How a daring fine wine endeavour matured

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 June, 2012, 12:00am

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Mandy Chan was born and raised in Canada but has strong ties to Hong Kong, where her parents live. When the financial crisis struck in 2008, she and her husband, Jason Ginsberg, saw a chance to become wine merchants in Hong Kong. The result was Ginsberg+Chan Wine Merchants Asia, which showcases a wide catalogue of rare and fine bottles, from prominent to more obscure wineries.

A friend had often tried to persuade the couple to join his wine business. Chan, a homemaker and former IBM software engineer, casually suggested that she would sell his bottles in Hong Kong, prompting her to take various wine courses. That collaboration didn't work out, but the process inspired the couple to start their own company, as purveyors of what they hoped would be irresistible rarities. They even sold their house in Toronto to buy their stock.

The company was launched in Happy Valley in 2009 with a warehouse in Tsing Yi housing about 10,000 bottles.

Did you drink wine from an early age?

My [earlier] drinking life was typically Canadian. In my teenage years, I drank mostly peach schnapps and coolers. During my university days, however, I drank a lot of beer. It wasn't until after university that I started drinking wine, but none that I would call fine wines. I was never a heavy drinker, which is probably why I enjoy our business so much now, as I get to taste the most sought-after wines, with the emphasis on tasting.

There's often one transfixing bottle that turns someone into a serious wine lover. Which was it for you?

The first bottle that showed me how interesting wines can be was a Chateau Margaux 1983 that Jason and I had at a great restaurant in New York. People always ask me: 'What makes a great wine?' I say it's 70 per cent environment and 30 per cent the bottle, although a great bottle could change that ratio.

So, it was a bit of everything - the great mood, meal and service, and that amazing Margaux. I still remember it - feminine and complicated. It changed throughout our meal, an indication of a great wine.

What is your favourite Asian food and wine pairing?

Pinot noir is generally what I have paired with Asian food. But the most surprising pairing I have ever had was when I had sashimi with a 1986 bottle of Chateau Cos d'Estournel [a Bordeaux], which was very special. You normally wouldn't pair a red with sashimi, but this was really nice, from the minerality of the wine to the particular vintage of that year. It surprised me that they went so well together.

Thousands of bottles of fake Chilean red wine were discovered in Kowloon last year. In China, there are wide reports of dubious bottles, especially questionable first-growth Bordeaux. Is more wine fraud likely in Hong Kong?

It's a big problem. I wonder why it's not covered more in the press. In February, there was an auction and US wine experts Don Cornwall, Maureen Downey and Geoffrey Troy saw something wrong with the catalogue, specifically some Domaine de la Romanee-Conti that wasn't genuine. They brought it up on the forum Wine Berserkers, and the furore started. However, the auction still went ahead.

Months later, there was another auction with questionable bottles that were auctioned anyway. Bottles from Rudy Kurniawan [a wine dealer recently indicted for wine fraud in the US] were at these auctions. So, I'm mad that Hong Kong isn't doing enough about wine fraud. Fake wines are still getting through.

Have you seen counterfeit bottles?

We have seen some Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. We found spelling mistakes on the label and got our money back.

Any tips to avoid being a victim of fake wines?

Vet who you're buying from. Ask your source about provenance: where is it from and who is this person? Listen carefully to their answers. Do they sound sincere and knowledgeable or are they regurgitating something? Life is always easier when you do the due diligence.

Where would you recommend for a great wine experience in Hong Kong?

There are lots of places that suit all types of people, styles and budgets. There are also a lot of people who take their own bottles to restaurants to create their own experience, which we like to do. But for the more adventurous, it's fun to put your night into the hands of sommeliers and have them recommend bottles that suit your budget and taste. Gon Leung, the head sommelier of Cepage, served us a great Italian pinot one night, which was a really fun surprise. Kavita Faiella has [curated] very thoughtful wine lists in venues such as The Pawn and The Principal. You can really dig into her wine menus and learn a lot. Amuse Bouche, a great private kitchen, has enough bottles lined up to satisfy any wine lover's fantasies. Kent Wong, the owner, is a gentleman, and the service there is good, too.

What wines have gripped your attention lately?

We often buy wines from other merchants for our own casual drinking. Recently, we had a really nice South African pinot noir embodying lovely aromas, complexity and length. I also sampled some high-quality wines at Vinexpo. There was a Lebanese winery called Chateau Musar exhibiting varieties you would think are older Bordeaux. It would be fun to put them in a blind tasting with some Bordeaux bottles.