Name: David Stevens-Castro
At the moment: Australia
Wine & Beverage Manager
Own Website: Paired Media
Please, tell us a little bit about your first encounter with wine & the wine industry? Any particular mentors at that time?
I was born in a family that wine was enjoyed at the dining table. Originally from Chile, Wine is commonly appreciated it by a large proportion of the population on a daily basis. My grandfather was a winegrower part time while he was an accountant, I used to help him during the summer season, while I was studying to be an Agricultural Scientist. My aunt inherited the passion and with my uncle established VINOLAB, a wine laboratory. I remember clearly that this laboratory used to be at their house in an office, now certifies 70% of the Chilean wine industry. I thank them for being my mentors from early on.
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 Sommelier must have endless ‘appetite’ for knowledge of the world of beverages and gastronomy. The life of a sommelier has a lot of determination and many duties that only sommeliers know that exists. I check regurlaly the wine list of Balthazar Wine & Dining and still find areas of improvement, even though already has 3 glass rating, 500 wines and 28 of them are by the glass.
To me, is extremely important to always be on top of what is working out for restaurants and bars. Sommeliers should be aware of dining trends and new concepts.
Sommeliers look at wine as a gastronomic beverage, bringing an extra dimension to the assessment of wine. The reason why there are many great sommeliers in the wine judging systems worldwide. Senior sommeliers are excellent tasters, with more ‘floral’ style than your normal journalist.
A modern sommelier is much more than a wine waiter. But, what all sommeliers enjoy the most is to pour wine around a dining table! Indeed, even when I go out, I am always looking the way wine & beverages are poured and the level of technique being used.
There are many sommeliers that I admire in the world of wine but one of my favourites is Ronan Sayburn MS, who was very kind with me allowing me to have a personal bind tasting at 67 Pall Mall in London.
I also admire Sommelier Marcelo Pino from Casa Silva in Chile, He is brilliant guy, a former chef, also a water sommelier and He self-published his own Water Guide. He is currently Chile’s Best Sommelier.
In Australia, there are many outstanding sommeliers, but I got a soft spot for Grant Dickson from FermentAsian in Tanunda, South Australia. His passion for the winelist he has built over many years is infectious. I love his posts in socialmedia when he changes the by the glass section every time.
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?
Find a venue that you find appealing wherever you are. This might be for the wines they already have listed, for the cuisine or even for the convenience to where you live. If you are travelling, a Sommelier job you will always find a position in a top venue. Be ready to start from the very bottom.
Once you are at work, listen your chefs and taste as much food and wine you can, try to grasp on the origin of all the elements that the venue offers in the menu, regionality is always highly appreciated for diners. Polish your skills on the floor, be welcoming with everyone, make sure that your section is topped up and check if everything is ok with discretion, be respectful with the diners, they meant to be enjoying themselves, remember that you are serving them. Very important to me is to always greet when guests leave the venue, the last impression goes a long way.
Look after your health, and this goes for all hospitality people, because you will be expose to long hours, lots of food and multiple after hours drinks !
When a customer asks for advice on selecting wine what’s in your opinion would be the best approach?
I always ask to the guest: what are the wines you enjoy drinking? Based on their reply, I offer 2 to 3 suggestions. These to be of similar profile but not necessarily the same variety. Most of the time this interaction builds the trust in between the patron and the server. With this simple action you can get your guest behind you and they feel special for trying something new that you feel is interesting to compare. I found that this is my way of providing ‘recommendations’ which I always found awkward wording, because I think I am already ‘recommending’ all the wines that I selected on the winelist.
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?
I tried, as much as I can possibly can, to use varietal specific glassware at Balthazar Wine & Dining, the outlet I currently run by myself. Riedel is my brand of choice as they specialise on varietal specific glassware. Now, if you are in a volume venue that does Conference and events as well, you will have to have a more solid glassware, so you always must be adapting to the market and the operational needs of your venue.
What advice would you give people on pairing wine with food?
To always be open to discover new sensations and flavours when pairing wine with food. To allow the time, to see, smell and taste the food and wine before, during and after these two elements get together. To immerse yourself on this sensorial experience and feel the emotions it provokes on you. We are all different and we all have our own ways of appreciation, so you must allow yourself to enjoy that by yourself to then be able to share the overall experience with your peers at the dining table. This internal discovery is what I always advice to people when pairing wine with food.
Should a Sommelier(e) taste the guest’s wine?
It all depends on how busy is service unfortunately. I tried to always check the condition on the wine before it reaches the consumer. If I am not happy with the wine, I normally bring the wine to the guest so that they can see what I have detected that for them and the reason why I will open another bottle. I found that this a learning experience for most guests, it does build the trust between the guest and the sommelier. Honesty is long-term investment, as it keeps patrons coming back because they trust you. At least, It has worked that way for me.
Where would you suggest a young Sommelier start searching for Sommelier positions on the internet in your country?
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?
Value, regionality and rarity are the key ingredients for creating a winelist on my opinion. Pricing on restaurants is tricky subject, because diners are having their smartphones handy while dining, so be clever and do your research on who is listing what. You might find that your next door neighbours all have the same wines. Also, be aware of the off-premise presence of your listings. Pricing has never been more exposed than in today’s wine market.
I seriously encourage sommeliers to stop looking at mark-ups and start looking at beverage costings across the list. Only on this way you can flex your pricing and charge more or charge less on sections that you can do so. For example, you can charge more on the by the glass section but charge less in the alternative varietal section, due to market demand. When you list wines thinking on mark-up you are not listing wines smartly, sommeliers must remember that with pricing you are telling consumers what to drink based on how much they are willing to spend.
How do you manage to stay on top of the changes in the wine industry?
A sommelier must be on top of what’s trending in the wine industry. To have the finger on the pulse of what’s circulating around the local and international publications. For me is very important to dine out as much as possible too. So, not just go to many trade lunches and dinners you get invited as part of your job, but also in your own time. I have submitted Australia’s Wine List competition run by Gourmet Traveller wine magazine every year for the last 6 years. I always assess the results given by the judges. I Follow on social media many leaders of opinion, and this has proven to be a great way to learn the world of wine on real time. This, a decade ago, was knowledge not available to the public.
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?
Over the years I have assessed many new vineyard expressions from brands with little to none presence in the Australian market. Locally and Internationally, I have received samples of wine to see potential in the market I work on. I always look for uniqueness, varietal expression, gastronomic potential and packaging for the wines I list. I always give a go to everyone, but merchants must provide good service and know deeply their product to be able to sell me wine.
If you were a wine, which variety would you be, and why?
This is a question I get ask a lot and the one I always reply saying depending on the day and the season. For a white variety, Riesling, I truly love how energetic this variety is, the array of flavours from bone dry to sweet on this aromatic grape are of my total taste. For a red variety, it is tricky, sometimes Pinot Noir, sometimes Cabernet Sauvignon, or even Shiraz. There are many facets to be enjoyed and appreciate it on red wine for me. But, If I was to pick which wine I would be, I will say Champagne without hesitation! There is so much drama in a bottle of Champagne.
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?
My favourite wines are always the ones that are more than just the wine by itself, it is the story that is attached to them.
Almaviva Bordeaux Blend, Maipo, Chile.
Te Mata ‘Bullnose’ Syrah, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand.
Cullen ‘Diane Madeline’ Bordeaux Blend, Margaret River, Australia.
Any interesting suggestions about magazines or online platform?
The Institute of Masters of Wine https://www.mastersofwine.org/
Wine Spectator https://www.winespectator.com/
Drinks Business https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/
Sommeliers Australia https://sommeliers.com.au/
@ by Dominik Kozlik – Zeitgeist Sommeliers – www.sommeliers.at