Mr. Shannon Stickells – Australia / UAE-Abu Dhabi (Operations Manager, Sommelier)
May 3, 2018
Name: Shannon Stickells
At the moment: UAE – Abu Dhabi
Operations Manager / Sommelier
Please, tell us a little bit about your first encounter with wine & the wine industry? Any particular mentors at that time?
a) I started working in a 5* resort in the Blue Mountains 2 hours outside of Sydney Australia in 1992 and it was here that I was introduced to all things beverage and specifically wine. It occurred a few years later in the same resort in 1995 while having our usual after service beer when the F&B Manager at the time brought into our restaurant a bottle of De Bortoli Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1980’s, I don’t recall the specific vintage but it was from the cool climate of the Yarra Valley in Victoria and it was a revelation to me. At that point it had at least 10 years bottle age and the color, aroma and overall mouth feel was something completely new to me…I knew then that this was something I was going to get involved with and I owe it to that late night taste of a beautiful old Cab from Victoria. I didn’t really have any mentors at the time, I simply started to search out affordable wines to me in the local bottle shops and started drinking them, coupled with trips to the Hunter Valley which was a few hours away and taking more interest in our wine list and suppliers.
What specific traits or skills should a Sommelier(e) possess for professional performance and is there any person with that qualities you especially admire within the wine industry?
a) For me a successful sommelier must possess a number of traits and skills to excel in this position…First and foremost they must have knowledge and be willing to keep learning and impart their knowledge onto others. They must understand customer service and be able to deliver in a professional, yet comfortable manner. They must be able to read people, there are many situations sommeliers face where a customer may not be comfortable asking questions, understanding food and wine pairing or wanting to exceed their budget on a bottle, if you can read a person you will be able to help them without embarrassing them. The more advanced or deeper a sommelier goes into the wine world the traits required are greater, this will include service skills like opening old vintages, decanting, correct pouring, understanding the theory of wine and the study component, tasting and analyzing wine….the list goes on. I’ve met and worked with several great sommeliers so it wouldn’t be fair to name just one!!!
What would be your advice to a young Sommelier(e) i.e. Commis Sommelier(e) where to look finding an adequate position at home or abroad? Any further tips?
a) Don’t be afraid to ask questions, we all started somewhere at the beginning. Listen and learn, taste, travel and immerse yourself into the ‘fun’ side of the wine industry…at the end of the day it is only grape juice. I have been traveling and living outside of my home country Australia for 15 years now so hard for me to say which would be the best way to find a position at home, I do think however that just about all positions whether they be at home or abroad are found through industry experience and contacts, not necessarily are these great jobs advertised. The longer you spend in the business the more people you will meet and more opportunities will become available to you.
When a customer asks for advice on selecting wine what’s in your opinion would be the best approach?
a) Always ask a few questions and try to understand their preferences, make them feel comfortable first then delve a bit deeper. Country of preference, old or new world, light or heavy, red or white, what sort of food are they going to eat with the wine….finally I would always recommend 3 wines starting with an expensive one, then a much cheaper one and finally a wine that sits in the middle price point, I have found over and over again if you are humble with your approach and recommendation the customer will most likely end up with a wine that they can afford and will enjoy it.
What’s your philosophy about glasses? Are you working with well known brands or are you considering new brands as well and how do you determine?
a) There are some great glasses available today, for me personally I like to use Riedel, I have been fortunate to attend a number of master classes on their glasses delivered by members of the family and to me what they have researched and delivered in glassware is amazing. That being said they can be expensive and they are fragile, you need to know how to handle them, wash them and have correct racking to store them. It would depend what sort of use you are going to put your glasses to…if it was for personal use, Riedel…if it was for a small fine dining restaurant, Riedel…if it was for a larger volume or less particular crowd I would go for Schott Zwiesel, they are beautiful glasses with a little less crystal content, more affordable and more durable.
What advice would you give people on pairing wine with food?
a) I guess there are a few tried and tested pairings that never fail but I think it is important to understand ‘texture and flavor’ / ‘weight and body’ and make sure they match, lighter wines, both white and red with lighter foods, bigger, heavier and sometimes fatty food with wines that are heavier, bolder and more tannic. Ultimately the art of pairing wine with food will always be subjective, again I would ask questions, understand the environment you are in, what culture you are in, what cuisine you are eating….but don’t be afraid to try something out of the ordinary.
Should a Sommelier(e) taste the guest’s wine?
a) I would always try and taste the customers wine to verify its quality, this will be acceptable and encouraged in higher end establishments but there may be situations where this may not be considered appropriate or required such as more casual restaurants….For me this will always depend on the environment you are in.
Where would you suggest a young Sommelier start searching for Sommelier positions on the internet in your country?
a) Tough one for me to answer accurately as I have been away for 15 years but i would suggest scouting the popular hospitality recruiters and job boards in one’s home country, also i believe that a direct approach is often regarded highly so i would narrow down restaurants that interest me and have a high quality wine program in place with sommeliers and send my CV directly to them or if possible go to the venue in person and introduce yourself, initiative shown is often rewarded i believe.
What are the key ingredients for creating a wine list for a restaurant and what is your opinion on some ridiculous pricing on wine in restaurants, do you have tips on how to determine mark ups?
a) This would depend on the style of restaurant you are creating the list for and understanding the style of food and clientele. In general i would always try and make sure there was regional, international variety, balance in price points with high – mid – low level pricing present, a decent selection by the glass that changes regularly, list vintages and limited releases where possible, consider adding a vertical selection from relevant wineries if possible, half bottles and large format, understand the climate in which you work and work closely with your suppliers, consider special imports that no one else has if possible. I have seen many ridiculously priced wine lists and there are several here in the Middle East, i would rather try and source smaller boutique and lesser known labels at good prices and pass this onto the customer, i have always believed you don’t bank the bev %, you bank the profit so make the wines affordable and see some volume turn over. In general i have always worked between 22% – 50% in my bev cost depending of course on the particular wines and location you are working, understanding your market, and competitors will also help you manage your markup and bev %.
How do you manage to stay on top of the changes in the wine industry?
a) Tasting, traveling, reading, industry colleagues, social media now days, follow some prominent wine professionals online and subscribe or follow established publications like Wine Spectator as an example.
How would a new vineyard get the attention of someone like you to notice their wine and what’s the best way for producers to improve their chances of being listed?
a) Suppliers and wine makers visiting us in our restaurants, making appointments and bringing their wines to taste. Hosting dinners and showing their wines. Inviting sommeliers to visit their vineyards while travelling and of course, word of mouth…through the grape vine as we say. Interesting new wines / wineries will be talked about. Keeping the pricing and availability relevant and up to date is a sure way to get a listing.
If you were a wine, which variety would you be, and why?
a) Shiraz, approachable through its youth, bold and delivering great things in the future if looked after well.
What are the top 3 types of wine (your faves) would we find in your home wine collection and what’s your desert island wine?
a) #1: Australian Shiraz from the Barossa, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek, the likes of E&E Black Pepper, Grant Burge Meshach etc etc / #2: Big New World Chardonnay / #3: Red Burgundy. Desert island wine would be the largest format i could carry but more realistically a good Sancerre as i suspect i would be surviving on seafood briefly.
Any interesting suggestions about magazines or online platform?
a) Find something that makes sense to you, Wine Spectator, Gourmet Traveler Wine Edition, WSET, Guildsomm.