Building a Team of Sommeliers in Your Restaurant

While food sales are the driving force of restaurants, beverage sales can account for up to forty percent of a restaurant’s revenue if you have a staff that is confident in their knowledge of your beverage program. Having a Sommelier can be great for your beverage sales, but can also be an expensive luxury. Instead of a Sommelier, most restaurants place a manager with some wine education in charge of their beverage program, but other demands can limit that manager’s presence at tables for beverage sales. When a guest has questions about selections on your beverage list, and your beverage manager is not available to guide them, the rest of your staff should be prepared to be the guide.

When I managed at Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass., I cultivated the staff’s understanding of our beverage offerings and treated beverage service as another point of service we worked on daily. As a result, they were more proactive at tables when suggesting beverage options to guests rather than merely taking drink orders. I used pre-shift meetings to taste wine on some days and to learn about wine, beer and spirits on others. As a result we showed a measurable increase in overall beverage sales and profits.

Here are some ideas I used to excite and educate my staff about beverage sales:

Keep a “Wine Bible.” Many restaurants have a Food Bible. They should also have a Wine Bible as a quick reference for their servers. If a manager or Sommelier is not available on a busy night, this can be a great tool. This book or binder should be filled with maps of major wine regions and technical sheets for every wine that is on your list.  The information should be specific only to the wines on your list.

Keep it fresh.  Sometimes your voice becomes dull to your staff and they tune out. It is important to bring in other voices to your daily training. Invite your wine sales representatives to lead some staff trainings by presenting their selections on your list.  You can also choose one service staff member a week to make a short presentation on a wine or wine region on your list for their peers.

Involve winemakers. When I managed, I invited Chris Howell, the winemaker of Cain in Napa Valley, to present a component tasting of Cain 5 to the Blue Ginger staff.  The staff was excited to learn directly from a prestigious winemaker, which showed when they spoke to guests about the wine. When winemakers come to town to “work the market” they appreciate the opportunity to teach a restaurant staff about their wine(s). Servers then connect with those winemakers and push their wines more which makes more money for both the restaurant and the winemaker.

Support formal education or certifications for your staff. Some restaurants require external wine/beverage training for their staff. For example, CityZen at the Washington, DC Mandarin Oriental requires their Captains to have passed at least the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Level One exam.  However, outside formal training can be time consuming and costly for staff members which can deter them from pursuing such education. A more time and cost effective avenue for formal wine/beverage training is to invite a professional wine educator to lead a seminar on wine basics or wine regions complete with tastings, handouts and testing for the whole staff.

By implementing these four simple techniques, not only will you grow the confidence in each of your service staff’s beverage sales skills, you’ll start to see increased sales and compliments from your guests.

About the Author

Tom Finigan is the principal of VineCrush Consulting, an education and consulting service on wine, beer and spirits in the National Capital Region. In addition to wine education and events, VineCrush works with restaurants on list creation and staff training. Visit and follow him on twitter @VineCrush.

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