China's modern fine-wine culture is barely a decade old and the career path of becoming a sommelier in the People's Republic is even younger. But with Hong Kong's emergence as a busy wine hub since 2008, consumption levels in mainland China growing fast, and even an emerging homegrown wine industry, China could be the next frontier for wine professionals.
"Being a sommelier involves much more than opening and serving wine. It includes buying stocks of wine, selecting appropriate wines, handling not only wines but many other beverages. A lot of skills are needed; it's not an easy job," said Nelson Chow, since 1997 the chairman of the Hong Kong Sommelier Association. The only official sommelier group in Hong Kong and mainland China, it operates a sommelier accreditation system across the region.
Chow was speaking at this year's Vinexpo Asia-Pacific wine fair in Hong Kong, serving as moderator of a panel of sommeliers who spoke to a crowded room of young men—and a few women—hoping to join their ranks.
The basic conundrum for sommelier development in the region? While it's crucial to be grounded in the local culture—to know Chinese liquors, tea and cuisine—locals are disadvantaged because wine has not been part of their backgrounds. "Food-and-wine pairing ability is a secret weapon for sommeliers," said Chow. "It's a complicated and subjective topic. In Europe, it's in their blood what foods go with what wines. But not many in Asia were raised with that."
Most sommeliers in Asia are located in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore and are natives of the countries where they work. Professionals are far more common in Hong Kong than in mainland Chinese cities, where they are still a nascent group. Shanghai's top luxury hotels and restaurants employ most of them and the city of 14 million also offers the most opportunities for quality training. But Chinese wine experts believe that, in time, other cities in China will catch up.
Most of the wine service professionals started at the bottom of restaurant service, washing dishes, bussing tables and polishing glasses. "We consider ourselves pioneers, the first generation, and it's an important task to educate as many people as possible," said Yang Lu, who, at 33, is corporate wine director for Shangri-La hotels in Asia, which has a robust training program at its Asian properties.
"This market definitely needs more sommelier talent and wine knowledge," said Yohann Jousselin, 30, Asia's only Master Sommelier, who oversees eight hotel restaurants at the Island Shangri-La hotel in Hong Kong. "The base of knowledge is good but it is basic, not exceptional. There are lots of young people in Hong Kong who want to do this, but they need direction and experience."
Lu, the first China-born individual to pass the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced Sommelier exam and one of only three Advanced level sommeliers in Asia, added, "Hopefully, in 10 years we can have sommeliers as good in China as they do in France and the United States. You know," he added with a smile, "we're very good at studying."
With China just awakening to skilled wine service, some say the Old World is still the best place to learn. "For me the best places for sommelier training will remain in France, England, Switzerland or Italy," said Hubert Chabot, head sommelier at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong. "And specifically in catering and hotel schools where teachers are very knowledgeable and go deeply into details about wine but also everything in restaurants, hotels and bars that sommeliers must know how to deal with."
But Chabot has not seen many Chinese making the trek to Europe, most likely due to the costs incurred while obtaining sommelier training abroad, difficulties in getting working visas and the fact that there are many internationally trained sommeliers in Hong Kong who share their expertise with the local talent.
Many of the skills professional sommeliers need must be garnered through hands-on experience: interacting with customers—especially difficult ones—tasting myriad wines and knowing their backstories, learning the rhythms of restaurant service and the unexpected things that can occur.
"There is just a long way to go, to be honest, and the road ahead might not be a smooth one," said Lu. "I would say the biggest challenge is still the market demand and awareness. It will depend on the growth of the wine market and more important, the economy, because this will create real demands for sommeliers."