Chinese-American sommelier Zhang Xu (Brian Zhang) is eager to return to China, his birthplace, where the taste for wine is growing and the industry is expanding.
It's a land of opportunity for the 30-year-old who says it's much easier for him to build trust with customers in China than in the United States where the stereotypical sommelier is "white and old."
Beijing-born Zhang, who now lives in Los Angeles, won first prize last week at the Best Sommelier Competition of French Wines in China, the top domestic sommelier competition.
His sights are set on China but for now he works as a wine educator at Total Wine, the largest independent fine-wine retailer in the United States. He also works for the Los Angeles Wine Festival as a sommelier. He is studying for his Master of Wine certificate.
Zhang, who first studied journalism and then obtained a degree in political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, is also concerned about the conditions of immigrant Mexican and other laborers in California and West Coast vineyards. These immigrants built the California wine industry, which represents 90 percent of the US market, observes Zhang, an immigrant himself.
After graduation, he worked for California Rural Legal Assistance, helping migrant laborers. Then he focused on wine.
"Being a sommelier is a direct way to become influential in wine industry so that I can shine a spotlight on the situation of these farmers. I hope one day I can help find a cooperative winery owned collectively by farmer growers," says Zhang.
"For an immigrant, who wants to be successful in the American wine industry, you need 'thick face' (厚脸皮), so you are not bothered by others. Even my parents wanted me to be either a lawyer or a doctor and thought that a sommelier's job was getting drunk every day," Zhang says.
When he was age nine, Zhang and his parents immigrated to Los Angeles.
"Although I am Americanized, I am deeply connected to China, speaking Chinese at home, reading Chinese history, going to Chinese school on weekends, analyzing Chinese politics during undergraduate study at UCLA," says Zhang.
Zhang, a Western-trained certified sommelier holding a WSET 4 diploma, is determined to help break the monopoly of Westerners and Western viewpoints in the top ranks of the Chinese wine industry.
It's important for China to absorb knowledge from experienced Westerners, however, many of their wine pairing rules for Chinese food are superficial, he says.
The Chinese dining experience of many Western experts is limited to a few dishes such as stir-fried chicken with chili and spices (宫保鸡丁) available in Chinese restaurants overseas, which explains many Masters of Wine believe Riesling and dry whites are a perfect match for Chinese food, according to Zhang.
There's so much variety, complexity and subtlety in Chinese cuisine that various wine pairings are called for, he says. White wine is not always the best choice.
For example, Shanghai cuisine typically features a lot of soy sauce and has a slightly oily taste, which easily overpowers the white wine, Zhang observes. By contrast, Spanish Rioja, with moderate to high acidity, cuts through and its slight savory aroma mirrors the soy sauce, he says.
At the same time, he finds a Western background is necessary for a sommelier in China who needs to be linked with a complicated wine network of wineries and global distributors.
At the recent wine competition in Shanghai, judge and top Chinese winemaker Li Demei praised Zhang, saying, "He stands out through his excellent blind tasting, easygoing manner, good nature, confidence and comfortable interaction with customers."
In the finals, every contestant was of a very high level, Zhang says. "It was my paying attention to the smallest detail, especially when reading customers, that made the difference."
In the wine-serving test, each contestant presents the wine to the customer (judge), and asks, "Is this the wine you ordered? May I decant the wine?"
Some judges were still in conversation when Zhang presented the wine. Though time was limited, he stood aside for a few seconds and said nothing until the judges realized he was there and turned to him.
"Some candidates directly interrupt judges by saying 'Excuse me,' although interruption is never allowed in the wine serving area. I spend more time than others to build trust," Zhang recalls.
Winning first prize was totally unexpected and disruptive, in a good way. Zhang says he feels excited by his prospects but impatient.
"I had planned to come back in three to four years, but now winning the prize accelerates my schedule since I am getting more media exposure and developing more relationships in the Chinese wine industry." He is now a wine educator and studies for his Master of Wine.
"There are obviously more opportunities in China," he says. He notes that he holds a WSET 4 diploma, which is a "big deal" in China where there are no more than 10 such experts, while there are hundreds in the United States.
The past two years have been a golden period for sommeliers in China, says Li, the judge at top sommelier competitions.
The increasing number of domestic sommelier competitions indicates that both domestic and foreign organizers regard the profession favorably, he says. At the same time, recognized sommeliers play a key role in pushing the whole industry forward.
"I am optimistic about the sommelier's future in China due to more luxury hotels and fine dining restaurants that have opened," says Cecile Bassot, managing director of SOPEXA, organizer of the sommelier competition that Zhang won. Both the number and quality of contestants have increased rapidly over two years, she says.
"Wine production in China is just beginning. We will produce more wines and then wineries will want experienced sommeliers to introduce their products," says Nelson Chou, chairman of the Hong Kong Sommelier Association, the only official sommelier association in both Hong Kong and the China's mainland. In Western winemaking countries, expanded production inevitably means more sommeliers, he notes.
More sommeliers does not necessarily mean better sommeliers.
"The quality seems uneven. Some are not committed to improving wine knowledge and service but blindly get money from the wine industry," says Henry Zhou, the certified sommelier at Pudong Shangri-La, East Shanghai.
Zhang emphasizes that the nature of the sommelier's profession has changed from a service-focussed profession to a solid, multifaceted career with many options. It can be springboard to a more influential position, such as wine director of a hotel group with significant purchasing discretion.
Lyu Yang, formerly a sommelier at The Peninsula Shanghai, is now the wine director at Shangri-La Group.
Sommeliers can also switch smoothly to the supply side since wine companies rely heavily in their network of sommeliers. For example, Vivian Tian, formerly a sommelier at Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund, is now the fine wine manager at ASC wine company.
'China is my home'
Zhang emphasizes that he is a Chinese patriot. "Having stayed in the US for many years, I am always seen as an immigrant for many reasons, feeling like an outsider. China is my home. The further away from Ireland you are, the more Irish you are."
Moving to China has some career disadvantages, however, making it more difficult to qualify as Master of Wine, one of the highest standards of wine professionalism.
Last year he enrolled in the Master of Wine course, which he expected to complete in eight years.
"The only way to get better is to be surrounded by people who are better than you so that you can be mentored," says Zhang.
In Los Angeles, there are four Master of Wine students and three Masters of Wine. In Hong Kong, there are five students and two masters. On China's mainland there are only two students, he says.
"I am a bit ambivalent. I don't think I can stay that long in US, although it's a better place for learning," says Zhang.
At this time he plans to compromise, working as a sommelier in China while continuing his Master of Wine studies, though the whole process will take longer. It definitely won't be hard for him to find work.
Although being an immigrant has made his wine career in the US more challenging, it does evoke his wine journey.
At first Zhang studied communications for a year at Cornell University in New York because he wanted to be a journalist, working on exposes and telling the untold stories of poor and immigrant people. He decided, however, that he would not be able to significantly improve migrants' lives through journalism.
He then transferred to UCLA, majoring in political science, and working after graduation with the California Rural Legal Assistance for migrant farm workers in California.
Illegal immigrants and seasonal workers from Mexico and Central America harvested the grapes, pruned the vines and maintained the vineyards that established the California wine industry.
Chateau owners live a life of luxury while at the extreme end, poorly paid workers struggle for a livelihood, Zhang says.
He feels an immigrant's empathy with those who toil in the vineyards and hopes that as a sommelier he can become influential in the wine industry and "shine a spotlight" on the farmers.
Knowing about the lives of vineyard workers contributes to Zhang's down-to-earth thinking about wine and how to serve it.
"The prerequisite for being a good sommelier is appreciating customers on a basic level, having their interests at heart instead of being a wine person who only wants to make money from them," he says.
He's very attuned to his customers.
For price-conscious diners who ask for a good wine costing no more than US$100, Zhang usually recommends a bottle costing US$70-80 and highlights its value.
For more sophisticated customers, Zhang loves to share his wine knowledge, discussing aspects of acidity, barrel aging and terroir.
For those passionate about wine but limited to famous Bordeaux reds such as Chateau Lafite and Chateau Mouton, Zhang tries to expand their horizons, encouraging them to taste wines of other terroir, such as Chablis white and Northern Rhone red.
For those who don't care much about wine but want impressive dining ambience, Zhang spares the technical descriptions and tells romantic stories about the vintage and vineyard.
He tells the story of Calon Segur, a second growth Bordeaux red known for its label with a heart drawn around the chateau's name. A hundred years ago, the chateau came to be owned through marriage by Nicolas-Alexandre, marquis de Segur, who also owned Chateau Lafite and Chateau Latour.
"Even though I work for both Lafite and Latour, my heart belongs to Calon Segur," the marquis de Segur famously said.
Hence, the heart.
Zhang's wine pairing is flexible and versatile. He's adventurous to some extent, breaking with convention.
"Some experienced sommeliers memorize classical pairings, for example, foie gras with Sauterne, mushroom risotto with old Burgundy. But I am keen on discovering the chemistry formula behind the pairing," says Zhang.
Within a general pairing framework, more interesting taste experiences can be developed by choosing wine to complement or contrast with food.
It's also not necessary to pair luxury wine with expensive delicacies, in his view.
Zhang recommends pairing Champagne with buttered popcorn. The sparkling wine, aged on yeast with a buttery smell associated with a bakery, goes well with popcorn, which is buttery and a little rich.
In the world of food and wine pairing, says Zhang, there are no class distinctions.