During the summer Laurel Pub Company managers have gone back to the classroom to learn about wine. Phil Mellows reports on how they got on.
It's half an hour before opening time at the the Covent Garden Hogshead and upstairs 15 Laurel Pub Company managers have gone back to school.
"Right!" said David Howse, opening the session with a flourish. "We're going to do wine!" His enthusiasm for the subject was already proving infectious, his audience waking up. "I've had 15 years in the wine trade and now I've got two hours to teach you everything!"
This was obviously not going to be a lecture on the soil types of the Loire valley. David, a former pub-restaurant manager who now works for a Suffolk-based training firm called Fluid Solutions, soon made clear the angle he was coming from.
"I'm a dirty grubby little retailer," he said. "My job is to take money from people." Or, on this particular occasion, to persuade 15 pub managers of the potential of wine and to give them a handle on half a dozen basic styles so they can pass on their knowledge to their staff - who will then, hopefully, do the grubby business of taking money from people.
David gave himself 15 minutes to convince his audience that they should, in the first place, care about wine.
The "magic" performed by New World wines in the 1980s had transformed the market, he said, making good quality wine accessible to millions. It has meant that in 2002 sales have grown so much that it's the equivalent of "every household going out and buying a bottle of wine every day".
"You have got to understand your guests," said David. "Think how important wine has become to their lives. A recent survey showed that 60 per cent of wine drinkers wanted to drink a different wine every night.
"Every single person who walks through your door is a wine expert - it's stormingly simple."
To prove it he passed round a bunch of grapes, the raw material. It might have got technical at this point but after briefly explaining how the grapes become wine he coined a disarming conclusion - "you're in the yeast pee business!"
The main aim of the session was to prepare the managers to run an interactive tasting for their staff, at the end of which everyone behind the bar would have favourite wines which they could recommend to their customers.
"When they know what the wines are like, they can sell them better," explained David. "There is a difference between tasting and drinking. When you taste you are forming an opinion about that wine.
"We want your teams to make a decision about each wine in the range and pick their heroes - one red, one white - so they can turn to the customer and say 'my favourite is...' It gives them a comfort zone, something they feel confident about."
To help structure their training sessions, each manager was given a video, along with a script, which shows tutored tastings for each of the eight wines in the basic Laurel range.
As David screened the video he paused the tape to allow his audience to taste along, throwing in other useful tips on wine service, such as how to open a bottle, how to spot a corked wine and how to serve sparkling wines - "It's not a Grand Prix, the idea is to keep the bubbles in!"
There were moments when it was not so much training as a music hall act. Wine, David pointed out, "is the opposite of a fluffy bunny rabbit". That was to remind people that bottles should be stored on their side to keep the corks wet and the air out. Just imagine there's a bunny rabbit in the bottle and you want it to die.
Unconventional, certainly. Mad, possibly. But it got the message across.
Focus on selling
Over seven weeks during the summer, 750 Laurel Pub Company managers spent a morning with wine expert David Howse. They are now using what they learned to train their own barstaff in better wine service.
"Some of our managers already do a good job in this respect but we're leaving nothing to chance," said Andrew Edge, Laurel's training manager who devised the programme. "You can never do enough to help licensees and their staff focus on selling."
Once they are back in their pubs, the managers have got "a big target" to hit in lifting wine sales and the impact of the training will be closely monitored.
Staff will be encouraged to upsell to 250ml glasses and talk up the higher margin wines in the range with customers."We will track the results to a high level of detail," said Andrew. "We want to see a payback on this training.
"Wine is becoming more and more important to our business," he continued. "We're even finding that blokes are drinking more. But wine is still underplayed in our industry. I think that's partly because publicans tend to be beer drinkers. Educating them in other drinks will pay dividends."
The unconventional style of the training is as important as the content, he believes. "Some of David's comments are close to the mark but pub managers warm to that. They want people to talk about wine in plain English."