November 4, 2021

Wine on the Frontline With Ella Stening

By Angela Oemcke

Noone has their finger on the pulse of the wine industry quite like the front-liners, who you will find behind the bars and in the bottle shops. Between tastings, research, allocation negotiations and navigating a maze of cardboard boxes they are able to build a bridge that connects customers and producers- all without breaking a sweat (most of the time). It’s no easy task, but it’s one Ella Stening, manager of Native Drops Artisan Cellars in Sydney, approaches in a lighthearted stride. 

Ella endeavours to make wine more accessible, which is complemented by her “no-frills” attitude. When I first came across her profile on Instagram, @ellasteningxo, it felt like finding a diamond in the rough. Against the carefully curated content that usually saturates my feed, Ella provides a real look into the wild world of wine through the lens of retail. However, her reputation in the broader wine community precedes her online presence. Since converting from journalism to wine, Ella has made an impact by promoting the underrepresented within the industry, be that producers, Muscadet or her peers. Up to where she is now, her experience extends from working in a Stellenbosch winery, curating wines for DRNKS, pioneering the Women and Revolution movement in Sydney’s hospitality scene and beyond. 

We were lucky enough to catch up with her to gain a fresh perspective on the state of wine. 

Ella in a Snapshot

What does the perfect drop of wine look like to you

I think anything that helps my mind to pause and be present. It is all a matter of context, it can be pensieve or playful or pleasurable…nothing needn’t be everything. 

What is a wine you feel is unjustly underrated?

Muscadet. What the hell is everyone sleeping on here! 

What impact do you want to have in the wine industry?

As a member of Women and Revolution it’s extremely important for me to spend my career building representation of minorities within the wine industry. Encourage people to stay within it, or join it. I hope to be a reflection of the honesty and also the fun you can have whilst working with wine. 

Where is the most interesting place wine has taken you?

Mmm…maybe my time working in a Stellenbosch winery. It was very much in the hands of fate, I was given a scholarship to work at Radford Dale by Alex Dale whom I was serving in a bar, after a round of twenty questions. Sounds made up, it’s not. 

What’s your favourite, yet slightly weird, wine and food pairing? 

Sour Cream Pringles and Cortese. Or soy soaked dumplings and sparkling Pineau d’Aunis. 

The Story So Far

What led you to working in the wild world of wine?

A little bit of indecision, a little bit of dumb luck. I worked as a journalist for many years and couldn’t pay the rent, so I always found myself working hospitality jobs. It has always saddled my hedonistic streak and deep love of community, good food and booze was always a bonus. I worked mostly in coffee, then restaurants, then found myself in bars. I had incredible luck with my jobs, always surrounded by passionate, engaging, insightful and bloody fun people. After a shitty breakup I moved to Sydney from Melbourne, ditched the penmanship for a bit and got a job in a bar (Brosé) to meet people and avoid being lonely at night. Brosé was an incubator for some of Sydney’s hottest talent in food and wine, so everyday was just a sensory delight. Sarah Devine (who now works at PnV), heard me singing about how I wanted to be a Campari Ambassador (I like the showmanship of the bar, sue me) and swiftly moved me into wine. She taught me a lot, and got me excited about the world around it. I was transfixed. Since then, I’ve taken jobs that put me in front of people I wanted to learn from. WyNo, Don Peppino’s, DRNKS and all of the wonderful harvests and people and dinners in between.

You’re currently managing the show at Native Drops Artisan Cellars in Sydney, tell us a bit about the average day at the shoppette for you…

I grab a coffee from Four Ate Five next door. Usually I have three or four tastings lined up throughout the day and amidst that I do what everyone does; answer the never ending pile of emails. Float through some portfolios, do some reading of wine related content to keep abreast. I do some planning for upcoming events at the shop. We have a tasting room upstairs where we get various people to teach about wine, science, culture, art. Whatever really, it’s nice to not just involve the wine literate and invite more of the community to leave an impression on that space. Moving boxes, laughing with customers, sharing stories and the like. 

Your Instagram is a fun one to follow, not just for the wine related content but for a sneak peak behind the scenes at a wine shop. What impact do you think platforms like Instagram have had, and will go on to have, on the wine industry? 

I think in terms of the accessibility of wine it has helped a lot, the more diversity in voices the better in my opinion. Everyone can find their niche, from memes to the more serious wine journalistic efforts. I don’t love the commercial quality of instagram but that is ultimately what it is. It’s pretty easy to see through when you’re being sold to, rather than being invited to celebrate with.

It has had an incredible effect on helping smaller winemakers achieve cult status in terms of their offering though, helping them to get the platforms they deserve. I don’t know, I think we will shift from Instagram eventually like we do with most social platforms but I am excited to evolve with it. I have found it immensely helpful in terms of widening my community to like minded people, I don’t think I would be where I was now if I hadn’t reached out to people I admired through the platform. I’m glad people get a kick out of how I swing it on there, I like to make wine fun and accessible.

How do you approach engaging people with wine, and in what ways do you think the industry could do a better job of this?

Everyone likes wine in a different way, but there are uniting factors. I take the bullshit out of it, I know I am knowledgeable, I know I am educated, there is no need for me to parade that in front of people for the sake of my own ego, it helps no one. I like to approach wine from a more social and cultural perspective, tapping into peripheral interests around wine in order to allow people to feel more comfortable around it. Wine is expression, wine is enjoyment, wine is community. That being said, I love when I’m in the presence of someone who wants to get nitty gritty science with me, I always loved lab work and analysis at school and more recently when making wine myself. It helps provide a framework for the future of wine and how different everyone is involved in it.

What do you feel the wine industry should be focusing on in the next 5 years?

Carbon sequestering implementation in the winery. Changing packaging from glass to more sustainable options. Looking into how we can improve export/miles in terms of carbon offset. Focusing on soil health, working alongside nature not preventing its movements.

Accessibility in the wine industry, hearing from the voices that have otherwise been silenced. I think our diversity and inclusivity and education project, Women and Revolution, is not the first of its kind and will absolutely not be the last. There will be more of this and we will find the shift huge, but vital.

When it comes to choosing a wine, what seems to excite or entice your customers the most?

Connection? Relatability? Building a narrative into it so that they can feel empowered that they chose it and will share it with others (or perhaps not, I’m partial to a solo drink). 

What are the stories you want to hear about the wines you drink and sell? 

Reflections on the vintage. The makers and growers ethos, what they value, what their future entails. What they are doing in order to work alongside the environment. Why they came to make wine, what their other interests are. I want to hear everything about everything.

Give us some insider tips. What do you look for when selecting wines for the shoppette, and your own personal collection? 

Wines I feel a personal connection to, or am curious as to how they came to be. I don’t really feel too purposeful or decisive, I like when a wine comes to me. I won’t falter on my quest to drink wines made by good people though, I’m done pandering to the fallacies of the industry. Grapes made with mindless hands taste, mindless. I think I am a deep lover of white wine though, and always seek out broader expressions. I like to scour Instagram and look for exciting growers and makers. I like asking winemakers and distributors and customers, what they enjoy drinking. Wine swaps are fun too. 

You’re known for curating wines to match a vibe, give us 6 wines to match your current vibe.

Broody – Domaine de la Chevalarie Peu Muleau Bourgeuil 2015

Party – Vincent Careme Fizzy Pink 2020

Calm and Uninterrupted by Thoughts – Domaine Landron Chartier Muscadet 2019

Need to finish a writing job – Dr. Edge Gold 2021

In Love – Cantina Giardino Volpe Rosa Rosato 2019

WOWed – 2019 Passopisciaro Contrada PC Bianco

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