When it comes to women in the industry excelling at what they do, Shanteh Wale is amongst the most notable.
Her exceptional wealth of wine knowledge has seen her rise through the ranks of Sydney’s illustrious Quay restaurant to head up the sommelier team, be nominated three times for Good Food Guide’s Sommelier of the Year award, and guest judge numerous wine shows across the country. (And did we mention she also hosts her own podcast in her spare time, too?) We chat to her about her career path, her all-time favourite drop, and the impromptu interview that led her to work for one of Australia’s best chefs.
TP: Most of us love a good wine, but very few can make a career out of it. When did you decide you wanted to be a sommelier?
SW: I was actually a dancer at high school and went on to study dance at uni. Like most people, I got a part-time job at a café, because I wanted to save money to travel and live overseas. Once I was overseas, working in a café progressed to working in a restaurant, and that progressed to wanting to work in better restaurants, and from that to wanting to work in the best restaurants. In Canada and the US some wine knowledge was always integral when you worked as waitstaff, and so I learnt a fair bit about wine doing that. It was probably there that I realized I wanted to work as a sommelier.
TP: How did you go from that, to becoming Head Sommelier at Quay?
SW: It’s quite a funny story…I came back to Australia with the goal of working for the best chef, so my sights were firmly set on Quay. I’d called a few times to see if there were any positions available but there were never any openings, so one day I decided I was just going to try my luck and go in [to Quay] and see if I could speak to someone directly. I found out what time the manager was starting work that day and turned up at that time. As luck would have it, he was running late so when he finally arrived, he was a bit flustered. I managed to bumble my way into an impromptu interview and from there was hired as a runner! Back then there was a pretty traditional hierarchy at the restaurant – you had to really prove your worth to work your way up. So I started as a runner, then moved up to join the wine team, before eventually becoming Head Sommelier.
TP: What do you love most about your line of work?
SW: It’s got to be the people – both the team you work with and the guests. I really enjoy meeting and having to the opportunity to discover the various ‘spices’ of people and talk to so many different people from all over the world. It’s also really special and rewarding to help celebrate milestones with people you’ve only just met; to know that you’ve played a small part in this memorable moment in their lives. Working with people who are so highly skilled and dedicated is also incredibly motivating. I’m super conscious of the fact that Peter [Gilmore] is a total genius and it’s such a wonderful experience to try and do justice to his incredible flavours by finding wines to complement them. Oh, and the view [from Quay] is also pretty amazing!
TP: You also host your own podcast, ‘Over a Glass’. What inspired you to start that?
SW: During the first lockdown I found myself thinking a lot about what I love about my job, and if I couldn’t go back into restaurants, what else could I do to still support the industry? Part of what I love so much about my line of work is sharing the stories of people and producers I’m inspired by. But I wanted to find a way to take the spotlight off myself and put it back on the people behind the produce…When you’re in a restaurant informing guests about wine or sharing a producer story it’s often you that gets congratulated at the end of it all, and I wanted people to hear and learn from these immensely talented people themselves…and allow them to get the credit they deserve. I also wanted to create something that was accessible to everyone.
TP: Which women in the hospitality industry do you admire?
Amanda Yallop, the Wine Director for Fink, and my mentor. She’s shared the ups and downs of her own career with me, and shown me light and dark of industry, allowing me to understand the challenges of this line of work and how to overcome them. Emma Farelly from WA State Buildings, because she’s just incredible at what she does; Sophie Otten from She Loves You bar, because she’s super generous with her time and knowledge. As is wine journalist Jeni Port, who always gives great advice.
TP: If you could only drink one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
SW: Pinot Noir, all day long, from any country! It suits any mood, weather or occasion and has pools of depth, of complexity and discovery. There’s always something to learn with you look into a glass of pinot noir.