In her first column for us, Asia Tatler’s new resident oenophile, Sarah Heller, reveals how she went from peeling potatoes in an Italian restaurant to attaining one of the most prestigious titles in wine

Welcome to my first column for Asia Tatler. In the coming months I’ll be taking you on a journey through unexplored wine regions, discussing emerging trends and highlighting classics worth revisiting. We’ll dig into the ways wine, like my first love, art, is more than your everyday luxury good; how it’s a vessel for culture, profuse sensation and deep meaning like few of life’s other pleasures. So buckle up; it’s going to be a heady ride. 

But first let me tell you how my love affair with wine began. I was born and raised in Hong Kong and, like most children of ambitious, successful working parents, I grew up knowing they expected me to get a top-shelf education and then a stable career.   

As my parents proudly packed me off to Yale, all seemed to be going as planned. That I had decided to major in fine art, a subject I’d always adored, was okay with them. That I then developed an interest in cooking and proposed to take half my junior year off to attend culinary school was less so.

Knowing how tough restaurant life can be, my parents wisely suggested I test the water with an internship. Through my dad’s work contacts, I found one at a restaurant in Turin, the capital of the Piedmont region in northwestern Italy. I arrived with lots of enthusiasm but too little Italian to know the restaurant’s name, Boja Fauss, is actually a rather crude Piedmontese expression.

My family had hoped the experience would cure me of my foodie dreams. Instead, I returned to Yale filled with a new love: wine, specifically Piedmont’s glorious barolo and barbaresco. Soon I was working half the week at Domaine Select Wine & Spirits, a New York importer and distributor, while finishing my senior year.

I had every intention of staying in Manhattan after graduation, but fate intervened. Domaine Select generously sent me to three European wineries over the summer to gain winemaking experience. Part of the way through my internship in Provence, I stumbled backwards into an empty wine vat (while completely sober!) and fractured a vertebra, sending me home and thwarting my lingering fantasies of becoming a winemaker. Thus I found myself in Hong Kong shortly after the suspension of import duties on wine transformed the city into the world’s sexiest wine market.

I soon found employment with Debra Meiburg, one of Asia’s first Masters of Wine. We worked together for three years on education, market research and wine events. I then struck out to complete my own Master of Wine; in 2017 I became one of seven in Asia and the world’s youngest at the time.

I now have a portfolio of business ventures, including developing new wine brands (my current baby is the Almásy Collection); art and design collaborations, including a glassware range with Lucaris Crystal and an art series called Visual Tasting Notes; and developing educational initiatives, such as the revised Vinitaly International Academy Ambassador programme.

Yes, it’s eclectic, but my unifying goal has always been expanding our region’s idea of both “wine” and “luxury.” I adore barolo, Bordeaux and Burgundy (particularly white) but, like most millennials, I want more. I believe wine’s complexity—its diverse origins, grape varieties, producers and vintages—is what keeps us all hooked.