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How Shanghai’s Ervin Ong would run the wine list in your restaurant

Ervin Ong, one of the top sommeliers of Shanghai, about what got him into wine, his career as a sommelier, and what he sees as being the key factors in a successful restaurant wine list.

We talk to Ervin Ong, sommelier at 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana in Shanghai, about what got him into wine, his career as a sommelier, and what he sees as being the key factors you have to get right to run a successful restaurant wine list.

1. Can you tell us about your background and how you first got into wine?

I was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I first got interested with wines when I came across the Courts of Master Sommelier (UK) accreditation program when I was studying Hospitality Management in Taylor’s University (Malaysia), and decided that I would love to become a sommelier upon graduating. I took my first wine course during my second year of studies - the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (UK) Level 2 back in 2011 and have not looked back since.

otto bambano

Otto e Mezzo Bombana inside bar view

2. Why did you want to be a sommelier? 

To be honest, I do not like regular nine to five office jobs, sitting in front of a computer the entire day with no interaction with other people. This is the reason why I chose to major in hospitality management. Of all the subjects we covered during the course I most preferred the ones relating to food and beverages. They are also the two areas of our lives that every person on the planet is involved as we all have to eat and drink. As soon as I knew you could become a sommelier as a profession, I literally fell in love with the idea.

3. How did you progress into your current role?

I started my first official hospitality job as a bartender back in 2013 in Wynn Resort, Macau SAR (China). If you are going to succeed in any profession then you need to start at the bottom.
During my two and a half years as a bartender, I continued to study about wines and got both my Wine & Spirit Education Trust (UK) Level 3 accreditation, as well as my certified sommelier accreditation by the Courts of Master Sommelier (UK).

I was then able to get my first assistant sommelier job in the same region in 2015 which gave me a lot of confidence that I could carry on and be successful in this role.

I am now the sommelier for 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana (Italian Fine Dining - Michelin 2 Stars) in Shanghai, China. 

wynn palace

Wynn Palace front view

4. What is involved in your current role and what are your main tasks? 

Mainly organising the whole wine list selections, sourcing interesting labels for the restaurant, providing training to floor staff, and providing the best wine service and food and wine pairing suggestions that i can to all diners visiting the restaurant.

5. If you were given a restaurant to fix their wine program and grow wine sales where would you start and what steps would you to take?

The key is to first find out what the problem is and then look at how you can provide a solution to fix it. As a professional, we have to try our very best to share the knowledge and provide the training that we have accumulated over the years based on our experiences. That is so important. The ability to share your experience with both your colleagues in the restaurant but also with your customers. If you set out to treat every guest sincerely with heart and patience, then you will definitely see changes in your business.

6. What questions would you ask the restaurant owner to know what sort of wine list to create?

I would want to know if they are looking for a wine list that only showcases all the expensive wines in the world to appeal to customers with the biggest wallets. Or do they want a wine list that offers a huge variety of wines that are both educational for the staff and the customers where you are more likely to get return business.

7. What do you most look for and want from wine suppliers to help drive sales?

I am particularly interested in sourcing smaller scale, but interesting wine producers from all over the world, so that everyone has the chance to see what they are doing and try their wines. I like to find wines that are both educational and offer a point of difference to our guests, but can also help those smaller wineries develop their wines around the world.

8. Can you think of any good examples of wine partnerships with suppliers and wines you have listed as a result?

When I was with my previous company in Macau we were able to list wines by the glass by smaller producers and one in particular stand out - Sato, a really small scale winery run by a Japanese couple based in Central Otago, New Zealand.

9. What was it about their wines that stood out?

They were simply pure and elegant Pinot Noirs with minimal machine intervention. They were just
delicious to drink.

10. How do you measure the success of a good wine list or wine program?

A wine list needs to be absolutely user friendly for every type of customer. Whether it is someone who does not know anything about wine, to a professional Master Sommelier who visits my restaurant and wants to look at the whole wine list. It has to be functional and practical with simple but detailed information listed on each page.

11. How have you devised the wine list and wine programme at Otto e Mezzo Bombana?

I first reorganised the whole wine cellar so that it was in a location where we could access any bottle with ease. We then re-did the whole wine list by listing all labels in a synchronised way - same font size and type, same alignment, listing of appellations and grape varietals, price listing in order for every page.

To help the staff understand the new list I gave weekly training sessions explaining the background to different wines. But I also worked on their service levels and how to decant bottles and perform blind tastings. The key was to educate the floor staff that wine is really an interesting topic and I want every one on the floor to be passionate about wines. When they have the interest, they will automatically talk to customers about wines and drive sales for the restaurant.

Otto e Mezzo Bombana inside view

Otto e Mezzo Bombana inside view

12. What are the key four things you focus on to be good in your role? 

Be humble and nice to everyone, be passionate to teach and share what you know, be consistent, and most importantly be hungry to learn new things about wine.

13. What do you think sommeliers spend too much of their time on which is not that important?

Sommeliers that pretends they know everything about wine.

14. What are the criteria you look for in a wine when deciding whether to include it in your wine program or not?

Lesser known wines that are amazing to drink on its own and also food friendly wines.

15. What do you see as being the key skills and talents needed to be a good sommelier?

Be humble to everyone, be hungry to learn, don’t be selfish to share your knowledge and be constantly willing to try new wines every day.

16. How do you evaluate the success and effectiveness of a good wine program?

A wine program that attracts return customers to the restaurant, not just only for the food, but for your selections of wines on the list, as well as for the service and attention that they get from the sommelier.

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