Wine Culture Magazine

At JOEY, Jason Yamasaki has created a program that teaches the fundamentals of wine to more than 2,000 front of house staff. Photo courtesy of JOEY Restaurants

One of Jason Yamasaki’s tasks as group sommelier for JOEY Restaurants is to make the world of wine accessible and engaging for the upscale-casual chain’s diverse diners all across North America. It starts with teaching the basics of wine and wine service to more than 2,000 front of house staff members company wide.

To do this, he has come up with a distilled two-hour training program. Consisting of four critical steps, it incorporates everything from big bowls of potato chips to his own wine-related spinoff of Cards Against Humanity (only far less raunchy).

Once they’re done, servers and managers have the ability not only to talk about wine with their guests, but also to liven up the conversation.

“The point is to get everyone excited about wine—staff and customers,” Yamasaki says during an interview at JOEY Bentall over a glass of Strada Bianca Toscana Rosso. A collaboration between the Tuscan winery and JOEY Restaurants, the wine (mostly Sangiovese, backed by a little Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon) takes its name from the Italian words for the back roads that link the region’s wineries.

Fundamentally, what lights me up is creativity.

“The thing that excites me most about wine is that it’s an opportunity to bring something to life,” he says. “Fundamentally, what lights me up is creativity.”

The concept of a single sommelier being sent to tables doesn’t fit with JOEY’s approachability. “We incorporate wine into service offerings, rather than me coming up to a table and saying, ‘Good evening. I’m wondering if you have any questions about wine?’ and cold-calling the tables,” he says. “Guests don’t want to be cold-called.”

Which brings us back to his four-part wine education. Yamasaki works primarily one-on-one with team leaders from 28 locations, but his training reaches staff chain-wide. Without giving away too many secrets, the first step helps front of house staff understand the importance of pristine, “iconic” glassware.

“The second is starting to build confidence around a whole realm that traditionally and honestly is pretty damn intimidating for people of any level,” says Yamasaki, who considers Robert Stelmachuk and Terry Threlfall as mentors. “You don’t have to be a master to sound like a master.”

He also encourages everyone to discover their own self-expression for wine, using their hobbies, interests and experiences as references. “We bring our whole lives to the appreciation of wine and use this as a channel for excitement,” he says.

Finally, he helps staffers build vivid descriptions of wine by using bold real-world examples that he’s printed out on cards, akin to the ones used in that aforementioned card game. It gives trainees insight into new ways of describing wine without getting into terminology that can make some people tune out. “I find the most personality-filled wine descriptions and snippets of professional reviews,” he says. “For example, ‘This wine tastes like a stiletto kick to the tongue,’ or ‘This wine tastes like kissing a really fetching sea captain.’ ”

When he puts all the steps together and has people pair wine with potato chips (Sauvignon Blanc with salt and vinegar, for example), they are able to come up with creative and memorable descriptions.

“Working here, you can take something for the rest of your life with you around wine,” he says. “It leaves people feeling excited about wine.”

House wines to sip at JOEY

Cuvée Jean Paul Blanc Côtes de Gascogne 2018
(Gascony, France; $14.98 in stores) Crisp, light, refreshing white table wine.

Boutinot Cuvée Jean Paul Rouge Côtes de Gascogne 2018
(Gascony, France; $14.98 in stores) Juicy, fleshy, table-friendly Grenache-based blend.

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