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2 female wine experts liken themselves to Pinot Noir
By Gao Ceng

MASTER of Wine (MW), a coveted qualification issued by The Institute of Masters of Wine in the United Kingdom, is the holy grail for some wine professionals. It's the highest title in the wine world, along with equally prestigious Master Sommelier (MS). Both are notoriously difficult to obtain.

Only 304 people from 24 countries and regions today can write MW after their names, and 90 of them are women, according to the institute. The exam is punishing and the passing rate is extremely low: Often one or two a year make the grade. From 1993 to 2000, only 85 of 266 candidates passed the exam.

"It's hard because the institute's mission and vision is striving for excellence in wine education," says Lynne Sherriff, chairman of the institute from 2010 to 2012. She was in town last Friday to chair the China Wine Challenge hosted by Hilton Shanghai.

"Single-minded, determined and focused make a MW," Sherriff says.

There is no Chinese MW so far, but 10 Chinese candidates are now preparing for the exam, including Huang Shan, a leading wine writer based in Beijing, and Fongyee Walker, director of Beijing-based Dragon Phoenix Wine Consultants. Among the 10, two are from China's mainland, with the other eight from Hong Kong.

"I believe there will be more Chinese involved but the process is steady and slow. China wasn't open to the West until very recent and language is also a barrier," says Sherriff.

This week, Shanghai Daily interviewed two female MWs, both actively involved in Chinese wine education: Korean Jeannie Cho Lee, the first Asian MW, and American Debra Meiburg, the first MW in Asia.

Both are based in Hong Kong and received their MW in 2008, and both are active in the China market.

"They share a good number of characteristics: very intelligent, diligent, easy to instruct, focused and goal-oriented. They also brought a business and management strategy for success to the MW program, and then to the world of wine after they passed," says Patrick Farrell, their common mentor, also a MW. Farrell is CEO and president of Inventive Technologies, Inc/BevWizard Co.

Asked how they would describe themselves as a wine, the two female MWs both describe themselves as a glass of Pinot Noir, but interpret it in very different ways.

Meiburg is outgoing, teaching wine in a lively, often funny and memorable way. A writer, she also calls herself a wine "edu-tainer."

Another writer, Lee is very academic, devising a new wine terminology for aromas and flavors involving Asian ingredients that are familiar to new Asian wine tasters.

"Their potential in China is unlimited. They have the knowledge of both wine and the culture to bridge gaps that others may not able to accomplish," says Farrell.

A Chinese wine insider, who declines to be identified, downplays their significance. "They charge very high prices to hold commercial wine seminars to get a piece of pie in the growing Chinese wine market because they are MWs. But their real contribution here is limited," says the wine insider.

Edu-tainer: Man in tutu 'describes' Reisling

DEBRA Meiburg, the first Master of Wine (MW) in Asia, compares herself to a glass of Pinot Noir, "flirty, fruity and lively but with a solid core of serious intent."

Meiburg, an American whose family had a small hobby vineyard in Sonoma County, moved to Hong Kong 25 years ago and is now a permanent resident and noted wine educator and writer.

She says her great pleasure is educating Chinese people about wine.

"Many times I have wished I were Chinese," says Meiburg, when asked if being a Westerner makes it difficult for Chinese to relate to her message. She does speak Cantonese like a local, however, her Mandarin is admittedly not very good.

One of only four Masters of Wine in Asia and one of only two female MWs in Asia, she earned her degree in 2008.

Before that, she had been involved in wine industry for 15 years: She worked a harvest in Chile, pruned vines in Bordeaux, ran a grape crusher and de-stemmer in South Africa, and worked as a cellar hand in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

Today Meiburg is one of the most popular and influential wine educators in China, especially in Shanghai, where her wine-teaching video titled "Grape Moments" is aired on screens in thousands of taxis.

"I am teaching all the taxi drivers," Meiburg says with a laugh.

She also conducts wine training and appreciation courses for companies across Asia, for example, financial services companies that need to wine and dine clients.

Her video teaching series "Meet the Winemaker," will be aired soon on youku.com.

Meiburg attributes her success to her female identity.

"The industry is traditionally dominated by men. As a female, no one is afraid of me. They don't worry about their pride and are willing to ask me questions. Men especially are sometimes intimidated in front of other men," the wine master explains.

She likes to call herself a wine "edu-tainer."

"Wine education is entertaining. Learning should be fun," Meiburg said last month at a wine seminar in Shanghai hosted by Lucaris, an Asian crystal brand.

Her teaching style is lively and interactive, and outside of Hong Kong there's much less emphasis on language, since she's not fluent in Mandarin.

When she teaches the grape variety Riesling, a big, tall, muscular man in a ballerina's tutu steps to the platform. The reason: "Because Riesling is delicate and very beautiful but strong in the middle," Meiburg explains.

When teaching Sauvignon Blanc, she produces a person wearing a grassy hula skirt to emphasize the grassy, vegetal aroma of the wine.

When she describes Chateau Margaux, a Bordeaux wine estate, a woman in the audience dons a queen's crown and red velvet cloak, expressing the wine's femininity, elegance and status.

"This approach makes it easy for students to remember vividly," says Meiburg.

Lynne Sherriff, former chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine, considers Meiburg's comparison of wine with people and her visual approach very useful in wine education. "If you hear and see at the same time, that sends much stronger information to the brain," says Sheriff.

When explaining wine regions, Meiburg talks about four stray cats she adopted, including one named Musigny, a commune in the Cote-d'Or department, eastern France, and another called Beaujolais, an AOC in southern Burgundy.

Earning the title Master of Wine was the most serious challenge she had faced. It's notoriously difficult.

Rigorous exam

Starting in 2002, she spent six years passing various examinations on the way to her Master of Wine degree.

Each year, only two or three people pass the international exam, which includes sections on theory and tasting as well as a dissertation.

The theory part wasn't too hard for her. It covered knowledge about owning a winery, running a vineyard and making wine.

The most difficult part was the four-day tasting. Twelve glasses of wine, red and white, are tasted each day. Candidates have 10 minutes per glass, to taste and write one and a half pages about where the wine is from, the grape variety, how it is made, aged and marketed.

"Actually, you only have 30 seconds to identify, one minute to be sure, and rest of the time to write, otherwise you cannot finish," Meiburg recalls.

Her dissertation was on wine education and training in China.

Shanghai on the rise

Meiburg has launched a series of books and articles, mainly insider reports with in-depth analysis of the Chinese wine market. "After becoming a Master of Wine, I am always thinking of how to make a proper business model for all the things I want to do from my heart," Meiburg says.

Her latest book, "Guide to the Shanghai Wine Trade," will be released in November. It is based on interviews with 20 sommeliers and visits to 40 wine stores.

"Come on Hong Kong, Shanghai is getting ahead of you," she says.

Early on, people in both Shanghai and Beijing didn't know about anything except Bordeaux, but times have changed.

Three months ago, she found a store in Shanghai featuring exclusively South African wines; she hasn't seen such a store in Hong Kong.

Compared with Beijing, Shanghai is more experimental and open-minded, so people drink more diverse wines, she observes.

"The space in Hong Kong is also expensive, which forces its wine market to be more conservative," she adds.

The retail market in Shanghai is more robust than in Hong Kong and home consumption is much higher.

"It's probably due to different life habits. Young, wealthy Shanghai people are accustomed to dining at home, while Hong Kong people prefer to dine out," the master says.

Her observations are supported by Jerry Liao, managing sommelier at Jing'an Shangri-La, West Shanghai.

"Shanghai's wine market has been mature due to good market segmentation. Some wine traders are devoted exclusively to selling wines from a very small region," Liao says.

Difficult wine pairing

Wine pairing is one of the most important ways to spread wine knowledge and culture in China, Meiburg says. "When serving food with wine, the two together create a new flavor, a third experience," she says.

But the dining habits and taste of Chinese people are totally different from those of Westerners, making wine pairing more difficult.

For example, seafood is served first in the West, so that the accompanying, light, chilled white wine is served before heavier red.

However, in a typical Chinese banquet, fish is usually a hot dish served in the middle or at the end of the meal.

"It's an unfamiliar sensation for the Chinese palate to have a very cold drink with a hot, fresh fish," says Meiburg.

Furthermore, Westerners typically smell the wine, drink a bit and then have a bite of food, while Chinese usually eat first and drink wine later to wash it down, Meiburg observes. This may come from the Chinese tea-drinking tradition.

Clearly, it's impossible to transplant Western concepts in China.

One bottle on the table, one beautiful dish, one special moment - that's Meiburg's approach for Chinese dining, which she calls the relatively best solution so far.

"Pick one important dish and that's when the wine comes. The rest of the time you can drink tea, water and anything you like. For example, when the abalone arrives, you open your beautiful Burgundy," Meiburg explains.

Q: What's your wine philosophy?

A: Wine is about history, culture, geography, science and, above all, pleasure. Try every wine region once. If it's bad, wait 10 years and try it again.

Q: How does wine touch your heart?

A: It starts in the glass. All that wonderful aroma and texture is impossible not to fall in love with, but you really fall in love when you learn all about where it came from and who the people behind it are.

Q: What's the biggest frustration in your wine life?

A: Mainly it's to do with time, especially in a new market like ours. There are so many incredible opportunities to pursue but nobody to tell you how to manage all of them.

Q: What's your impressive wine memory?

A: A wine tasting, during which well-aged Grand Cru Burgundy represents everyone's birth year, from 1955 to 1990.

Academic: Asians need own wine lingo

JEANNIE Cho Lee, the first ethnic Asian master of wine, describes herself as a Burgundy Pinot Noir, "initially not very easy to understand and seeming kind of light and soft, but with strength, fundamental values and integrity behind that softness."

Lee was the first wine expert to systematically describe wine using terms more understandable to Asians, such as dried mushroom, jujube and star anise.

Born in Seoul, Lee moved to the United States at an early age and studied at Harvard. Since 1994 she has been living in Hong Kong where she is a leading wine writer, critic and educator and mother of four daughters.

The 45-year-old wine master is known in China for two prize-winning books, "Asian Palate" (2009), the first book systematically pairing wine with Asian food, and "Mastering Wine for the Asian Palate" (2011), which gave prominence to Asia's own wine vocabulary. Both are written in English and translated into Chinese.

Lee says she's more like a scholar, serious and rigorous.

"I try to make wine easy to understand without making it too simple," she said in Shanghai last month in an interview with Shanghai Daily.

Besides wine, Lee has a passion for food, which inspired her first book. She holds a Certificat de Cuisine from Le Cordon Bleu.She's also a Master Sake Sommelier, awarded by Japan's Sake Service Institute.

It's much harder for a young-looking Asian woman to be a recognized wine master, says Lee, adding that there's a lot of pressure. Some European vineyard owners have mistakenly thought she was not experienced enough to judge their wines.

"When they, especially Europeans, see me, their first impression is that I am not from a wine-making family. My history with wine is not so long, especially with fine old wines," says Lee.

Motherhood also took time away from wine study. In 2003, when she was seriously studying for her MW, she had four children under six years old. She attributes her success to her determination and her husband's support.

"I can fail but never quit. Quit means you didn't even try hard," says Lee.

Being a woman has its advantages. "In a lot of wine tastings and dinners, I usually sit next to the most important person because I am a woman," says Lee.

Broadening wine lexicon

Familiar terms such as cedar, plum, mint and tobacco are not the only words Lee uses to describe Cabernet Sauvignon. It can also be described with flavors familiar to Asians, such as dried mushroom, dried jujube, green pepper and green tea leaf. Raspberry, cherry and violets are traditionally used to describe Pinot Noir, but waxberry, medlar and Thai jasmine flower can also be used.

The fragrance of Semillon can be described as citrus, fresh herbs, preserved apricot, star fruit, bamboo and white sesame.

Describing wine flavors in Asian terms for a fast-growing wine market sets Lee apart from many wine experts. "Asians are becoming very important consumers and producers. We must expand our vocabulary to have our (Asian) perspectives," she says.

"I have never tasted blackcurrant and raspberry in my life. How can I get these aromas from wine?" asks wine lover Faye Gu. "Many Shanghai wine classes still use classical Western wine vocabulary, which challenges entry-level wine lovers like me."

"Lee's vocabulary makes my tasting much easier," Gu adds.

Andrea Zhu, Lee's Chinese publisher, cites readers as saying that Asian terminology makes wine more accessible.

"Lee helps popularize wine culture here to reach more people," says Lu Yang, wine director at Shangri-La Group, also the top sommelier in China.

Lee's innovative, culture-specific terminology has its skeptics among wine experts, who say it lacks precision and is adaptation for adaptation's sake.

"Maybe the Europeans don't understand. But it's just the same as our (Asians) not knowing what a currant is. Asian ingredients are not supposed to replace the Western, I just expand the flavor descriptions to make them acceptable," Lee explains.

Comparing the aroma of dried jujube to that of blueberry and mint to green bell pepper is based on research and experience, she says. Lee began with 600 Asian ingredients and narrowed them down to suit particular wines and explain terms that otherwise might be inexplicable.

Lee sees similarities in the aromas of truffle and bonito (tuna) flakes, lychee and longan, violet and jasmine tea leaf, mineral content and wakame seaweed.

Not all Western wine terms can be adapted for Asian, Lee says. She cites "brioche" to describe the baked aroma of old Champagne and mature white Burgundy.

She is now talking to the Wine and Spirit Education Trust to rewrite their educational materials, incorporating the Asia-specific vocabulary she uses. "They (Westerners) can use theirs and we can use ours."

Lee says she is confident that her vocabulary will eventually become part of a universal wine language because more Asian ingredients are used by chefs worldwide.

No single answer

Before Lee wrote it, there was no guide on pairing wine with Asian food.

"Asian Palate" doesn't just make recommendations (Pinot Noir with Peking duck), but also explores how the components of flavor in food and wine react to and complement each other.

"There's no one simple answer in pairing because everyone's palate is different. I just analyze and encourage readers to find answers by themselves," says Lee.

For example, tannins in wine accentuate the spiciness in food, so why should spicy food lovers serve a less tannic wine?

Many people, especially a TV audience, want a simple, direct and quick answer, not a complicated one, she says. But "when I have to give a very simple answer, I'm very dissatisfied."

Lee has studied 10 Asian food cities, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Mumbai. In each city she spent a month in kitchens, talking with chefs and exploring and rating the importance of various flavors and ingredients - sweet, sour, bitter, umami, oil and fat. Each is ranked from 1 to 5.

She then looks at the flavors and structure of wine, such as the tannins, acidity and body, and sees how the food and a wine react with each other.

"Before Lee, few people analyzed the relationship between umami flavor with wine," says publisher Zhu.

"Umami brings out earthy, bitter or savory notes in wine. It is both delicate and savory, thus, wines need equal delicacy and subtlety with emphasis on wine's silky tannin texture and mouthfeel," Lee writes.

Wine changes in China

Lee's upcoming third book, "The Growth and History of Fine Wine," is a business and marketing book about the fine wine industry in China, including Hong Kong, over 30 years.

Wine is becoming a new social currency, which replaces abalone and bird's nest to show respect, Lee says.

It also changes the way Chinese do business. "It used to be about drinking baijiu (Chinese distilled spirit) and gan bei (toasting) but this has changed," Lee says. "Compared with opening a Moutai, a bottle of Lafite shows that people are more sophisticated. And the whole dining experience slows down, it's calmer due to the low alcohol content in wine."

The Chinese wine palate remains unchanged, however, and the preference is still for medium-full bodied Cabernet, she observes. One reason is that local wine producers occupy 75 percent of domestic market and they use and market Cabernet grapes. The Bordeaux region is also considered high-status. Another reason is that Chinese like strong-tasting beverages.

Q: How do you get into wine?

A: When I studied at Oxford as an exchange student ... fine wine is always served at a formal dinner. When I touched fine wine for the first time, I was surprised wine could have so many flavors, giving the quite-plain British food flavor, just like seasoning.

Q: How do you stay objective? Do you ever award 100 points?

A: When judging a wine, it's not whether I like it or not but whether this wine possess all the characters that make a great wine. Yes (100), but rarely. It was a 1952 Chateau Lafleur, a wine that you can't describe because it's an experience, trying to explain the feeling like falling in first love.

Q: What's your wine philosophy?

A: It's just wine. Don't make such a big deal out of it. Wine can bring you joy and happiness but truly in life, there're many things more important than wine. Wine is a luxury. Luxury only comes when everything else around you, family, career, health are happy.

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