Meet The Master: The First Ethnically Asian Master of Wine Jeannie Cho Lee
Jeannie Cho Lee's journey in wine began long before she obtained her Master of Wine qualification in 2008. As early as 1992 she was penning wine diaries where she rated various bottles, and then writing about wine more broadly. Since achieving the prestigious title and becoming the first ethnically Asian Master of Wine, she has written two books—Asian Palate: Savouring Asian Cuisine and Wine, and Mastering Wine for the Asian Palate—continued with her wine journalism and added Professor of Practice (Wine) at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University's School of Hotel and Tourism Management, television host, speaker, designer, and consultant to her long list of achievements. Here, she reveals how she came to turn her passion into her profession, what it takes to become a Master of Wine, and shares some insights on wine in Asia.
Do you have any early wine memories that were significant or impacted your decision to pursue a career in wine? If not, what made you want to pursue a career in wine?
I didn’t plan on being in the wine industry. Looking back, becoming a Master of Wine and working in the industry was serendipitous. Two fortuitous incidents encouraged me to devote most of my time in the wine industry: I obtained my Master of Wine title just when Hong Kong decided to eliminate all wine duty, and there was a subsequent boom in wine education, writing and consulting—my areas of interest. Prior to that wine was a hobby and a personal passion, and writing about it was side work in addition to a full-time job.
Why did you decide to attain your Master of Wine and what were the greatest challenges for you in achieving it?
After obtaining the WSET Diploma, the natural next step seemed to be the Master of Wine. I didn’t know how difficult the programme would be and I didn’t know any Masters of Wine because I was living in Hong Kong and there were none in Asia. Jancis Robinson was the first Master of Wine I met in New York a year after I finished the Diploma and she was so inspiring, both as a wine professional and as a mother of three that I decided I would pursue the MW and see where it would lead. The biggest challenge when I decided to commit to studying for the MW title was finding time to study in addition to working as a journalist and being a mother to four small children. The only way to carve out time during the three to four years of intensive study preparation was sacrificing personal time with friends and sleep time. I managed everyone’s schedules including my own by mapping out all of our daily activities, from meals to nap times (for my children) on a detailed Excel sheet. I would carve out 30- to 60-minute slots to study during the day and wait until everyone was asleep to study further.
What characteristics or qualities do you think you need to have to become a Master of Wine?
There are no characteristics or qualities needed to become a Master of Wine—if you look at all the MWs around the world, we are all very different with our own unique skill sets. I believe the three things that are helpful in getting through the rigorous programme are persistence, dedication and commitment to doing your best even when the road seems long and obstacles stand in your way.
What is the most common question you get asked when people find out you are a Master of Wine and how do you answer it?
“How do you stay so slim when you have to taste/drink wine all the time and dine out nearly every night?” My answer is genetics—I credit my parents for blessing me with good metabolism and genes.
What are the most overlooked wines/regions/grapes in your opinion and why?
There are many overlooked wines/regions that I would personally like to discover. For example, everywhere I travel in the US, each state seems to be producing very good wine, especially in upstate New York where I visit frequently because of family and friends. If I had to choose one overlooked region for the Asian market, it would be Oregon. In Hong Kong, Seoul or Shanghai, it is difficult to find Oregon wines on restaurant wine lists or in retail shops. The wines are more restrained than those of Napa/Sonoma and aside from the terrific Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, there are excellent Pinot Gris and Syrah.
What are the some of the most over-rated wines/grapes/wine regions in your opinion and why?
Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is over-rated in my opinion because the majority of the wines are so similar and upfront. I have had to taste close to 100 different Sauvignon Blancs in a day every year since 2009 to select the best examples for Singapore Airlines. It is a challenging day and the wines are well made and good quality but it can also be very monotonous. However, I do realise it is a very popular style and respect what they do.
What is the most unusual wine-food pairing that you enjoy?
Shanghai hairy crab and lightly chilled Amontillado.
Do you have a favourite Asian food and wine pairing combinations, for example, dim sum and Blanc de Blancs. What is it/are they and why?
Trimbach’s Clos Sainte Hune, which pairs with most steamed dim sum dishes; Toro sashimi and mature Raveneau Les Clos, where the acidity cuts through the fatty tuna; Peking duck with generous plum sauce and Felton Road Pinot Noir—both are intense enough to complement each other without detracting from the flavours.
How often do you drink wine—for work and for pleasure? Is it challenging to stay healthy working in an industry like wine and do you have any tips for those who do?
I drink wine daily, usually a glass or two if I am home and between three and five glasses when I am dining out (usually four or five times a week). I don’t like the gym but I love yoga and Pilates. I suggest keeping fit by finding an activity you really enjoy and look forward to doing nearly every day. When I do drink more than the usual amount, I try to make sure I stay hydrated by drinking a lot of water throughout the evening. Also, personally I don’t usually drink wine without food unless I am just sipping while cooking/preparing a meal.
How has wine in Asia—its status and perception—changed during your career, particularly where you are located but also more widely in the region?
It has changed tremendously with Hong Kong/China and most of Asia finding wine trendy and widely available now compared to 27 years ago. This was not the case when I arrived in Hong Kong in 1994. Even 15 years ago in 2006, most people did not know what an MW was and had never even heard of it. Now, there is a greater appreciation and understanding for wine professionals and many more people who appreciate fine wine and food. It is now common in the major cities in Asia to have heard of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers. Wine has always been aspirational in Asia, but in the past, it was limited to a select narrow group. It is now much more popular and widely recognised as a sophisticated beverage to savour with food.
What do you think of wines produced in Asia itself—are there any wines/grapes/producers/regions that you would like to highlight that you believe should be on people’s radar?
I do try to keep up with the quickly expanding wine regions in China but with Covid-19 it has been difficult to travel. People are already aware of all the exciting things happening in Ningxia, but this is one province I would continue to keep my eyes on, and of course there are several exciting projects in Japan. Look out for Nagano and Hokkaido as potential quality wine regions for the future.
Has Covid-19 and the global pandemic affected your work in wine and if so, how?
Like everyone else Covid-19 has made my work more virtual and online. I feel very lucky that my long term relationships have not been impacted at all. I continue to consult for Singapore Airlines, teach at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and consult for Genting Resorts World. I have conducted numerous online masterclasses and spoken in virtual symposiums and I think it is great that activities can continue despite not being able to travel.
If you had to choose your last bottle of wine, and price/availability were not a factor, what would it be and why?
My last bottle would have to consider who I am with and where I am and what the season is. I have so many favourite wines that it all depends on people, place, environment and circumstance. For example, if I were in Hong Kong with my family and it would be my last bottle of wine to be shared with them, I would choose a magnum of Burgundy white (because my daughters prefer it) and it would be a 2002 DRC Montrachet (again, because I know my daughters love it).
What do you love most about working in wine?
The people. From producers to consumers of wine, it is the people that make it so special: dedicated producers, thoughtful importers, quirky retailers, passionate collectors from around the world…the people make this industry truly special. It is a privilege to be part of it.
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