Expat couple hit a purple patch

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 March, 2011, 12:00am

Academic-turned-entrepreneur Fongyee Walker has carved out a lucrative niche in teaching and consulting in the mainland's fast-growing wine industry.

Walker, whose mother is originally from Harbin, went to school in England and studied chemistry at Cambridge University, later taking on the extra challenge of a degree in classical Chinese. Despite not speaking a word of Chinese when she was growing up, Walker excelled, as she did at wine tasting when boyfriend, and later husband, Edward Ragg, persuaded her to join the university wine club.

The pair moved to China just over two years ago, figuring their combined talents would be suited to the expanding industry. Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting was a success from the start, with the pair in demand for wine-training classes, translation services, wine sourcing and restaurant wine-list recommendations.

'In England, wine educators and wine pundits are two a penny so we decided to come to Asia,' Walker, 39, says. 'I always was keen on Beijing as I studied classical Chinese at Tsinghua University and taught there at first while we made inquiries about setting up the business.

'At first we couldn't have a business licence because wine consulting didn't officially exist. We also had a huge problem with the word 'education' because foreign-owned companies cannot become involved in education easily, so we had to make it clear that it was wine training. I do an awful lot of work with translation because in general wine terms are so badly translated, pathetically badly.'

Walker drew on her background in poetry to improve on the translations and make sure the Chinese versions were just as evocative as the English.

'The one [poor translation] that used to kill me was reading that Syrah was spicy hot, like chilli heat. Since when did you have a wine that had chilli in it? What people had read was that it had black fruit flavours, with lots of spice - what they meant was cloves and cinnamon, not chilli.'

Walker, who is studying for the notoriously tough Master of Wine qualification, puts on courses certified by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust for individuals and corporations. The courses range from novice to advanced, with prices varying from HK$2,000 to HK$11,000. She is also regularly invited to lecture in second- and third-tier cities throughout the country.

'I have to start from basics,' she says. 'We generally do introductory courses that are on the level of 'there are three kinds of wine, red and white and did you know there was pink wine?' ... I spoke to someone who told me very proudly he imported Italian wines and yet he had never heard of Chianti.

'The business is huge and growing,' Walker says.