Insider Interviews by David Furer – Presenting Debra Meiburg
Acquiring a Master of Wine accreditation doesn’t come easy. What was the most challenging part of your MW studies? The most rewarding?
Most challenging by far was learning to understand what the examiners are looking for. Though it’s international it has its roots in the British testing style. The highlights were that you’ve permission and license to learn everything in the geekiest details and ask questions of everyone.
Who were some of the people that helped you to succeed with wine overall, and why is it they inspired you?
Sherwood Deutsch gave me a lot of old Burgundies to help me. Jancis Robinson provided a lot of material for great learning. But it’s those who are new to wine that give me the most energy as I like opening the world of wine to others–that’s my highest motivation.
Some of your work in China and beyond is based in the organizing of and judging at wine competitions. With the expansion and democratization of opinions via blogging and social media, communication forms with which you’re expertly familiar, the relative importance of this activity has recently come under scrutiny as being outmoded. Your thoughts?
I’m a founder of the largest wine competition in Asia, the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition. I think the revealing of wines and sharing of information of wines is really taking a new format, something which is being taken on strongly in emerging Asian markets where they have fewer cues to go by. I don’t think anyone will emerge within it to become a ‘Parker-like’ reviewer because Asians are very diverse e.g. Beijing bloggers don’t follow those in Shanghai and vice versa. It’s been made clear that there is no one voice with the power that we saw with Parker in Asia. But people are still keen to learn what he has to say about collecting wines as it befalls issues concerning investment.
You’ve begun leading tours of Italian wine regions. How does setting foot in a wine region assist in the wine pro knowing its wines better than experiencing it only via words, images, meeting its producers, and tasting its wines?
Everything I do is related to education, and wine tours are one of the best tools as they bring the entire concept of wine to light. Most people in Asia are drinking wine because it’s seen as a luxury, a prestige product. But when you bring them to the vineyards it brings them the history, food, and culture of wine–that’s something I treasure.
In the US wine pros have an inkling of our ‘national palate’ along with its occasional demographic variations. How does the Chinese appreciation of wine and food, nationally or regionally, help define its national and regional palate?
I think there’s been a lot of discussion in all of Asia, but that’s been done by pros outside the continent, not so much here in Asia. Matching so many diverse flavors with particular wines is difficult; we focus on what wines we like and don’t pay much attention to matching them. Asia decidedly prefer reds over whites; whites and sparklers are used only as an aperitif before being seated at the table.
Does the sommelier’s role or importance to their restaurant differ in China than in the US?
In Asia the sommelier has less buying power as most of that’s done by the Food & Beverage Director. Sometimes the lists are clustered around business relationships that are beyond the control of the sommelier. The skill set is mostly advisory to those dining at the restaurant, but they’re not allowed to be as experimental or adventurous as in places such as San Francisco. We need to get better at experimenting with wines by the glass or wines other than those from the well-known regions of France and Italy.
Then how does sommelier training in Asia differ from that of N. America and Europe?
It hasn’t been that strong in Asia. Our somms typically come from Europe but we do have sommelier associations, and when the job earns more respect we’ll then see more input from working somms. The expectation here is far simpler than what you see in the US.
Your life’s work with wine has taken you from your native California to what’s now your home of China. When you first started working with wine did you foresee yourself at this juncture?
(Laughing) Absolutely not! I moved here in the 1980s but wasn’t then in the wine industry. The California wine selection in Hong Kong at that time was dismal, so I took classes to learn something about Bordeaux and Burgundy, which seemed to be the only wines on the shelves. I owe my time in Hong Kong as forcing me to learn more about wine. I took the MW studies more for my own pleasure, but earning my MW simultaneous to Hong Kong ending its high tax on wine broke the wine market wide open here. I’ve been lucky that there’s been so much excitement about wine in the place I’ve chosen as home. People are eager to learn and value education; my pleasure in educating has been an easy fit in this market.