Raising a couple of glasses to the future of wine in Hong Kong
Chris So is the founder of the wine lovers' websites www.winelist.hk and www.aroundtheworld.hk. He is a wine consultant, and a Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) certified educator. He is currently studying to become a Master of Wine (MW).
Born in Hong Kong, So went to England for his secondary education, and then gained a masters degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Warwick. He came home to work for a leading civil engineering firm on projects including the new terminal at Chek Lap Kok. So decided to turn his avocation into a vocation at the age of 28.
The worlds of wine and engineering are somewhat different. What prompted you to make a change?
Engineering is very interesting, but there is less interaction with people. It's very technical, which I also enjoy, but I like meeting different people and trying different things. I was intrigued by the variety of drinks available while I was studying in England. I started with beers and cocktails, trying to understand how to make a drink balance.
I found wines very interesting as well - what it takes to make a good pairing, and why people drink different wines. I travelled in Europe and was fascinated by Tokaji Aszu in Hungary. I thought 'Wow, how can a sweet wine be so interesting and so complex?' I started buying books and when I came back to Hong Kong I took wine courses, built up my knowledge, then started writing a blog. I started the company [Winelist.hk] to write about wines online, and then after more study, I started teaching the WSET courses.
Changing careers can't have been an easy decision. When were you sure that wine consultancy work was a viable alternative to your day job?
In 2008, the day they announced that the wine tax would be gone, I went to the business registration office to start my company. It was also my birthday - February 28 - so that was quite a birthday present. After registering the company, I built the www.winelist.hk website.
We were the first company to do online bilingual content about wine in Hong Kong, and the first to use Facebook to publicise it. That gave us an advantage. When I started, I found that there was not enough information in Chinese, especially on the internet.
I wanted to do it bilingually so most people in Hong Kong could read it. It was just for fun and to share information with others. More people started reading the website, so I started doing it full time.
Does the website make money or do you depend on other activities?
There is no advertising on the site. We mainly do events for people and I also teach. We do marketing for wine companies as well, and help publicise events.
I teach WSET and appreciation courses for Hong Kong University's [Adult Education] SPACE Programme, and also do training for different companies.
Why did you decide to try for the MW qualification?
Not many people have done it, and no Chinese person has ever done it. I think the Chinese need somebody to become a Master of Wine and I'm encouraging my friends who I think could do it to give it a go. If at least one of us becomes a Master of Wine that will help to spread the culture and share the knowledge.
If you are a Master of Wine, more people will listen to you. I also wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to learn more. By going on the course you find out how little you know. It's very stimulating. It helps me to write better and teach better. But it requires a lot of time, effort and money, too.
WSET Level 4 - which is the qualification most people take before they think about the MW - can cost HK$200,000 in expenses. The MW could go up to a million.
How long does it take to complete the MW course?
The minimum is three years, but most people take about seven years. I will be very happy if I can finish it in five to eight years. I'm in the second year now. There is quite a lot of travel involved, visiting different wine regions. All the travelling helps the work I do, as well as contributing to the MW.
We have also launched a site called www.aroundtheworld.hk as well as well as www.winelist.hk. We write about wine estates all over the world. I hope to have travelled to all the major wine producing countries by the end of this year so we can publish an electronic book.
Are you daunted by the risk of failure?
Many people fail, but if I do fail I don't think I will regret trying. If you love wine and you want to challenge yourself, go for it. Even if you fail, you will make a lot of friends along the way.