A Sommelierís Memoir

Updated: 06 Jun 2018 | By:

Thirsty Malaysians series - Malaysia Overseas

I could never understand why one would pay RM2,000 for a bottle of wine. Having graduated in Hospitality and Tourism, I knew the difference between a cheap and premium cut of a beef, but wine? I only found out the reason during my internship with Restaurant Le Francais in 2004.

The restaurant manager at that time, Max Chong, pulled out two bottles of wine from the fridge – a Burgundy and a Bourdeaux, poured each into separate glasses and asked me to detect the differences. I observed, tasted and said, “Burgundy has a lighter colour and it’s diluted with water; whereas Bordeaux is more concentrated with stronger flavour. So the latter must be more expensive!” It was almost as good as if Max had given me a smack at the back of my head when I was told the Burgundy was ten times the price of the Bordeaux. He then passed me the first book I ever read about wine.

Since then I got very much into wine and started reading a lot of books. That led me to writing a thesis on ‘A classic comparison between Bordeaux and Burgundy wines in France’ which took me six months to complete and then the second one on “An analysis of the consumption pattern of wine in the Malaysian market” for my Bachelors Degree in Hospitality & Tourism at Universite de Toulouse, France.

Many think that being a Sommelier is a glamorous job. Some even think that it’s an easy job, opening bottles and drinking with customers. But what they don’t know, is that a true Sommelier’s career comprises of not only providing services with his deep knowledge in wine, spirits and other beverages, having great communication and observation skills; it also is a foot in commercial fields that involve logistics, management, training, budgeting, purchasing, margins evaluation, investment… everything related to building a successful restaurant business.

When I left Malaysia in 2012, all I wanted was to expand my wine knowledge and develop my career as a Sommelier, but not without first trying to explore the opportunities in the local market. I was part of the Sommelier Association of Malaysia (SOMLAY) which is an independent organisation formed by Sommeliers to help Sommeliers advance in their field. None of the members in the association was involved in any wine business, which made the organisation fully independent from biasness and self-interest. The progression of a Sommelier’s career doesn’t stop at obtaining certificates and qualifications, it’s a constant update of the movements in the wine industry globally.

I feel that Malaysia lacks the environment for fine dining restaurants which allow Sommeliers to grow beyond textbook and classroom learning. There are two reasons for this:  First, it’s the difference in drinking culture between Malaysia and the west. Second, seasonal produce is no longer a novelty in Malaysia.

Culture

European culture has a systematic practice for beverages. They would order a few different types of beverages to go with their meal. For example, an aperitif before dinner, then with each course of the meal, there would be one type of beverage to pair with it and ending with a digestif or coffee and tea. There would normally be several courses, from 3 to even 10 courses. The same practice would be seen as extravagant and unnecessary in the Malaysian dining scene. Our culture asks for food to be served hot, dishes are of sharing portions and normally all come in one go. We would order a drink to start, sometimes a pot of tea to share, and then have at most another drink to last the whole meal because we eat while the food is still hot. If alcohol is served, beer would come in bulk or buckets, wine would be a single expression to last the whole meal or spirits such as cognac in a bottle to share.

There is also the difference in perception of drinking alcohol in our cultures. Drinking for the European is a form of enjoyment. They would drink any time of the day and alcohol is a vital part of their lifestyle. For Asians however, alcohol is perceived as harmful and sinful, that should only be consumed at night or a place hidden away from the public.

Seasonal products

Coming to food that’s available by the season - In Finland, local mulled wines called glögi are made only for the winter, and winter produce are vegetables that only root during the season. There is also reindeer meet and elk. When it comes to autumn, you get wild grouse, quail and game products. All these allow me to look forward to the next season when I’ll plan for different menus that excites the consumers’ palate. Imagine eating the same thing all year long, what’s the fun in that? That’s what I miss so much about the seasonal products and festivals in Malaysia. We used to only be able to eat durian once a year, zhong-zi or bak-zhang is only available during mid-autumn festival but all that has changed. Because we want everything to be available 365 days and we no longer observe the practices that define our culture, the novelty of having a special product in a season is lost. Our restaurants’ menus become dull, once a year celebration becomes just another marketing gimmick and it’s so much harder now to excite the consumers.

I miss Malaysia, a lot. Ask which Malaysian doesn’t love a mamak stall where you can have a teh tarik and roti canai anytime of the day? And who would want to move away from home, friends and family? Malaysia will always be home and I hope to come back some day to contribute to the wine scene, but before that, I want to learn as much as I can while I’m in Europe. Malaysia has yet to be the ground for Sommeliers to grow to the same level as those from countries with an already existing culture of alcohol drinking and fine dining.

Malaysian Sommeliers have been regarded as some of the highest in Asia thanks to the continuous support and exchange among the sommeliers in SOMLAY. Between 2009 and 2012, Malaysia has swept the Champion title of the South East Asia Best Sommelier. When you call yourself a Sommelier from Malaysia, the title carries weight. People will look at you and see the country’s level reflected by you. But currently, the Malaysian wine industry has changed, SOMLAY is no longer independent with members who own wine businesses and I’m concerned for its future. So before claiming to be a Sommelier, ask yourself this, are you a true Sommelier yet or are you saying it just because it makes you look good?

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Edmund Liew was born and raised in Kajang. At the age of 30, he is now the Wine Director of the Pariisin Ville group in Porvoo, Finland comprising 2 restaurants, Sicapelle, the most renowned casual fine dining restaurant serving classic Finnish cuisine with a touch of Italian taste, and Meat District, a restaurant focused on organic produce; 2 cafés and 2 hotels. He was previously the Head Sommelier in Ravintola Sinne, a Top 40 Best Restaurant in The White Guide Nordic 2016. He is also the Champion in the South East Asia Best Sommelier Competition 2012.


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