It's not often that I am left speechless, but recently I have been overwhelmed and overawed by a number of people, all of whom have been very influential in my journey to becoming a wine geek.

I was very fortunate to meet the editor of Decanter magazine, John Abbott, at the restaurant where I work as a sommelier. He was so easy to chat with that he completely torpedoed my assumption that wine editors are a snooty lot. In fact, when he said that he'd leave it up to me to do the wine pairings for his dinner, I was tickled pink - even more so when he complimented my choices.

Abbott was in Hong Kong to launch the first Decanter Asia Wine Awards. I offered him my services as a wine slave (someone who will do anything just to be involved). And he accepted.

I arrived at the venue during the briefing session, where each of the head judges was introduced. These experts came from across Asia - Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and the mainland. They were indeed a most illustrious lot.

Hong Kong's very own Jeannie Cho Lee, the first Asian master of wine and author of the book Asian Palate, was one of the co-chairs.

Another judge, Gerard Basset, is the only person in the world who is simultaneously a master sommelier, a master of wine and the holder of a wine MBA.

It was Decanter columnist Andrew Jefford's first trip to Hong Kong and he was full of enthusiasm and praise for the vibrancy of the wine scene here, saying the selection and range of vintages available is comparable to that on offer in Britain.

Australian Michael Hill Smith, the first non-British master of wine, gained his certification in 1988. He is a co-owner of Shaw and Smith Wines, in Adelaide Hills, Australia, which specialises in cool-climate sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir and shiraz. When I asked if he had ever encountered his own wines in competitions where he had been a judge, he said he made a point of asking that they be excluded, to avoid any conflicts of interest.

Steven Spurrier, who is now a consultant editor at Decanter, was my first wine idol. I studied at his Academie du Vin, in Paris, France, when I caught the wine bug, and have read avidly about his "Judgment of Paris" tastings (in 1976, 1986 and 2006), in which the best wines of California and Bordeaux were pitted against each other. He observed that after California won the first two rounds, the 2006 taste-off showed that the Bordelaise were no longer resting on their laurels and had taken the initiative to improve their wines.

Over the two days of the awards, I found myself in awe of the judge's passion and professionalism.

The judging teams were divided by region, with each head judge overseeing two to three teams. Wines were then judged under the following criteria: region, vintage range and grape. The judges were warned there would be no lunch breaks until they had tasted at least 40 wines.

Hats off, too, to the logistics team for keeping more than 2,000 entries (and for each entry, there were four bottles) from getting mixed up. Wines submitted were collated from all around the world, wrapped (these are blind tastings) and tagged with the tasting code, their foil capsule removed and stelvin (aluminium screw cap) covered, with every submission painstakingly double- and triple-checked along the way.

It was a wonderful and humbling experience to be part of the judging process - wonderful, because all my wine heroes were so generous in sharing their knowledge and passion, and humbling because they showed me that there is so much more to learn about wine.


Nellie Ming Lee is a freelance food stylist and part-time sommelier, and is studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers.