Less than 500 people have passed the Master of Wine exams since 1953, and there are currently just 420 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.
For more than two decades, Singaporean Ying Hsien Tan worked as a lawyer. Although wine was something he developed a keen interest in while studying at university in the UK, he never considered it as a career.
However, serendipity intervened, and a meeting with a fellow wine enthusiast and recently qualified Master of Wine in 2009 changed all of that. Before long Tan was on course to become the first Singaporean MW, a title he achieved in 2015.
He now runs Taberna Wine Academy in Singapore, and as well as being an educator, he writes about wine, reviews it and judges it in various competitions. Here, he reveals more about his career change, picks out an unusual pairing he rates and reveals what his last glass would be.
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?
I never intended to pursue a career in wine. I developed a geeky interest during my university studies in the UK in the early 1980s, helped by the emergence of tutored wine tastings by independent wine merchants there. I initially attended because it was a cost-efficient way to get my alcohol fix, but what the wine merchants or wine producers said at these tastings piqued my interest.
By a matter of chance and serendipity, in 2009 I met Lisa Perrotti-Brown, a then newly qualified Master of Wine, who encouraged and supported me to join the MW education programme. The rest, as they say, is history. I established a wine bar that evolved into a wine school and started conducting wine talks and tastings professionally from 2010.
Why did you decide to attain your Master of Wine and what were the greatest challenges for you in achieving it?
I never in my wildest dreams thought I would ever become a Master of Wine. I was a lawyer working in the financial industry, so when Lisa Perrotti-Brown suggested it, I was incredulous. I had no prior professional wine experience and had never even attended a formal wine course. With a lot of nudging and encouragement, I eventually decided that there was nothing to lose apart from a bruised ego and made the application. To my surprise, I was accepted! It was a life-changing moment.
The challenges were significant. I had no prior professional experience. My range of tasting experience, although wider than the average consumer, was by no means as wide as it needed to be to succeed (though who was I to complain about an excuse to taste more?). My theoretical knowledge on matters of viticultural practice was close to zero; there was a lot more technical knowledge to be acquired. The hurdle in this respect was simply finding the time to do it as I was still consulting in the banking regulatory world. I eventually moved out of that completely in 2011.
What characteristics / qualities do you think you need to have to become a Master of Wine?
Focus, perseverance, a willingness to work hard…and a big dose of humility. Most candidates do not pass on the first attempt. It took me four attempts to pass the tasting examination. But with a little directed guidance from some MWs, in particular John Hoskins MW and Annette Scarfe MW, I worked out where I was going wrong and got through.
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?
Usually, what is involved in the examination? By the time I get to describing Theory Paper 2 on production of wine, their eyes are glazed over and hands are desperately clutching an empty wine glass begging to be refilled.