By Gail Johnson
Meet Shiva Reddy, the executive wine director of Osteria Savio Volpe, Pepino’s Spaghetti House, and Caffè La Tana. She doesn’t go by the title of “sommelier” by choice, and if there’s a stereotypical image of the person who comes to your table to recommend wine—say, a white male in a suit—she’s smashing it.
Here, Reddy dishes on her career path and what she loves about working with wine.
How did you end up working in the food and wine industry?
It was not natural and unplanned. My mom was a single mom, so I had to start working young. I worked at the Point Grey Golf and Country Club at 18. I took it so seriously, and I really enjoyed it. I met a sommelier there. He was very dapper, he knew his stuff, and he was able to romance history and geography. There’s a magical side of wine that I had never known about. I tried it and it was so tasty, and it was a lot of fun. He told me about a program called WSET [Wine and Spirit Education Trust] and I enrolled immediately—literally three hours later.
I was such a keener; I went to every class, hours early. It was at Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. The teacher, Tim Ellison [now at The Vancouver Club], probably got so annoyed with me being there all the time he asked me if I wanted to work there. I started working at PICA as his assistant. I was so into it! I’d start at 6:30 in the morning, open up the bakery for the school, run their café—I loved that because I love pastries and I love coffee—and then at 6 pm when bakery would close, I’d help him set up the room and help him teach the class and I’d be there till 12 at night. Then I’d do it all over again. I did that for a few years, and eventually started teaching.
I’m on my last WSET level now. It’s a journey. I’ve also done another series called Court or Master Sommeliers, which is more restaurant-based.
Where did your work take you from there?
Hawksworth was my first restaurant job. It was absolutely terrifying. I was there for a year. Through that I met Shaun Layton, who was opening up a new gin bar called Juniper. I was curious about spirits, so we opened up Juniper; it was wild. Then I went over to Royal Dinette because I heard they were looking for servers, and I needed to chill out for a while. They hired me, and a week later they told me the wine director had left and they needed me to take over. I was 23 or 24 and had never run a wine program. I spent a year there learning the extreme hard way how to run a cool, natural wine bar in the city.
From there got introduced to JP Potters, who hired me as assistant wine director at Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar. That was the wildest time in my career. I was working nonstop. Managing the cellars there was awesome. I remember trying all these wines and being able to nail them. We were always experiencing different styles of wine; it was so wide-ranging. JP brought in some really cool things and we were so hands on… I don’t think anyone could get that kind of experience normally at that age. Working with [Chef] Alex Chen was awesome. It was the first time I’ve ever met a chef who invests so much in his employees and challenges everybody. He holds everybody to a high standard. I was there for two years. It was very high pressure and very intense; the hours were grueling and very long. But it was a mind-blowing experience.
Then I wanted to chill out and go work with Shaun again. He was opening up Como Taperia. It was a very good opening and very positive. I got to build a sherry portfolio. Plus the guy’s a genius when it comes to Excel sheets, so he taught me about that.
How did you end up in your current position?
I was at Como for a year, then I got a phone call from the operations manager at Savio who said ‘we have this position to run all of our restaurants’ wine programs.’ I couldn’t say no. I love Italian wines so much. You never know what’s going to happen. No matter what you know already, there’s something you don’t know. It’s the most humbling country in the world. You have your very big Barolos that are very pristine and valuable but then you also have classic table wines that are actually incredibly delicious. That’s the fun part of it. There’s also something cozy about Italian wine.
What it’s like to work at this trio of restaurants?
It’s very different form every experience I’ve had. I’ve never worked on a team of women before. Women are running the organization. It’s very interesting when you see empathy being shared on the floor. It transcends to everybody. You’re given leadership tools. In the industry, you’re often thrown into a situation and you just have to figure it out. I see teaching being done when it comes to leaders and managers.
I try to be as down to earth as possible with guests and my staff. You’re always welcoming people into your home, so if you’re doing that, it will feel like you’re at home.
I get to share wine with people, and wine’s pretty terrifying and it sucks that it’s terrifying. It’s nice making it fun for people and approachable. Not being your classic style sommelier, when you’re genuinely excited that you get to share wine with people, you can see their excitement. It’s nice having a conversation about the wine as opposed to talking to people or at people about it. I try to constantly break that barrier to make it more approachable and make it fun and change that perception.
Tell us more about common assumptions when it comes to sommeliers and your experience as a young woman in a field dominated by men.
I graduated [from high school] in 2009. In wine, as a wine director, as soon as people find out how old I am, they get a little funny. I started at 25, and I basically had to lie about my age or gloss over it. People would ask me if I’m Indian; that’s not a normal thing for a sommelier either. I go to a table and people kind of look at me and wonder why I’m there or they hear the term “sommelier” and they think I’m talking about my nationality.
Sommelier is a great term, but a lot of people don’t understand it and it can be intimidating. So I’ll say I’m the wine lady instead of wine director. At Como, we called it a wine boss, and that was fun.
I don’t see other people like me in the industry. For a long time, I was very shy. It’s a weird thing where you feel like you don’t fit in. But after working at Como and Boulevard and learning that I know my stuff, it’s a really nice thing to know that I do belong here. I do have something to say in this industry.
I’m changing the scene up, making people realize there’s diversity allowed out there. And I’m just happy people are drinking wine so I still have a job.
With the Vancouver International Wine Festival coming up, what events are you excited about and why? Any recommendations for the wine-loving layperson?
I’m really looking forward to a new trade event called The Language of Wine. I will be on the panel for a round table discussion on the meaning of wine language and how it may differ depending on whether you are a sommelier, a writer, a retailer, or a consumer.