Article By: David Singer
Being knowledgeable about wine is more than just knowing the difference between Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio or who the latest hot cult producer is. Wine, like the rest of the table, is primarily a sensory experience and understanding it begins with the nose. As wine professionals - whether in a restaurant, a retail store or in sales - we are able to effectively communicate the sensual characteristics of wine with clients by using our own expertise and tasting notes. But is the same true for all of our staff? I firmly believe that as professionals we are only as good as our staff. On any given day we simply cannot be with every client and give the individual attention that he or she deserves. Therefore, your employees must be educated to the point where you have complete confidence in their abilities. And one of the fundamental elements of teaching employees is developing their palate, particularly their sense of smell.
Imparting your knowledge is no easy task. I've found that smell is the most intimidating quality to describe for most people. That's because, although we're capable of sensing anything in our field of smelling experience, recognizing it without any other sensory triggers is challenging. Simply put, if we see a rose, we expect to smell a rose, and then can easily recognize the smell. Without that trigger, it can be difficult for some to develop it. So how do we teach this skill to our staff? Let's start with explaining how to smell. Give them a glass of red wine and have them sniff. Generally they will take a long, deep sniff, overloading their olfactory glands. Instruct them to instead use a series of quick little sniffs. To the inevitable question of "why?" I answer with: Take a look at your puppy dog. Their noses are far and away superior to ours and that's how they do it instinctively. After they have sniffed, then what? A good way to start is to use a simple acronym: F.E.W. or Fruit, Earth, Wood. Most of what we smell in a wine will be one of those. Then within each category, move from the general to the specific. For an excellent example of this technique, I recommend checking out the University of California at Davis' wine aroma wheel (www.winearomawheel.com).
Fruit is the easiest characteristic to begin with for most people. Ask them a general question to begin with: Does the wine smell like black fruit - black currant, black berries or blueberries? Or is it more like red fruit - cherries, strawberries or cranberries? In a Pinot Noir from Oregon, they might smell red fruit. Now narrow it down further. What kind of red fruit is it? You say strawberries, and voila! You and your nose have distinguished a sensory note in a Pinot Noir. The reward of the proverbial light going off in their head is worth its weight in gold. Have them return to the glass and look for scents or notes that are not fruit driven. Following the acronym, think about earth, which can be literally that, or elements that come from the earth, like barnyard. Naturally the barnyard scent can also be seen in Pinot Noir from the old world, most notably, red Burgundy. See if they can pick up other earth notes of minerals, grass, tobacco and spice without prompting. Finally, wood, which can either be something like cedar or sandalwood or, as we know, could be something imparted by the oak barrels that the winemaker matured the wine in. Explain that the newer the oak, the more those vanilla nuances will get into the wine.
Another approach is to play what I call the "smell game", to help them train their nose. In the smell game, you create a strong cue outside the wine for what you should smell in the wine. Use a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for an example. Several different kinds of citrus notes come screaming out of the glass. Have on hand a lemon, a lime and a grapefruit. Instruct them to smell the wine, smell one of the citrus fruits and then return to the wine. When they smell the lemon and return to the glass, the lemon scent will pop out and they'll experience what it is like to identify a specific note in the wine.
Also, keep in mind that every individual's sense of smell is uniquely tailored to his or her life experience. You can only recognize scents if you've smelled the real thing before and we all differ in that regard. For example, if you grew up on a farm, you'll recognize barnyard smells that a lifelong urbanite won't, and a Brit might recognize bregamont tea where an American may not. Case in point, a friend and, at the time, Assistant F&B of a hotel I used to work for, grew up in Germany. As he went home everyday he would pass a field of nettles. When he nosed a wine made from Sauvignon Blanc, it would remind him of that field of nettles after it rained. Personally, I've never seen a nettle, probably wouldn't know one if it bit me, and certainly can't claim to have smelled one in a glass of wine.
Teaching is one of the joys of the job and like anything else it takes time. The more you have your staff think about what they smell, the more developed their palate will become - and the more sophisticated their client service and sales technique will be. Which always translates into a better client experience as well as an improved bottom line, for staff and restaurateurs alike.