Meet The Master: Asia-Pacific’s Youngest Master Of Wine Sarah Heller
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 new 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.
Sarah Heller may be Asia-Pacific’s youngest Master of Wine and the world’s youngest female Master of Wine, but to pursue a career in wine was never her original intention. Her first love was art, and she had enrolled at Yale University to study Fine Art when she was overcome by a desire to go to culinary school, which in turn led her to an internship in Italy where she discovered the beauty of Barolo and Barbaresco. You could say she’s never looked back—though she also hasn’t abandoned her artistic tendencies as the Hong Kong-based wine expert employs her art background to create visual tasting notes where she combines photographic, hand-painted and digitally crafted elements to produce visual representations of the wines she tastes, as well as working as a wine buyer, brand ambassador, writer, judge and television host.
Do you have any early wine memories that were significant or impacted your decision to pursue a career in wine?
When I was 20, I took a semester off from university to work in a restaurant kitchen in Piemonte in Italy, which I still consider the world’s greatest wine region. After a few wine tasting jaunts to the countryside I quickly set aside my culinary dreams in favour of a career in wine and have never looked back.
Why did you decide to attain your Master of Wine and what were the greatest challenges for you in achieving it?
For the first few years I was back in Hong Kong, I worked with Debra Meiburg, one of the first MWs in Asia. The diversity of projects we were able to work on made it clear to me that having the MW, which is very broad but highly prestigious, could create myriad opportunities. A major challenge was accepting the high likelihood of failure—the pass rate for some of the exams is 10% and you only have one chance a year to pass. Picking myself up after my first attempt, when I passed the theory but not the practical (tasting) portion, and trying to get motivated for a whole year of study when I really wanted to move on with my career and family life was a big lift. However, it felt hugely worthwhile when I passed the next year.
What 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?
You have to have an unassailable sense of your ability to eventually succeed. I had to let go of the concept of “talent”. Most people in the MW programme are told at some point that they’re talented tasters, but that idea can be poisonous because talent is something you either have or you don’t. If you fail, then maybe you aren’t actually talented. If instead you can adopt an approach of incremental improvement, each failure becomes a lesson and even an encouragement.
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?
Most people ask how I passed so early in my career—up until fairly recently, the vast majority of MW’s were older (and typically male), so I didn’t really fit the mould, though that is changing, which is heartening. The answer is that I had the opportunity early on to shift to project-based work and focus on my studies, which I believed would be worth it for the ensuing career boost. Luckily, my bet paid off!
What are the most overlooked wines/regions/grapes in your opinion and why?
As the wine world gets geekier, it’s harder to find truly exciting wines that are underrated. However, I still think Spain has a number of regions that sell themselves short. Not least is Rioja, the wines everybody seems to know and like but very few appreciate as some of the world’s best and most age-worthy. Cynically, I would argue that if they trebled their prices people might appreciate the wines’ quality more, but also I think the growing number of producers focusing on site-specificity there will help boost people’s awareness of Rioja as a fine wine.
What are the some of the most overrated wines/regions/grapes in your opinion and why?
I feel Burgundy fever has caused the entire world to start planting pinot noir, sometimes in inappropriate sites. Pinot noir is so beloved because of its terroir-expressiveness but that’s a double edged sword: if it doesn’t like the spot where it’s planted, it will let you know by producing a truly wretched wine.
What is the most unusual wine-food pairing that you enjoy?
Most people avoid trying to pair wine with soup—the contrast in temperature but relatively similar texture can make a match quite tricky. However, I’ve been making a lot of Korean-style bone soups at home recently and all that creamy richness is cut through but also beautifully complemented by blanc de noirs champagne or a juicy Vouvray.
Do you have a favourite Asian food and wine combination?
Over the years I’ve learned to stop trying to force great wines into situations where they won’t shine—there’s nothing worse than eclipsing a trophy bottle with a meal that’s too spicy/sweet/fishy or just too complex. Instead I focus on finding wine components that will complement the whole meal. If I were eating a Thai meal with a lot of nam pla, fragrant herbs and varying levels of heat, I would consider something like a pet nat that has low alcohol, lots of acidity, cleansing bubbles and some serious umami to play off the fish sauce.
How often do you drink wine––for work and for pleasure? Is it challenging to stay healthy working in the wine industry?
I try to take a few days off a week, but more importantly I aim to limit drinking to one meal a day and only a glass or two. Fortunately during the pandemic there has been less drinking for work, but being stuck at home does often lead to unnecessarily opened bottles.
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 biggest change I have seen is wine’s growing popularity among younger consumers who see it principally as a pleasure rather than just a status symbol or financial investment. The investment side of things is still there, but it feels like a bonus rather than the main driver.
What do you think of wines produced in Asia itself––are there any that you believe should be on people’s radar?
There has been intense investment in Chinese wine and the results are ever more impressive, though there isn’t yet a very strong sense of regional style, except perhaps Ningxia wines, which are characteristically ripe and bold. I’m also increasingly fond of Japanese Koshu—I was not always convinced, but the finesse and subtlety of some of the wines being made now (both normal whites and “orange” styles) is really encouraging.
Has Covid-19 and the global pandemic affected your work in wine and if so, how?
It was a mixed bag for me; my in-person teaching and events had to either be shifted online or were postponed and the dozen or more trips I take a year to wine regions or markets were no longer possible. However, I’ve been lucky that many aspects of what I do can be done online. I’ve also had extended stretches to focus on my second career—painting.
If you had to choose your last bottle of wine and price/availability were not a factor, what would it be and why?
Aldo Conterno Granbussia 1988: 1988 is my birth year, so I’ve had this wine a few times, and each time it brings me back to my first trip to Piemonte—not that I was lucky enough to try it on that occasion, but Granbussia epitomises the style of Barolo that was really blossoming at the time. Each sip reminds me why I was so enamoured with wine in the first place.
What do you love most about working in wine?
The generosity and openness of most of the people working in the industry. People who you’ve never met before will welcome you into their homes and treat you like family because you have a shared passion; it’s quite extraordinary.