Meet The Master: China’s Leading Wine Educator Fongyee Walker MW
Less than 500 people have passed the Master of Wine exams since 1953, and there are currently just 419 Masters of Wine in the world. That’s fewer people with MW after their name than have been to space. This is partly because the exams to achieve the coveted qualification from the UK-based Institute of Masters of Wine—comprised of extensive theory learning, blind tastings and a 10,000-word research paper—are notoriously rigorous, taking a minimum of three years to complete with pass rates of around just 10%. In our latest series, Meet The Master, we talk to MWs about their journey to mastery, those formidable exams and what in the wine world is wowing them right now, from fun pairings to under-rated regions to the rapid developments taking place within wine in Asia.
Wine took on a new significance for Fongyee Walker while she was studying at the University of Cambridge and became involved with its Blind Tasting Team. Training the Cambridge squad, she realised how much she enjoyed teaching. Moving to Beijing in 2007, she went on to co-found Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting with her husband and fellow Master of Wine Edward Ragg, though it was not until almost a decade later that she attained the elusive qualification.
A leading wine education company, Dragon Phoenix is the only education institute in China permitted to offer the WSET Level 4 Diploma, and Walker is one of the country’s most qualified wine educators. Aside from teaching, she has many strings to her bow, working as a wine writer, wine judge and presenter, participating in documentaries and hosting an internet show about wine pairing with Chinese food called Wok ‘n Wine, which has garnered more than 4 million viewers.
Do you have any early wine memories that were significant or impacted your decision to pursue a career in wine?
I have lots of early wine memories but none of them made me want to pursue a career in wine—they just made me like drinking it! The decision to pursue wine as a career came very late. Edward had got a position to teach at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. I had studied Classical Chinese at the University of Cambridge, but I was never going to get a job in Classical Chinese. At the same time I had been training the Blind Tasting team at Cambridge, and I realised my forte is as a teacher. I had always been a teacher—I’ve taught Chemistry, English, Classical Chinese and I’ve taught wine and I realised I loved teaching wine more than the rest and that China was a brilliant place to do this. I realised that Chinese people were getting more into wine and wanted to learn about it.
Why did you decide to attain your Master of Wine and what were the greatest challenges for you in achieving it?
I never thought you actually went to class to study wine. I thought you sat around with mates and tasted wine and talked about it. But I had met several Masters of Wine at Cambridge, because when you do the [Oxford & Cambridge] Blind Tasting Challenge, a lot of the people you meet are Masters of Wine. Pol Roger sponsor the competition so every year we would have the Master of Wine for Pol Roger, James Simpson, come and give us training, and he encouraged me to give the Master of Wine a go.
I really enjoyed doing it, though I didn’t really take the Master of Wine to become a Master of Wine. In fact, I think I drove everyone insane, because I kept on saying it doesn’t matter if I pass it or if I don’t. What I really enjoyed was the chance to get out of my bubble and talk with people from around the world, because I love geeking out about wine.
Do you have any advice for others who might be looking to achieve the MW?
Enjoy it. And if you don’t enjoy it, why are you doing it? Also, I think the most important thing is to really work on understanding the whole world of wine, and to not get bogged down in the details. I think the Master of Wine is about mastering the connections and the relationships of wine, not mastering obscure details about rootstock numbers. It’s about understanding how everything clicks together, from consumers to producers to soil, and I think if you don’t get that you are never really going to master the world of wine.
What is the most common question you get asked when people find out you are a Master of Wine?
Nobody has any idea what the Master of Wine is; most people think it’s a university master’s degree, so I do spend quite a lot of time explaining what it is. And then, of course, in China, the biggest question I get is how do you pass it?
What are the most overlooked wines/regions/grapes in your opinion and why?
In China and particularly with regard to my students, I always feel good, decent, cheap wines and wines that may not be from a famous region but are still delicious are overlooked. In Asia I think that everyone is chasing after brands and regions and it’s so boring. I tend to champion weird regions. I get very excited about small regions in Chile, because everyone looks down on Chilean wines, and I really like wines of Greece and southern Italy. I just like wines that offer good value for money, and these are often overlooked in Asia.
Do you have a favourite food and wine pairing or are there any unusual pairings that you enjoy?
I am a great pairer of food with wine because I believe that food goes with wine. But I always think that the best combinations are your taste, and if you like to drink steak with Sauternes, then do it! You mustn’t worry about things like that. Why someone gets their knickers in a twist about drinking red wine with fish is beyond me, because everyone’s taste buds are different.
One of my favourite pairings was when someone gave me an already open 2001 Chateau D’Yquem. I took it home and my husband was making a northern Indian lamb curry and we drank the Yquem with it and it was amazing
And probably the weirdest pairing was one I recently had in Xinjiang. It was a bottle of 2013 Domaine Leroy Aligote paired with takeaway Xinjiang lamb soup. It was brilliant. It’s not about matching the food with wine; it’s about what you need at that point in time. I had just driven seven hours across Xinjiang in 47-degree heat, and we’d stopped at salt lakes, we’d crossed the dessert, we’d driven through the mountains and I’d watched out for speed traps and driven through police checks. We got to our hotel and my friend said she had a bottle of Leroy in her suitcase and I said ‘Put it on ice and I’m ordering take out’. And there was something about the pure joy of sitting with your friend with your feet up—did it matter that it was a white wine paired with lamb soup? Who cares? It was just good.
How often do you drink wine––for work and for pleasure? Is it challenging to stay healthy working in the wine industry and do you have any tips for those that do?
Since I passed the MW, I have lost over 100 pounds in weight. I discovered I had undiagnosed hyperthyroidism. I had just thought I was permanently tired because of the Master of Wine, but it turned out I was pretty ill, so since I found that out I realised that you have to prioritise your health, which is tough to do in this industry. In a way this industry has somewhat destroyed my ability to really drink wine for pleasure. I spend my life going out to fancy restaurants and drinking really good wine for work, so when I drink for pleasure I just like sitting at home and cracking open a very easy-to-drink wine that I don’t have to think about.
It is easy to fall into bad habits, and there is a great deal of alcohol dependency in this industry. I think you need to be really aware of your own weaknesses and not use alcohol as a crutch. Far better to use something like exercise, which I do. I’ve just been on a tour of wineries in Xinjiang and I make sure I exercise every morning. I now carry yoga mat everywhere with me! It is a hectic life and it’s a lot of drinking and in the end alcohol is not that good for you.
How has wine in Asia—its status and perception—changed during your career, particularly in China?
I think what really excites me about China is the wonderful way that more and more people really take pleasure in wine. They get really happy about sharing and talking about wine.
What do you think of wines produced in Asia itself––and are there any that you believe should be on people’s radar?
I’ve just come back from southern Xinjiang and I wish people knew more about the wines there. Everyone is all about Ningxia or Shangri-la or Shandong, but Xinjiang is an area with good raw materials where you can find great wine. In particular, there’s lots of really good shiraz; it’s like Barossa shiraz—big and ripe and full of fruit. It’s not that easy to find outside the area, but one producer, who is more global, is Tiansai.
Has Covid-19 and the global pandemic affected your work in wine and if so, how?
China had a big lockdown, but we actually bounced back a lot quicker than everyone else and by November 2020 we were having wine fairs and exhibitions. What’s affected us more is the troubles that WSET has had in China as they were shut down for failing to follow the country’s education laws. This has really impacted my students as we were the only ones teaching the WSET Level 4. Unfortunately we can’t do anything about it. We’ve developed our own courses, and a lot of people have been enjoying them, but, being China, everyone wants international accreditation.
If you had to choose your last bottle of wine and price/availability were not a factor, what would it be and why?
If it’s my last bottle of wine I’d have to eke it out, so it’s going to be Madeira. I recently tasted a 100-year-old Madeira from 1903 and as price is not an issue, I would say a 19th century Madeira—a Verdelho so it’s not too dry and not too sweet—because it goes beyond wine. You are drinking a hundred years of history—it’s double bang for your buck.
What do you love most about working in wine?
I love the people. They have such an energy and enthusiasm and an appreciation for the beauty of the world. It’s such a civilised industry to be in. And you meet people all over the world that are just so passionate and wonderful and they are preserving culture and history. Then there are my students, too, who are using wine to explore their life and their passions and their dreams.