Cover Photo: Alamy/Argus Illustrated

Women dominate many aspects of the wine industry in Asia—perhaps more so than in any other region

Almost 10 years ago, when I was a fresh-faced college graduate considering my career options, never did I imagine I would spend so much time talking about my gender. As has happened in so many spheres, the wine world has grappled in recent years with the question of women’s roles, both within the industry and in the broader universe of journalism, education and collecting.

As a female participant in many of these ecosystems, with strong connections to other female industry members and leaders, I’ve had both first- and second-hand views. For my own part, I’ve had the somewhat disorienting experience of living through a time when who I am (young, Asian, female) has gone from being a hindrance to an advantage. When I was starting out, I was frequently dismissed by people who presumed I was the personal assistant of my then-boss Debra Meiburg MW, who to her everlasting credit would constantly correct this misconception. (I was, in fact, executive director of her business.) But later, when I became a Master of Wine, my gender, my ethnicity and especially my youth were touted in virtually every piece of press coverage about me.

In Asia, we enjoy a somewhat unusual situation. A significant portion of wine professionals, and especially top professionals, are women, from the more typically female realms of marketing, media and education to sales and management, entrepreneurship and even the notoriously male-dominant field of winemaking itself (examples of successful female makers include Emma Gao of Silver Heights, Zhou Shuzhen of Kanaan and Ren Yanling of Pernod Ricard).

Among Masters of Wine in Asia, women are in the overwhelming majority. This pattern seems set to continue since virtually every classroom and event I walk into across the continent, especially in China, is at least 50 per cent female if not significantly more.

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Still, some circles remain Y-chromosome dominant, notably those of sommeliers and wine collectors. The reasons are not hard to fathom. As a mother of two children under the age of three, I can well understand that a job that requires a grindingly taxing trio of late nights, alcohol exposure and raw physical exertion (the unglamorous side of sommelier life that you won’t see on TV is the endless heaving about of unwieldy wine crates) is tough to balance with family life. This situation is far from unique to Asia—as a rough indicator, of the 172 Master Sommeliers in the world, only 28 are women. For comparison, globally there are 138 women among 395 Masters of Wine, who tend to work in trade, education, media, promotion and wine production.

The relative dearth of women among Asian wine collectors is more challenging to puzzle out given that Asian women have tended to smash through other luxury lifestyle glass ceilings. For instance, Asian women account for a much higher proportion of luxury car purchases than do their European or American counterparts. However, I still all too frequently find myself as one of only a few women admitted to male-centric collectors’ gatherings. Still, I’m reassured by the Asian female collectors I do encounter. Though not yet great in number, they tend to be among the most active in regional collector associations and far from reticent.

Overall, I am encouraged that younger generations in Asia seem less burdened by the outdated notion that wine collecting, making or trading isn’t for women. Maybe this stems from the patina of romance that wine seems to have acquired in Asia (“Wine is about elegance and sophistication,” I was told by one aspiring young collector). Or maybe it’s the result of a long-standing notion that a pre-bedtime glass of red benefits the health and the complexion (a view I once believed to be apocryphal but that I have now heard countless times, especially from Chinese women in their 40s and older). Whatever it is, I now optimistically anticipate the day when our presence becomes so commonplace that nobody at all is interested in discussing what it’s like to be a woman in the wine world.


Her Choice

To get a sense of how female perspectives are shaping the wine market around Asia, I gathered recommendations from a cross-section of the region’s most influential female industry members and collectors. I asked each to recommend a luxury or collectible wine, either something unique and unexpected, or else an icon that’s truly worth the hype.

1. Karnthida Khwanphuk: Josetta Saffirio Barolo 2015

Managing director of Wine Dee Dee Thailand

Wine Dee Dee Thailand is an importer and distributor known for its strength in boutique luxury wines, so perhaps it’s no surprise that its managing director picked eco-conscious Josetta Saffirio Barolo 2015 and its niche speciality Rossese Bianco, a citrussy white found principally in a vineblanketed corner of Piemonte but originally from neighbouring Liguria. As a kicker, Safirio has been female-run since 1975.

2. Carol Yau: Chateau Musar 1998

Member of the Hong Kong Wine Society and Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne, and wine collector

The current challenging environment has made Carol Yau think about wines made in difficult circumstances. Chateau Musar’s Serge Hochar, with whom she had the pleasure to sit at a tasting in 2012, continued production throughout Lebanon’s civil war. Although on the evening her choice was the 1969, which she described as impressively youthful, for purchase today she would recommend the Chateau Musar 1998 (red-fruited, floral and minty) or 1999 (elegant, with red and black fruit, spice and chocolate) for drinking or laying away, since they have the potential to significantly appreciate in price over time.

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3. Arlene Oliveros: Miani Pettarin Ribolla Gialla 2017

Sommelier, founder of World of Wines and wine educator

Several of the luminaries I asked spared a thought for Italy: Arlene Oliveros, who normally splits her time between the Philippines and Toronto, recommends the Italian cult white wine producer Miani of Colli Orientali del Friuli. Their Miani Pettarin Ribolla Gialla 2017, elusive even in Italy, comes from the iconic Rosazzo vineyard (one of the two Ribolla “Grand Crus”). It’s aged in 100 per cent new oak with no racking or batonnage to “shut down the wine so that it can develop more slowly”. Oliveros describes it as “rich, round and complex with nuances of lemon, tangerines, chamomile and honey”.

4. Katrina Chang: Saignée d’Eulalie Extra Brut

Consul for the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne Shanghai

Katrina Chang chose “a hidden gem by a new grower from a 160-year-old Champagne house”. The Saignée d’Eulalie Extra Brut comes from Champagne Edouard Duval, the eponymous champagne label started in 2019 by the sixth-generation scion of family-owned house Duval-Leroy at his Domaine Sainte Eulalie in the Côte des Bar. Chang described this 100 per cent pinot noir with 10 hours of maceration as “surprisingly light and elegant as a rosé de saignée, with floral and red fruit notes in a beautiful pinkish salmon colour”.


5. Debra Meiburg MW: Vietti Barolo Castiglione 2013

Founding director of Meiburg Wine Media

The founder of Asia’s leading wine marketing agency likewise chose Italy. “If there’s one wine that seems to kick up our parties, it is Vietti’s Barolo Castiglione. Sporting one of the most charming labels in the wine world, Vietti Barolo Castiglione 2013 exemplifies Barolo’s elegance though its tightrope balance of complex, cherry-scented fruit and fresh, invigorating acidity.”

6. Jennifer Docherty MW: Domaine Jamet Côte Rôtie 2012, 2004 and 2007

Head of brand portfolio management for Summergate

Jennifer Docherty MW, who selects brands for the major Chinese importer Summergate, picked Domaine Jamet Côte Rôtie. “It's the first wine I look for on a wine list when in France. It is a fragrant, lifted Northern Rhône syrah and due to its limited production, it is harder to find.” She recommended holding off on vintages after 2012 for now, noting that Domaine Jamet Côte Rôtie 2012, 2007 and 2004 are drinking nicely now.

7. Isabelle Ko: Salon 2008

Founder of Oh My Dear! Wine Boutique

Finally, for a spectacularly splurgy splurge, Salon 2008 is the choice of millennial entrepreneur and Beijing luxury wine merchant Isabella Ko, whose Oh My Dear! Wine Boutique imports the brand to China. “All vintages that Salon produce are great, but 2008 is exceptional. It’s called the dream vintage. It’s only produced in magnum, and you cannot buy it alone; it comes with a limited-edition case with minimum retail price of €7,500 (about RM36,000).


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