Late bloomer discovers the wines they are a changin' in Asia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 October, 2011, 12:00am


Sommelier Yvonne Cheung was born in the United States to Chinese parents who emigrated from Shanghai to California.

After studying cultural anthropology and East Asian studies at the University of California, Los Angeles - including one year in Hong Kong - she decided to focus on food and wine at the Culinary Institute of America, in New York.

Following stints at restaurants in Malibu and Nantucket, Cheung became the wine director and restaurant manager at the renowned Carneros Inn in Napa

A year ago last week Cheung returned to Hong Kong as chef sommelier at Cafe Gray Deluxe.

When and why did you first become interested in wine?

Growing up in a Chinese family, I didn't know about wine until college. And because in the US the drinking age is 21, I didn't have first-hand experience of drinking it until quite late. So it was more from being interested in things such as why one wine is so different from another, and why people like a certain wine, than from drinking it.

Did you experience any difficulties wanting to be a sommelier in what is still a male-dominated world?

It was less about being a woman than being young and Asian. I grew up in California, where women are prominent in all sorts of careers. I think I can look younger than I am, so that was more of a difficulty, and the fact that Asians weren't prominent in the industry.

Why move from the Napa Valley, a major wine centre, to Hong Kong?

I lived here when I was 19 or 20, when I studied at Chinese University and I loved it. And as a child I would visit my grandparents here, so Hong Kong is not unfamiliar to me. I always wanted to work in Asia. I was lucky that my parents encouraged (I should say forced) me and my two sisters to speak Mandarin when we were growing up and I speak some Cantonese. I respect my family history and I wanted to come and make use of my wine training here.

What's the main difference between your customers here and in California?

Overall, I would say that here they tend to stick to the familiar wines. Wine is not such a habit or a lifestyle for the Chinese, but that is changing.

What's the best part of your job, other than tasting lots of wines?

It's so rewarding to see someone excited by trying something new. I enjoy education - I love to read in my time off, and sharing knowledge with others is very rewarding.

Is it more challenging to pair wine with Chinese food than Western?

If you have many ingredients with aggressive flavours then it's more challenging. There's going to be more conflict with the wine and the balance is difficult. But food and wine pairing is hard - I find it tough and I'm not afraid to admit it.

Are there some fundamentals you can share with us?

I can tell you the major no-nos. Fish oils and tannin are terrible together. So if you have a fatty fish like salmon the last thing you want is a tannic red wine. It's like chewing a gum wrapper, as my wine mentor, Steven Koplan [professor of wine studies at the Culinary Institute of America] told me. And really spicy food with a very alcoholic wine would be rather explosive and not at all enjoyable.

What is your favourite wine region?

I'm reluctant to say somewhere in France because everybody does, but I'm a Burgundy lover and I love wines from the Loire.

And your favourite grape?

I like rieslings from wherever - Alsace, Germany; I've tasted good ones from Australia. It's a special grape. It's pure and clean, it can be sweet or dry. I would call it noble.

Do you think there's potential for wine grown in China?

Absolutely. All the new wine countries have had their turn at being knocked - Chile and Argentina weren't taken seriously a few years ago. New Zealand and Australia are popular now but not 20 years ago. California is a huge deal now but it wasn't in the 1960s. China has lots of potential; there's enough people investing and they'll keep learning.