Meet The Master: Wine Buyer And Educator Jennifer Docherty 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 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.
In 2015 Jennifer Docherty became the first ethnically Chinese and Mandarin speaking person to achieve the Master of Wine. Then based in the UK, where she worked in wine and sake buying for UK and Ireland importer Liberty Wines—she also holds the SSI Master of Sake and WSET Level 3 Award in sake—in 2018 she moved to Asia to immerse herself in the Asian wine market. Based out of Hong Kong, she is currently head of buying and education at Summergate Fine Wines, which represents more than 60 brands across its nine offices in Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China—in normal times Docherty splits her time between Hong Kong and Shanghai.
However, for Docherty, it wasn’t always about wine. She started her working life in fashion, having studied fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. It was only after she moved to London and started taking evening WSET classes that she made the decision to focus on wine professionally. Today, not only does she head up Summergate’s portfolio and lead the company’s buying and educators team, providing training to staff and customers, but she is a judge for various international wine and sake competitions, participates in the MW education programme and writes regularly about wine.
Do you have any early wine memories that were significant / impacted your decision to pursue a career in wine? If not, what made you want to pursue a career in wine?
My love of food led me to pursue a career in wine. I was dining at Carme Ruscalleda’s restaurant, Sant Pau, in Sant Pol de Mar [in Catalonie], and had an outstanding wine service and pairing by the sommelier, and I said to myself, I want to know what he knows. When I returned to London, where I was living at the time, I signed up for WSET evening courses. Shortly afterwards, I quit my job in fashion and started at the bottom of the ladder at a wine distribution company and fourteen years later, I am still in the trade.
Why did you decide to attain your Master of Wine and what were the greatest challenges for you in achieving it?
My dad was my inspiration; he earned a PhD, and I wanted to do something that was my ‘Everest’ academically. I heard about the mythic impossibility of achieving the Master of Wine, so I set a goal to scale it. I personally found the theory and dissertation the most challenging. I went to fashion school in New York and did not have to write many academic essays, so I learned the hard way—by failing.
What characteristics /qualities do you think you need to have to become a Master of Wine? Do you have any advice for others who might be looking to achieve the MW?
It took a lot of perseverance and strength to get up after failing parts of the exam and self-discipline to study when all your friends are out having fun. My broken record to future students is: make sure you can dedicate time to study and embark on the MW for the fulfilling journey and a goal itself, not because you think that getting the MW will catapult you to something greater career-wise. Sure, a few more opportunities may come your way, but you need to work just as hard as you did before—if not harder, as more eyes are on you.
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?
Is it hard to get and is it expensive? The answer is yes and yes.
What are the most overlooked wines/regions/grapes in your opinion and why?
Generally, the middle price point category of wines is most overlooked, yet that is precisely where there are many interesting and exciting wines at fair prices. It takes confidence to show up with a bottle that you back as being able to deliver the same pleasure as an expensive and well-known label. The thrill of being a wine buyer is to find the next ‘big thing’ and place your bet on it by importing it and telling everyone about it.
For that reason, I am a huge supporter of South African wines and have brought four wineries to Summergate’s portfolio in Hong Kong and Macau (Crystallum, Lismore, Alheit and Mullineux) and one to mainland China (Crystallum, with more to come). In a nutshell, the Mediterranean climate, old vines, skilled winemaking, and value for money that South African wines deliver is impressive and worth shouting from the rooftops about.
What are the some of the most over-rated wines/grapes/wine regions in your opinion and why?
Over-rated wines are often also overpriced. Price and ratings do not guarantee wine-drinking nirvana, which was a key reason why I choose to study wine. I wanted to be able to have control and confidence in my wine buying decisions, and to do this, I needed to recognise quality irrespective of price.
Do you have a favourite Asian food and wine pairing combinations? What is it/are they and why?
To my great surprise, century egg and Champagne works; I don’t know how but it does. Something special also happened in my mouth when I drank fino sherry with lamb cooked with fresh Sichuan green peppercorns. However, the communal nature of most Asian cuisines is not conducive to exact wine pairings. I love going for Chinese food with a group of wine lovers where we all bring a bottle and we have a taste and bite of everything, Hong Kong is perfect for this.
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 am fortunate because work is my pleasure, but it also means I drink regularly, and I am not discriminatory on my alcoholic beverages. I generally love them all, except for Sambuca. It is impossible to stay fit and healthy without exercise working in this industry despite my best efforts to prove otherwise. There needs to be a balance, indulge one day, take off the next, eat of lot of veggies, avoid sugar, don’t stress, and find an exercise that you love, meaning it doesn’t feel like exercise; that is swimming for me. My latest liver ultrasound attests that I am doing something right—or I happen to have great genes.
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?
The wine scene is relatively new in Asia, compared to the UK, which was trading wine in the Middle Ages. Wine is not a part of everyday life in the way it has been in Europe or the USA for example, so patience is needed. I am excited to be here when the industry is budding and look forward to importing more quirky wines from lesser-known regions to mainland China, but having them unsold in a warehouse is not good business. Hong Kong is where I have a bit more room to play but it is also quite traditional in preferences for fine Burgundy and Bordeaux or volume branded wines at the other end of the spectrum. I am trying to champion the middle.
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?
My first dissertation was about Thailand wines, and I can recommend trying GranMonte wines when you are visiting Thailand. The tropical climate makes it challenging to produce wines, but they do a great job.
In mainland China, I am particularly impressed with Kanaan from Ningxia, which we work with at Summergate (but coincidentally I also brought the wines to the UK before I left my buying post at Liberty Wines); and Grace Vineyards in Shanxi. I have had to pleasure to enjoy a range of Grace Vineyard’s wines, including their Aglianico, Chardonnay and traditional method sparkling with the owner, Judy Chan, now a good friend. Other wines to note that I have tasted are the TianSai Vineyards Chardonnay from Xinjiang, Puchang Vineyard Rkatsiteli, Jia Bei Lan Baby Feet Pinot Noir and the grape variety marselan, which is infinitely better than the green-tasting cabernet gernischt (carmenere).
Has Covid-19 and the global pandemic affected your work in wine and if so, how?
Wine buying involves travel and I have been grounded since the beginning of the pandemic. I have not been able to visit producers, bond over a meal with them, which I miss immensely. I have also not been able to meet my team in Shanghai, one of whom I hired via video interviews and have never physically met. On a positive note, we have adapted to the situation and work has continued, with video meetings with producers and teams. Wine bottles can still travel so I can still taste new vintages and look for new producers remotely, but this is only manageable because I am hanging onto the hope that this will end soon...
If you had to choose your last bottle of wine, and price/availability were not a factor, what would it be and why?
It’s too sad to think of my last bottle because it means the end is near. Instead, I like to think of myself stuck on a tropical island with coconuts and seafood. I can then firmly say that my desert island wine is GG Riesling from the Rheingau. Practically, Rieslings can age and match with seafood and they make me happy with their high acid, floral and peach profiles from the Rheingau.
What do you love most about working in wine?
The people. I am in this for the producers that depend on the whims of mother nature to produce a crop. People who also love wine also tend to love food and love life and that this is my ‘work’ makes me feel incredibly blessed.