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the challenge

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

As many restaurant-goers know, the right glass of wine can be the difference between a good meal and a great one.

For Amato De Civita, owner and president of Toronto-based Wine Awakenings Inc., that choice has become a way of life and a flourishing business.

Mr. De Civita’s company sells wine education kits, and his target market is mid-level restaurants such as The Keg or Boston Pizza. The goal is to educate servers and in turn help the restaurant sell more wine to diners.

Sommelier Courtney Henderson uses a Wine Awakenings kit. The kits from Wine Awakenings contain samples of aromas commonly found in wine, and also have an online component. The aim is to train the olfactory system to better analyze, evaluate and appreciate wines. (Photo: Wine Awakenings Inc.) For more photos, click here.

I think the opportunity there is in saying, well, why don’t you train your wait staff to be better, to make better recommendations, make better customer experience suggestions along the lines of wines? Because wine is probably the highest-margin item in a restaurant,” he says.

The kits contain samples of aromas commonly found in wine, and they also have an online component. The aim is to train the olfactory system to better analyze, evaluate and appreciate wines. Mr. De Civita and three employees also hold seminars for groups of 6 to 30 people.

Mr. De Civita estimates that one-third of restaurant patrons always drink wine, one third will never drink wine, and the remaining third might drink it if they receive a good recommendation.

Three aromas that wine fans should be able to recognize are cassis, cherry and raspberry. (Photo: Wine Awakenings Inc.)

“When you look at the margin that even a Keg would make on a steak, as opposed to two glasses of wine, it’s amazing that they don’t begin by pushing the wine first,” he says. “But someone’s got to instruct and motivate the wait staff and that’s easier said than done. That’s what our product does.”

Given that most waiters are aged 16 to 25, wine is likely not at the top of their agenda, even if they are of legal drinking age. But they need to know that increasing wine sales will boost their tips, too.

"Wine is probably the highest-margin item in a restaurant."
Amato De Civita, owner and president of Toronto-based Wine Awakenings Inc.

Wine Awakenings, which was founded in 2002, offers nine kits, each offering 12 to 24 aromas. Prices start at $139 for the ice wine or cabernet sauvignon kits and scale up to $459 for the Wine Expert in a Box. The company plans to launch a 60-aroma master kit in September, says Mr. De Civita, who is also a principal with JTX Inc., a business advisory firm in Toronto.

The company sells kits via its website and wine boutiques, as well as through two distributors in the United States. Ninety per cent of sales are made in North America, but the kits also have sold in Russia and Europe, helping bring annual revenue to the $500,000 range.

The kits help train the olfactory system to better analyze, evaluate and appreciate wines. (Photo: Wine Awakenings Inc.)

Competition in the wine-aroma-kit genre is limited. Mr. De Civita says his only real competitor is a French company called Le Nez du Vin. Even so, he would like to boost sales of his kits and make sure he is targeting the right markets.

The Challenge: How can Wine Awakenings improve sales?


Jim Menzies, global food and beverage leader, Grant Thornton LLP, Toronto

Knowledge of the product you’re selling is one of the most critical factors in trying to make a sale, so that bodes well for this guy and the whole wine-and-restaurant experience.

What worries me the most about this is when you’re targeting wait staff at a restaurant, you’re talking about people who are generally young and part-time. There’s lots of turnover. What you want those individuals to learn is probably going to have to be pretty easy and reasonably quick. I don’t know that a Keg waitress is going to want to invest a ton of time in this, unless she has a personal interest in wine. I worry that if Mr. De Civita just focuses on the restaurants with this kit that it may not quite fly.

One of the things he may want to consider is going to the universities and colleges that offer food science and food programs. It’s a self-contained aid that instructors could use.

Brian Perry, head sommelier and beverage manager at the National Club, a private members’ club, Toronto

I think it’s a remarkably good idea, certainly in terms of training people who haven’t gone through sommelier training, which is generally a year and a half in the making. I also think it would be a good gift option for people who assume they know about wine.

I would employ some people on the ground who can go in and do training seminars with one or two of the units and then convince food-service company Cara or any of the large chains that have 100 or so restaurants to adopt it.

He really should also expose this product to the George Brown College people and to, an online wine reference. This would really help sales because they’re the gurus that most sommeliers go to.

Doris Miculan Bradley, professor in the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, George Brown College, Toronto

One thing they could consider is positioning Wine Awakenings with a global wine expert or a celebrity who’s known for wine appreciation. For example, there’s a kit out there that has aligned itself with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

If Mr. De Civita’s company engaged social media on a weekly basis, including Wine Awakenings Twitter tastings, Instagram snapshots, a Facebook page and even LinkedIn, they could analyze feedback and share it on the platform, because sommeliers and even hobbyists like to see what people are saying about wines and about their expertise. It’s a very ego-centric industry.

Get involved with the wine community by showcasing Wine Awakenings at trade tastings, educational institutions or maybe at the LCBO. They could consider running a provincial and national tasting competition for amateurs and professionals. This is a highly competitive industry even for hobbyists, and having worked with collectors, it’s all about how deep your cellar is and your knowledge of your cellar.


Target educational institutions

Consider selling to universities and colleges that have food science programs.

Find a brand ambassador

Hire or partner with a renowned wine expert or celebrity to garner greater exposure.

Get involved with the wine community

Showcase the products at trade shows and interact with wine connoisseurs via social media.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.