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A Korean wine master has the nose

Nov 26,2007
Jeannie Cho Lee
HONG KONG ―Jeannie Cho Lee had little chance growing up in Korea to develop a taste for fine wine, but she has spent six years making up for lost time in pursuing her goal of becoming Asia’s first Master of Wine.
Hong Kong-based Lee this month passed the first two sections of the notoriously tough Master of Wine exams, setting her on the road to a title that just 265 people worldwide are entitled to use.
If she clears the final hurdle ― a dissertation based on original research she will become the first person from Asia to qualify for the honor, marking the increasing sophistication of wine drinkers in the region.
“It is hard for someone from Asia,” said the 39-year-old mother of four.
“We don’t live in a wine growing region. There are no wineries you can walk to or producers you can stand next to while they make the wine and ask them what that bag of sugar’s for.
“When they do come through here it’s for marketing, so they’re not necessarily telling you what’s really going on.”
The Master of Wine designation has been likened to a Ph.D., and Nicholas Pegna, Hong Kong managing director of wine merchants Berry Bros and Rudd, says it is an extremely difficult task particularly for those not working in the industry.
“You can teach people the theory, but you can’t teach them to taste wine.
“That you either have or you don’t,” he says.
“It’s much easier if you are working in wine. For people outside the trade it’s much more difficult to keep track of developments. What’s so admirable is that Jeannie has taken it all on herself.”
Lee is one of many Asians to have discovered a passion for wine in recent years, and the trend is expected to continue ― a recent study forecast consumption in the region will rise 46 percent in the decade to 2010.
China will be one of the world’s top 10 wine consuming nations by 2010, according to a survey carried out for the global wine and spirits convention Vinexpo.
Berry Bros and Rudd, among the biggest wine traders worldwide, doesn’t release sales figures but Pegna said sales of mostly fine wines in Hong Kong and Asia, not including Japan, grew by 81 percent from 2005 to 2006, and again by 50 percent from 2006 to 2007. “I expect that sales will grow next year by 45 percent,” Pegna said.
During her childhood, Lee remembers, her father would buy the odd bottle of “junk wine,” but it was not until she went to Oxford University and was served claret at college dinners that she began to appreciate it.
“My first response was that I didn’t want to be intimidated so I wanted to learn as much as possible. Then I thought it was a fun hobby and I wanted to keep on learning,” she says.
Several years and many wine courses later, Lee met the wine writer Jancis Robinson who encouraged her to take the exams, run by the London-based Institute of Masters of Wine.
“We kept in touch, and she said to me, ‘I’ve never met an Asian person who’s so passionate about wine. You have to do it.’”
Robinson, who was the first person from outside the trade to become a Master of Wine, acted as Lee’s sponsor and in 2001, she was accepted to the program.
But just as she was preparing to take the preliminary exams Lee, who already had two children, discovered she was pregnant ― this time with twins. “I had terrible morning sickness so I kept having to leave the exam room and all the wines tasted completely out of balance,” she says.
But Lee stayed on the Master of Wine program and two years later decided to have a go at the final exams, which are held annually in the U.K., the U.S. and Australia and have a pass rate of less than 10 percent.
Candidates must pass each of four theory papers and a series of tastings and can only sit the exams a maximum of three times.
The experience made her realize how rigorous a test it was ― and how underprepared she was. She took the exam again in 2005 before finally passing this year.
“It’s just not something you can cram for. There is an overwhelming amount of information you need to know but that’s just the start. It’s all about being able to analyze that information and having opinions,” she says.
Lee, who has worked as a management consultant and a journalist, now plans to write her dissertation on the marketing of foreign wines in China.
Meanwhile, she is combining bringing up her four children with running wine classes in Hong Kong. AFP



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