Article By: Chris Lyons
A little over a year ago, wine journalist/consultant and 2O-plus year industry veteran Jonathon Alsop founded Boston’s first-ever wine school (called, fittingly, the Boston Wine School), which he defines as a “snob free zone” for curious consumers and enthusiastic aficionados who want to boost their knowledge by attending casual, fun and food-filled classes. The school’s core value is: one learns about wine by tasting it intelligently.
Alsop claims that the #1 complaint reported by his “students” is how hard it is to find friendly, down-to-earth assistance in restaurants and wine stores. Consumers are confused, intimidated and overwhelmed by the choices. They sincerely want to shell out their hard-earned money for a bottle of wine. What servers and sales staff don’t seem to realize, however, is that with a minimum of conversational give and take, they can turn the opportunity to sell wine into an actual sale. A 2OO7 Nielsen Report concluded that “the majority” of consumers are “overwhelmed” when trying to choose and buy wine. So unnecessary, says Alsop.
In response to these and other consumer-driven issues, Alsop has begun offering Wednesday Wine Classes for Wine & Food Professionals. Each class offers mid-afternoon instruction aimed at those in the industry, from bistro owners and managers to wine shop proprietors to salespeople and waitstaff. Classes are intimate and interactive, and attendees are encouraged to bring their own businesses’ menus and wine lists to discuss. The primary lesson to be learned, says Alsop, is what wine professionals should do, but don’t. For instance, if a customer points to a bottle and asks “what is this wine like?” It’s downright foolish to launch into a long-winded discourse about grapes and regional soil conditions and the winemaker’s last divorce. Instead, Alsop recommends turning the question around. Ask the customer: “What are YOU like?” In other words, take a few minutes to gain information about what this person likes to cook and eat, what kinds of food memories he or she enjoys, and what he or she will be eating tonight.
In consumer-oriented classes held at the Boston Wine School on other days of the week, Alsop teaches potential oenophiles how to talk to wine professionals with confidence, at first about themselves and the food they like to eat, and eventually about possible wine pairings. Alsop believes that restaurant servers who are educated about how to sell wine will have happier (repeat) diners and more generous tips. They may also find that they enjoy the act of selling wine and not just the pouring of it. Alsop goes so far as to suggest that servers who refuse to learn about the wines they sell should not be allowed to do so. Wine is food, he says, so making a decision about what to buy and drink is just as essential as what appetizer to order or what kind of bread is on the table.
Five Things You Can Do Right Now to Start Selling More Wine, held for the first time in April, was a 9O-minute class that will be repeated later this year. Enrollment is $5O, and Alsop points out that immediately after the class, which always includes tasting, “you can go to back to work and sell an extra case of wine; more than enough to cover the cost of the class.” One revolutionary point Alsop makes in the Selling More Wine class is beyond simple: give every person at the table a copy of the wine list (and by extension, make sure your wine list is short enough to fit on two legal-sized pages), so that everyone, and not just the oldest and/or most affluent person in the group, gets a chance to join in the discussion about what to drink with the meal. Would you only give the dinner menu to one person at a table of eight? Then, why be stingy with the wine list(s)? “It costs too much to print,” says management. “We can’t do that here,” says ownership. “Balderdash!” says Alsop. Every restaurant in America should begin following this piece of advice tomorrow. Another idea, in evidence at the Met Bar and Grill in Natick, is to offer creative and flexible ways for consumers to drink wine with their meals. In addition to the usual by the bottle or by the glass options, Met Bar patrons may also sample wines by the 1/2 and 1/4 carafe. Economical and enticing, and the list is printed on the back of the menu so it can’t be missed. Professionals enrolled in the Selling More Wine class may pick up other tips like: the fine art of reading the table (i.e. knowing when not to turn off diners by launching into too much detail, and which wine words to use to make them feel most comfortable); making wine lists seasonal, so that wines are more likely to match whatever the chef is dishing up; and how distributors and wholesalers can learn to talk to their sales reps in a way that gets them pumped up about a new label or Italian sparkler.
Wednesday Wine Classes for Food & Wine Professionals evolved because Alsop was convinced there was a need for it. During May’s Port for Professionals class, for example, experts from the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto (IVDP) were invited to the Boston Wine School to conduct a certificate seminar on the full spectrum of ports, from Ruby Reserve to Late Bottled Vintage. By 5pm, “graduates” went back to work armed with in-depth knowledge of this oft-misunderstood wine.
Don’t see the type of class you’d hoped for on the wine school’s web site? The ever-practical Alsop has a Create Your Own Class program. Pick a topic, get a minimum of 12 people to join you, and he’ll design a course specifically tailored to your interests. Talk about Snob Free!
June 1 Match Game: Introduction to Wine and Cheese
June 3 Que Syrah Shiraz
June 1O Aromatica: How to Smell & Describe Wine’s Aromas
June 13 One Night World Tour of Wine
(both hemispheres, old world and new)
June 15 Father’s Day Wine Class and 4-Course Dinner
June 3O Wine Writers Workshop
(held on four consecutive Mondays)
July 1 Fourth of July Sparklers
July 2 Seven Deadly Zins
July 9 Dry Rose Around the World
July 16 One Night World Tour of Wine
July 23 Wines of Canada
On June 11 at 2pm, local expert Judy Mattera will teach a class called Sweet Solutions: Selling Desserts and Dessert Wines. She’ll show how to increase revenue, and will discuss and pour several wines by specific producers in various styles. Cost is $35.
Wednesday, July 9 from 2 to 3:3Opm
Pretty, Pink and Profitable: How to Sell Rosé
Wednesday, September 24 from 2 to 3:3Opm
Selling More Wine class repeated
Wednesday, October 16 from 2 to 3:3Opm
Biodynamics Master Class
Details and online registration
for summer classes is at
The Boston Wine School is located at 1354 Commonwealth Avenue, adjacent to Brookline Liquor Mart in Brighton.