Knowing the difference between a syrah, a Semillon and a sangiovese can mean juicy job opportunities and sweet salaries for some in the local hospitality industry these days. From downtown Seattle restaurants...
Knowing the difference between a syrah, a Semillon and a sangiovese can mean juicy job opportunities and sweet salaries for some in the local hospitality industry these days.
From downtown Seattle restaurants and wine bars to Eastside winery-tasting rooms and catering companies, employers are looking for servers, stewards and sommeliers ripe with knowledge about wines for novice and savvy sippers alike.
“This area has huge potential for growth,” says Brett Magnan, manager of Willows Lodge, home to the Barking Frog, the Washington Wine Commission’s 2003 restaurant of the year.
“Even though California has more wines than Washington, Washington has more wine enthusiasts.”
That’s why knowing how to “pour and pair” wines with foods is becoming an increasingly competitive and profitable skill in hospitality service, servers and stewards say.
“The last thing I want to do is to try to sell something that is too expensive or make people feel as if they’re being intimidated,” says Janeanne Good, a food-and-beverage server at Lombardi’s Cucina in Ballard. “But I believe in wines so much that I want them to treat themselves well.
“There is a whole pageantry to a bottle of wine. I just love that,” she says. “Having a bottle of wine whether it’s a $12 special or a $55 bottle is a celebratory ritual.”
Wine sales climbing
Clearly, local patrons are increasingly observing this rite.
At the Barking Frog, in the heart of Woodinville’s winery district, orders for wine by the glass have been up 15 percent each year over the past four years.
Beverages account for half of all revenue there, and 85 percent of beverages sold are wines.
“It’s amazing how when you’re confident about your knowledge your sales can go through the roof,” says Good.
Most servers say they acquire their knowledge on the job or through their own study.
Monthly and quarterly pre-shift wine classes are common at Lombardi’s and other eateries, with tastings and visits from local winery representatives.
At Willows Lodge, where wine stewards offer nightly tastings of vintage, newly reserved and yet-to-be released varietals for guests in the fireside room, the staff takes trips to eastern Washington wineries for their own tastings and classes.
More job opportunities
Washington wines are helping pop career corks throughout the state, says Diane Symms, owner of Lombardi’s Cucina restaurants in Ballard, Issaquah and Everett.
In the past eight years, the state’s industry has grown from 70 wineries to more than 240 and now boasts a $2.4 billion impact on Washington state. It’s now ranked the No. 2 state in the country for premium wine production. (California, of course, is No. 1.)
Five years ago, when there were just 160 wineries in the state, some 11,250 full-time equivalent jobs were connected to the wine industry, says Washington Wine Commission spokeswoman Jamie Peha. It’s not clear how many were direct-service positions.
But wine servers are among many of the 18,219 waiters and waitresses working in a variety of King County dining establishments, according to the state Employment Security Department. Increasingly, these servers are pumping up sales and consequently their own wages through increased gratuities by encouraging patrons to buy wine.
“People are buying and drinking the wine they like. They’re not as intimidated as they once were,” says Stephen Sparks, director of South Seattle Community College’s culinary-arts department.
“Along these same lines, people are aware that when you buy the right wine with the proper food it really accentuates the wine and the food. There’s more of a call for this. People are looking for education and as a natural result, service staff is going to have to keep up with this,” Sparks says.
That’s part of the reason South Seattle Community College’s culinary-arts department will begin offering a wine and food pairing certificate program next month.
Not limited to wine servers, the college’s wine and food pairing program is designed for chefs, cooks and restaurant owners who want to learn more about pairing “individual varietal wines, learn their characteristics and nuances, and how those relate to different types of foods,” Sparks says.
The 12-month course will be the second school on the West Coast, after Culinary Institute of America in California’s Napa Valley, to offer this program. Eventually, Sparks would like to see this 12-month certificate program lead to an associate degree.
It’s just the kind of thing many servers and potential wine servers and their employers have been waiting for.
A way to boost wages
“It’s a way to increase their knowledge base, and increase their wages and tips,” says Sparks. “These days, servers have to be well-versed.”
Mean hourly wages for most waiters and waitresses in King County is about $8.76, state figures show.
However, tips and bonuses can more than double that salary.
When hiring, Magnan, the Willows Lodge manager, says he is looking “for people who are passionate about wine, and less focused on making a lot of money.”
“Despite the fact that unemployment is high, it’s still difficult to find really good quality servers,” she says.
“We look for people who have that sense of knowing how to make people feel comfortable. They need to have an attitude on the job that shows how they would treat a guest in their own home.”