Grape & Grain

The challenges of becoming a master of wine, in Hong Kong and elsewhere

Hong Kong-based wine writer Sarah Heller traces her oenological journey

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 October, 2015, 9:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 October, 2015, 9:01pm

Although Hong Kong is a city where fads are as short-lived as fruit flies, anyone who doubts the endurance of Hong Kong's wine obsession need only look to our swelling pack of students hoping to become a master of wine.

As one such individual, I've been asked to help explain exactly what a master of wine student is. Having stepped away from full-time employment to focus on my studies about 18 months ago, I'm well rehearsed in the discussion. It tends to flow along these lines:

"I see, are you a sommelier?"


"A winemaker?"

"Well, no."

"So is it a master's degree?"

"Not exactly."

If I sense that the asker merely seeks a crisp one-liner, I explain, "It's a bit like a guild that you have to take an exam to join". (Not strictly true, although the exam was first administered in 1953 by London's Vintners' Company and the Wine and Spirit Association, after which the six who passed formed the now-independent Institute of Masters of Wine.) If feeling bold, I'll drop in "it's considered the top accolade in the wine world".

Pressed for details, I explain that the first stage involves eight exams in two parts. Practical comprises three tasting exams, each featuring 12 wines for which you must identify various combinations of the origin, grape variety, winemaking, age, quality level and so on. Theory is five essay exams on vine growing, winemaking, quality control, wine business and contemporary wine issues, on which you must write two to three essays each.

After a student passes both parts (with an average pass rate of 18 per cent, which is a stat that never fails to raise eyebrows), he or she then submits a research paper on a wine-related topic of choice. If I still feel the need to talk it up, I might name-drop a few prominent MWs, such as Jancis Robinson and Lisa Perrotti-Brown, editor-in-chief of Robert Parker's Wine Advocate. Hong Kong has two MWs - Debra Meiburg and Jeannie Cho Lee.

At this stage, most people accept that the master of wine is nothing a sane person would embark upon lightly; it's a quest for professionals.

Thus the next question is usually how I got involved with wine, and how a 27-year-old can claim seven years' involvement in the business. Are my family in the trade? (No.) Wine collectors? (No.) Was I so enamoured with wine that I decided it was thriftier to make it my job? (Perhaps.)

I actually came to wine, like many fellow hedonists, through food. Convinced I had chef's blood in me, at 20 I informed my parents of my plan to take six months off from my degree at Yale and attend culinary school.

No fools, they quickly reached out to friends everywhere, seeking a restaurant credulous and scofflaw enough to take on a rookie with minimal kitchen experience and no EU work visa. We eventually found it - naturally - in Italy.

Although I loved cooking (and became master of tiramisu), my chef's tendency to take me along on weekly tasting jaunts in what remains my favourite wine region, Piemonte, quickly redirected me. Upon returning, I immediately secured a part-time gig at a Manhattan wine importer while I finished my degree. There, I spent my days manufacturing marketing materials and occasionally convincing the sales team to let me shadow them on sales calls.

It is only through a twist of fate that I'm not a New Yorker still. During my post-graduation summer, an untimely backward step into a concrete tank at the Provençal winery where I was interning sent me broken-spined (but not beaten) back to Hong Kong to convalesce.

Once here, a quick glance about me suggested I had inadvertently landed in the hottest wine market since the Americans met Robert Parker. In the intervening years the combined guidance of my employer and friend Debra Meiburg MW and my vinous family, the Hong Kong Wine Society, propelled me ever onward in the pursuit of formal wine education.

And here I now stand, having made my first exam attempt in June and escaping with a Theory pass (jubilation!) and Practical - well, not quite. Still, though short of the home run I'd only just dared wish for, my husband, who helpfully calculated both my highest and lowest possible total scores based on the grades, informs me the road isn't too dismayingly long.

Hence, for the next couple of months, I will be regaling you with enthralling tales of how I spend the days between now and my resit next June. We will sip, we will swish, we will (usually) spit, and hopefully we will have some fun.

Sarah Heller is a Hong Kong-based wine writer