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School of Hock

 Clare Young has battled for years to get pubs to take wine training seriously. Now it’s paying off, for both parties, says Patrick Schmitt

CLARE YOUNG, founder of the Vintellect consultancy, by her own admission couldn’t even organise a piss up in a brewery and hates pubs.  Yet she spent 17 years working for Young & Co, and is now providing training all over the country to any on-trade outlet, from the most basic of boozers.

How can this be? Is she mad? No, but she’s definitely dedicated, and that is to wine.  She may not have been able to engineer a beerfuelled drinking session at Young’s, but she certainly made the employees merry among the mash tuns with her onceyearly wine events and, as for pubs, she simply can’t stand it when they fail to offer something fresh, grape-based, and by the glass. So she’s devoted her career to making sure they do.

Young was responsible for improving the wine offer in the Young’s estate, having applied to an advertisement by the brewer more than 17 years ago while selling page space on a wine-trade  itle.

She jumped at the chance to help the brewer partly because she "hated selling advertising" and because she "hated going to pubs".  "In those days pubs had horrible wines, so I thought, brilliant, this is my mission, my calling," she recalls.

"Luckily," she says, "I had a really supportive board at Young’s," which must have been in contrast to her friends, who apparently teased her mercilessly for working for a brewery after all her pub-centric criticisms.

Anyway, once fully ensconced in her new role, she remembers her first initiative: "As fast as Young’s were putting in draught wine, I was going round and taking it out.  I was saying, stop putting this draught wine in, but they were saying, every time we put it in sales go up – and sales were going up, but that was because they were doing a refurbishment at the same time, and that way building traffic."

Nevertheless, Young’s persuasiveness paid off and the brewery eventually asked, so, what do you need from us? "I said I needed back-bar displays and refrigeration. I need a choice of wines, and we need training, and through the years sales just went from strength to strength."

As the selection of wines increased, helped by the introduction of Verre du Vin – "We were the first brewery to take on the system" – Young had even more of a need for training, and developed her own wine course.

It contrasted with anything the WSET was offering as hers was more service orientated.  Staff were also encouraged to sit the WSET intermediate and advanced certificates, and employees who’d passed the latter were made members of a wine club, which not only entitled them to win

"The Chairman’s Trophy for Wine Excellence" but also allowed them a place at a yearly lunch."  I hate the expression ‘You couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery’," notes Young at this point in the conversation, "because as anyone who’s ever tried to will tell you, it’s bloody difficult.

Nobody turns up. It may be a freebie, but everyone is always too busy."  But, when it came to the wine lunches, everybody wanted to come, they were extremely popular because, according to Young, "The staff like drinking wines."

It was after the success of Young’s measures to increase wine sales in the brewer’s pubs that she began to realise how much of an impact she could have on the industry as a whole.  "I thought there is such a call for training out there and nobody’s doing it."

However, as she also realised, the problem was, "As soon as you’ve trained people they’ve left he turnover is so high it’s very frustrating."  So when Young noticed companies were doing CD-ROM training, she thought, "We should do a wine course on CD, a real sales orientated course in a neat, easy package.   The CD could train everybody, even your part-timer."

So Young left Young’s, set up a wine consultancy called Vintellect, and wrote a CDbased course.  The CD has actually been two  ears in the making, and is yet to be officially rolled out, but having tried it, it’s a delightfully easy-to-use and graphically advanced guide covering topics such as serving and preserving wine, as well as upselling, back-bar presentation, merchandising, grape varieties, wine styles and food and wine matching.

At the end is an exam which, if you pass, will result in a Max Your Wine Sales certificate.  And at £295 for the CD and 30 certificates it only costs around £10 per person. More certificates can be bought but the trainer has only a twoyear licence to use the CD.

"At the moment, however," says Young, explaining the need for the CD, "people join bars and pubs and the staff training tends to be ‘shadow Fred’, and ‘Fred’ is as clueless as anybody else and doesn’t  do it right, and then they wonder why none of their staff are trained."

To correct this, not only is Young promoting the CD, but Vintellect also offers a one-day tutored training course, which is ideal for anyone at management level.  She also provides companies with a "staff training record and when the staff go through a course, eg a wine retailing day, a WSET qualification, or the CD, you put a tick on the sheet".

Overall, Young is finding, "Wine merchants in particular are looking to training, or improving it, as training is the only way you can move your wine by the glass operation forward." 

As for those companies which offer their own training, Young warns, "A lot of reps are very good at selling but not necessarily at training, and what’s worse is that they are not good at checking that the staff are going to be there when they do their session.

So they turn up, and there are three members of staff.  Whereas we say, how many members of staff are there? Right, 20, is that how many are going to do the course? And if it’s 20 we ask when are we going to have all 20? And then we’ll ring up two days before and say have you got all 20? No, five dropped out.  So we reschedule for when they have got all 20. We make that training effective." 

The other key difference when it comes to Young’s courses, be they the CD or the one-day wine sales and services certificate, is the experience she and her staff have.  "There don’t seem to be many people out there doing what we are doing.  There are people offering training but they are academic or wine-trade, they have not done it themselves. 

I really wouldn’t feel comfortable doing this without that 17 years behind me, because the trainees can throw anything at me and I’ve been there, I’ve seen it and I’ve dealt with it.  And that’s why we say every trainer has to have ontrade experience, they have to have empathy with the student. 

So when they say you haven’t seen our place on a Friday night, you can say, yes I have and this has worked when it’s 10-deep at the bar, and go and see this or that place where it does work."

And even if they don’t believe the instructor, the CD does have a helpful section, using filmed actors, which shows staff what to do when serving wine at the bar both when it’s quiet and busy.

To make sure you concentrate, the wrong scenario is shown first, and you have to spot the mistakes.  So what’s Young’s aim for her training programmes? "My real ambition is I would like the CD to be the industry standard.

For example, a company asked me the other day whether the CD is endorsed, and I said no, but the WSET had to start somewhere.  They had to issue their first certificates."

This, of course, will take time, but certainly the CD has the potential and appears to cover all the necessary points for increasing sales of wine in bars and pubs, as well as a suitable amount of product knowledge to inform and enthuse the student.

Furthermore, there’s no irritating voiceover or tinkling music, just good design and useful pointers.  The acted scenes are also rather amusing. Litres of Liebfraumilch Nevertheless, the CD alone won’t change the industry and Young still has her work cut out in persuading, in person, bars and pubs to take wine seriously.

"There are still places with optic cabinets and litres of Liebfraumilch," she despairs.  "And when Young’s bought Smiles around six years ago I was so surprised at how behind anywhere outside London is.

It was the same old argument I was getting 17 years ago – ‘There’s no call for wine here.’ But as I told them, surprisingly enough there won’t be if you don’t offer it.  And even if you do offer it you have to make it so blatantly obvious because the customer’s not going to come in and suspect you have it."

Lastly, she points out that if you do get the wine drinkers in, "You’re not going to piss-off the beer drinkers because it is a basic fact of life that men will follow women but it doesn’t work the other way round – ie if you’ve got a building full of men you’re not going to get women in, but if you get women in, or if you get the wine drinkers in, then you’ll definitely get the beer drinkers in."

Which no doubt, as Young certainly believes, explains why you get maledominated bars, but not female-dominated ones.  So, essentially the message is simple and compelling – serve wine properly and you’ll get more male and female customers, whatever they choose to drink.

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