the table—and some weaknesses, too. While Morano is a supertaster (an obvious asset on the job), some who dream of a wine career have limited sensory abilities due to physical conditions or habits that compromise their olfactory and digestive systems. To get a true sense of aptitude, Morano leads each Nomacorc staff person through 30 hours of initial assessments, testing his or her capacity to detect such tastes as sweet, salty, and bitter and such faults as TCA and oxidation. “In this way, we can zero in on what is lacking,” says Morano.

Employee status is also a key factor in determining eligibility for staff education. Some organizations are flat, with little hierarchy, but many companies choose to make a greater investment in salaried versus hourly employees. Still, it’s best to identify the leaders in your company and invest in them; these individuals can be great resources for the rest of the team.


What Type of Training Will Be Offered?

6-30_StaffTrainingOnline_CookA career in wine demands a mix of vocational, technical, and professional skills. Which of these are most important for you and your employees? Which certifications or programs are a fit? Christian Oggenfuss says that at Napa Valley Wine Academy, “Most people wind up choosing WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) or CSW (Certified Specialist of Wine), then take the knowledge back to their companies to train other staff.”

Both programs are general enough to provide a good foundation in wine understanding. Management can then fill in the specifics of a given workplace, be it a winery, restaurant, retail store, or other wine business. Napa Valley Wine Academy also puts together custom education plans for wineries and distributors, adds Oggenfuss.

Online educational courses are a good option, too. These are generally tailored to busy professionals who want to complete the coursework quickly and without the requirement of being present in a classroom. Online courses are especially great for salespeople on the run, waitstaff with difficult or back-to-back shifts, and winery personnel working intense and laborious harvest seasons.

Some staff development choices are obvious: A winery wants hospitality training for its tasting room staff, for example. Yet it sometimes pays to think outside the box. A CEO might participate in harvest boot camp. An administrative assistant could expand horizons by engaging in a wine service course. Asking employees to shift gears may invite them to perform a specialized role with greater perspective. And the company might wind up with a far more engaged, productive workforce.


What’s the Investment?

In setting up a wine staff education program, you’ll need to decide what kind of financial investment your company is willing to make. Will costs be split between the employee and company? Will the company reimburse only tuition, or also wine, books, and course-related fees? Will trained and certified staff enjoy a bump in pay? A greater investment by the corporation could heighten employee morale, but employees who pony-up for their own education sometimes feel more invested in the course material and therefore work harder.

Matt Fern of AC Restaurant Group is keenly aware of the financial implications of a training program. “The challenge of in house-training is the incurred costs of getting a team into a room and pulling corks for them,” he says, although quickly adds, “This is obviously an incredibly important part of the program, since the best way to learn is to taste.” Over time, though, some of his staff members have become so enthusiastic about learning that they have made tasting an extracurricular activity, carrying out after-hours tastings in their homes—again, bearing some of the cost themselves.

Regardless of where training takes place, it’s important for management to monitor the program to ensure the investment of wine and time pays dividends. “Over the course of time we do need to find a way to affect the bottom line somehow,” says Fern.


Keep The Drumbeat Going

It’s sometimes enough simply to point employees in the right direction. Designate a staff guide who can give others access to educational resources, and make sure that person stays abreast of industry events, too. The company newsletter is another great way to announce courses available at neighboring businesses, local community colleges, and other educational venues.

Below are some additional tips to integrate training into your workplace:

  • Consider conducting short tastings during staff meetings.
  • Focus on a single varietal or region during a tasting session. This lets people focus on one key idea, which more readily cements their learning.
  • Provide background information and a frame of reference for the material you’re presenting. If you’re tasting wine, discuss the wine’s origins and history. If you’re training in hospitality, try role-playing, and present some theory that explains customer behavior.
  • Ask each employee to contribute somehow, perhaps by suggesting a favorite type of wine to taste, or by helping arrange the logistics of the training session.
  • Give homework—and hold employees accountable. Provide materials before a training session and ask people to come armed with at least one question. Then send them away with homework for the next training session.

When you keep training opportunities in front of your staff—and make it clear you value them—staff are more likely to act, and a passion for learning is more likely to become part of your company culture.

Photos courtesy of Total Learning, The Westminster Collection and WSET.

About the Author

Amy Bess Cook ( has been a working writer for 16 years. For half that time, she managed a boutique winery in Sonoma. With a zeal for creative entrepreneurship and a passion for the vine, Amy Bess now works as a writer and brand consultant within the wine industry. Check out her harvest journal and winemaking project here:

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