Meet the AJ's Cellar Masters
Our Cellar Masters have varied backgrounds but all share one; a passion for all things wine.
Val Vista and Baseline, Mark Stanton
Scottsdale and Lincoln, Ann Stephens
Via Linda and Mountain View, James Richter
Frank Lloyd Wright and Thompson Peak, Dennis Wells
Pima and Union Hills, Jerry Tye
Pima and Pinnacle Peak, Jim Mitchell
Scottsdale and Lone Mountain, Al Soloman
44th and Camelback, Jonpol Anderson
Central and Camelback, Steve Sphar
67th Avenue and Beardsley, Lou Handy
56th Street and Ray Road, Sharon Webster
Skyline and Campbell, Laurie Kountz
Mark Stanton, Member since 2007
What does it take to be in this business? Passion, drive, interest, caring, all these are necessities for success. In essence this helps to describe Mark and his role in the AJ's Wine Cellars. From fine dining restaurant management, to distributor, to retail, Mark has experienced the service industry from all angles. Fifteen years is a long time, but 15 years learning what it takes to serve the customer is always time well spent. "Trust" Mark states, when asked the key question, "What is the most important thing you want to give your customers?"
Mark's favorite wine style is French Red Burgundy. Pinot Noir at its best, some will say. The flavor profile, the terroir and the magnificence of tradition and history in a glass, understanding this region is to really understand the uniqueness of the vineyards and the care it takes to grow great grapes. "Trying to imagine the region, the vines and the people involved in the making of the wines", is the one experience Mark lists as his favorite when drinking wine.
Another favorite experience would be the "Jack Daniels Distillery tour, barrel tasting and dinner with Master Distiller Jimmy Bedford and his wife." The Jack Daniels Distillery is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Knowing the volume that is produced, as well as the much loved product's reputation, the tour of the grounds is dynamic and mystical. Mark lists "the true American Spirit, Bourbon" as his favorite spirit and one that he maintains the most knowledge about, so you know that this was "heaven" for him.
Ann Stephens, Member since 1993
"To love all things French" does not state fully the passion that is held by our AJ's Fine Foods Cellar Master Ann Stephens. A member of AJ's Fine Foods since its inception in 1986, Ann has grown, developed, and created a department that is a trademark for AJ's standards of excellence.
Not only does Ann's product knowledge excel in areas of Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux and French spirits, but it extends to Italy as well. Through extensive and numerous European visits, Ann has had the opportunity to experience firsthand the dynamics and intimate balance of French and Italian cuisine.
Well versed in food and wine pairing, Ann delights in planning menus, creating the right cheese and wine combination as well as hosting guests to a special meal. As with many people, these intimate experiences bring the most satisfaction.
Ann's knowledge does not stop at wine; her education in spirits is extensive. Listing Gin and Armagnac as a favorite personally, she notices the consumer trend is still favoring vodka, scotch and an increased interest in bourbon.
Dennis Wells, Member since 1989
"A great wine experience," knowing that customers have different tastes, styles and occasions, but all want the wine to meet their event. Over 36 years in the wine industry, both in retail and restaurant, Dennis strives to bring new exciting styles to the customer.
He maintains an extensive knowledge of California, Oregon and Washington wines, noting "big, bold red wines" to be his favorite style, richly textured Zinfandel, deep-colored dramatic Cabernets, and juicy berried Merlots. The wine industry has been built on the shoulders of these wines.
"That first sip, the nose, the mouth feel, the full flavor in the mid palate and the finish, long, silky and everlasting," this is the experience. This is the best part of wine for Dennis, leaning toward the actually sensory perception of the wine: the fruit, dark, rich and explosive, the smell, aromatic, alluring and inviting, the finish, long, satisfying and breathtaking.
His taste in spirits mirror the boldness of his wine choice, listing Single Malt Scotch as his favorite. The distinct characteristic of Single Malt Scotch can be described as smoky, earth-driven, strong and intense. Just like wine, the small regional areas that produce Scotch showcase different regional characteristics. Touch with a drop of water and these spirits become even more satisfying.
Jerry Tye, Member since 2000
A man of great knowledge about Sake, having spent his young formative years in Japan, Jerry speaks the language as well as understanding the culture. Sake for some may be confusing or very one-dimensional, yet this drink is very dynamic in style, production, taste and pairings. So it is no surprise that Jerry has listed Sake as a wine that is very underrated by the wine industry. Educating the customer will help to overcome people's shyness about premium Sake.
Jerry has spent the last 7 years in the wine retail industry, but his passion of wine, spirits and beer has always been close to his heart. His favorite style of wine is Italian, and although with their many regions, indigenous varietals and local delicacies, Jerry maintains the most knowledge about these wines. Recently, Jerry had the opportunity to spend an extended visit to the Alto Adige in Northern Italy, and he notes this to be his most dynamic experience in the industry to date.
Always an individual to venture off the path, Jerry sees "helping customers with a good selection that is outside their comfort zone" an opportunity to open new great wines for the customer. His favorite experience in wine is "enjoying the bouquet and seeing how many flavors and characteristics I can identify."
Jim Mitchell, Member since 1996
Many times this business brings out the best in people, for this is a business of thinking, creating, relationships and communicating. Upon meeting Jim, you will notice the easygoing style of someone who will listen to your request and thoughtfully choose a wine for you. "Satisfaction with the wine that I have presented them" is the key to success for Jim.
Although Jim notes to be very knowledgeable about "Chardonnay wines", "Rye and Kentucky Bourbons" and "is a big supporter of Washington State wines", his favorite style of wine is "Amarone". This Italian wine is dense, with intense aromatics and very rich in taste. Through time this wine has lured the novice, tempted the weak of heart and satisfied the adventurer in the quest for the ultimate wine experience.
The 10 years Jim has spent in the retail wine industry has exposed him to many products, people and knowledge. "Attending a tasting or presentation, where I am always able to learn", is the most dynamic experience in this business. Vintages change, products change and trends change, but having the ability to learn something new and pass it on, really helps me to keep excited about this business.
Steve Sphar, Member since 2002
The wine with the big personality "Zinfandel" is listed as one of Steve's favorite wine styles. Zinfandel can be described as more of a lifestyle, bold, rich, deep purple in color, impressive, passionate and individualistic. If mirrored, this would reflect Steve's style.
Steve also lists California Central Coast Rhone styled red wines as a favorite, surely not the overachiever of Zinfandel, but impressive nonetheless. The classic European varietals of Grenache and Syrah are crafted into a fruit-forward California style.
Very passionate about wine and spirit, Steve's 13 years of industry experience are marked with "winery tours, working in the fields during harvest, being involved in the blending process as well as intimate dinners with wine makers." Noting the best of the wine experience as "sharing good wine with friends and peers," Steve keys on the wine being part of a bigger experience.
Boasting that spirits are his specialty, Steve's favorite being Irish Whisky and Tequila, both spirits bound by tradition, location and history. Since Steve's recent visit to Ireland, I would say his passion leans towards Irish Whisky.
Ed Sullivan, Member since 2000
"Reveling in the aromas of a wine and the thoughts that emanate" - this could simply be taken from a masterpiece of great literature, yet it is the one favorite experience of wine that heightens the senses. Ed's passion of wine is not limited to the taste nor the style but the aromas that blossom from the goblet.
Not limiting his favorite style of wine to one country or variety, Ed lists "Italian Reds, Napa Cabernets, German Riesling" as his top picks. Truly the Italian reds showcase fruit wrapped in earth and texture, while the acidity and bold manner demand food pairing. While the Napa Cabernet maintains the big, chewy, bold and rich style, yet expresses more dark fruit, tannins and oak. Hinting towards the noble grape Riesling, German wines have become more than just the sweet wines of Europe. Fresh in fruit and acidity, great structure and balance note the resurgence of an outstanding production of German wines.
Knowing that the preference for a wine style is very personal, focusing on "the pleasure of wine" is a key to customer satisfaction.
Being in the spirit industry 12 years, Ed has gained most of his knowledge through seminars, industry wine courses, winery tours and tasting. Listing the "Silver Oak Magnum Vertical Tasting" as one of the most dynamic experiences to date, Ed was impressed with what the wine can become. This business is ever-changing, and being familiar with trends as well as standout vintages continues to drive his passion.
Sharon Webster, Member since 2002
Sometimes decisions to enter the wine business are personal. For Sharon it was the joy of "making a great food and wine pairing". Her love of food is mirrored by her love of wine. Starting in the business 15 years ago at the esteemed Kendall-Jackson Tasting Room in the Sonoma wine country, Sharon has had the opportunity to transition from a small-scale selection to a much larger and more expansive program in the AJ's Wine Cellar.
"A sense of confidence when it comes to buying, drinking and enjoying wine" is Sharon's focus as well as her goal for her customers. Many customers are insecure about their selection of wines and uncertain about what varietals and styles they want to try. Building customer confidence helps them make selections that satisfy their expectations.
When asked "What wine regions are currently underrated in the industry?" she points to the wines of Lake County in northern California and those of Paso Robles in the central coast region of California. Wines from these two areas reflect great value and quality and remain bargain-priced, but are frequently overlooked in favor of wines from more prominent areas.
Possessing an array of knowledge about New World wines (Australia, New Zealand, South America and the US), as well as spirits including bourbon, tequila and gin, Sharon's favorites would have to include great gin and "food-friendly" wines, especially rosÃ©s.