Becoming a sommelier takes years of tasting and studying, and I was lucky to have mentors who taught me a great deal. I try to do the same in turn, by helping younger wine lovers.
The first student I took under my wing was Adam, who worked at the same Hong Kong restaurant as I did while he was taking a break from chilly Britain. One day, I was holding a tasting for staff, pairing wines with Thai and Spanish cuisine. For Adam it was a moment of revelation: wine, he realised, was not simply for washing down food, but could add to the enjoyment of dishes.
Thirsty to learn more, Adam began arriving to work early, helping me to organise bottles for the night’s service while we chatted about wine. He even volunteered to help me with the monthly stocktake (no small task – we had five restaurants to cover, and counting would extend into the wee hours).
As a reward – and to make the job more pleasurable – I would find something interesting and quirky for us to drink and discuss. We would talk about what made a wine expensive. Was it the name? The winemaker? The history? The region?
And where is Adam today? Well, I’m delighted to report he’s wine manager at one of our city’s private clubs. His wine list is a joy to peruse, with many offered by the glass, good coverage of regions and grapes, and – most importantly – labels that are interesting and drinkable while also being affordable.
When working in wine retail, I helped out a group of young women. It’s common these days to be offered a sip to taste at wine shops but, when I started doing just that, in the early noughties, it was rare.
The ladies were given homework, having to come up with three points about each wine. Too often they would opine that a wine was “fruity”, so I installed a penalty jar that they would have to add to each time they used the F word. After all, why be vague? Was it apple? Pear? Lemon? Cherry?
The system worked so well that the ladies began marking each other, rewarding those who could eloquently describe a wine without resorting to “fruity”.
And where are those women today? One remains with the retailer, enjoying her work so much that she has never left. Another is a manager at a Chinese restaurant, which has an interesting wine list that’s not overly focused on Bordeaux, and two work for wine distributors. We all get together once a year, to catch up over a glass or two and share what we have learned over the past 12 months.
As a sommelier and wine geek, one must never stop learning – there’s always something new to discover.
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers.