A Dishin’ the Dirt profile.
Korean-American Jeannie Cho Lee knows wine. An award-winning wine critic, writer, educator, and television host on the subject, she was also the first Asian wine critic to receive the Master of Wine title in 2008. Having moved to Hong Kong originally to pursue a career in business journalism, she began penning articles for international wine titles and never looked back. She tells The Loop HK all about wine pairing and the subjectivity of wine criticism.
How did it feel to be the first Asian person to achieve the Master of Wine accreditation?
It has been about ten years since I became the first Asian Master of Wine. From the very beginning, there was no pressure, because there was no expectation. It was just a novelty for people in the industry to have an Asian woman in their midst. I really did not have much time to be reflective, because the wine industry grew so quickly over the past 10 years that I could hardly keep up. The year I became a Master of Wine, the wine duty in Hong Kong was eliminated. The timing meant that the demand for wine education and consulting was enormous. I happened to be at the right place at the right time.
[If I felt any pressure], it was more internal rather than external. The question I often ask myself is, “What can I contribute, add and give back to an industry that has given me so much?” I am very fortunate and lucky to be in my position, and it is my responsibility to give as much back as I have received.
What are some common misconceptions when it comes to pairing Asian food with wine?
This is a topic very close to my heart. My first book, “Asian Palate”, was all about pairing challenging Asian ingredients with wine. A common misconception about wine and food pairing is that we should have red wine with red meat and white wine with fish. The European way is to match main ingredients to wine, but in Asian cuisine, because our methods of cooking vary so much (steaming, roasting, braising, stir-frying), and our sauces and condiments are so strong (black bean sauce, chilli sauce, sweet and sour sauce), it makes more sense to match wines with sauces and condiments as well as methods of cooking rather than with the main ingredient.
For example, a stir-fried Cantonese chicken dish might not be heavily seasoned, so a light white wine like Chablis or Pinot Blanc might work well. But then the same chicken may be stir-fried with garlic, black beans and chilli and could have a much stronger flavor profile — in this case, I would suggest a fruity, medium-bodied red wine like a Cote du Rhone.
Is wine criticism subjective?
Absolutely. Wine is like art, so wine criticism is definitely subjective, as is art criticism and literary criticism. Wine has an inherent quality that is first interpreted by the producer from the given land and grapes they work with. This, in turn, is communicated by the writer or critic to the public. If the critic has sufficient experience and is humble enough to embrace all different styles of expression, then they should be able to communicate why the wine has value and merit or why it does not. It takes experience and time. I would trust a critic with sufficient amount of experience with a given wine style that they are rating, and I need to trust that they are being unbiased and fair, and are capable of judging and evaluating the wine.
What is it like to teach others how to evaluate wine?
I love teaching. I especially love it when I have turned someone on to wine, when that light bulb goes off and their eyes light up. I still remember the first time I had a great bottle of wine. I was 19 years old, and I thought, “Wow, this is wine? How can a drink be so thrilling and so expressive?” I enjoy being able to do the same for others. Learning helps with appreciation. Understanding the backstory of a wine, knowing the owner or being familiar with the place, appreciating the local culture, for example, really helps one to appreciate what is in the glass even more. As I get older, I would like to spend more time teaching.
Do you have any words of advice for someone looking to embark on a career in wines?
Always follow your heart. Don’t go into wine because it is currently trendy, or because the lifestyle appears attractive. Don’t go into the wine industry because you think you will become wealthy or because it seems sophisticated. As with any industry, the glamorous wine dinners and great wines are maybe about 10 to 20 per cent of the job, if you are lucky. The rest is simply hard work — whether meeting sales targets, getting more clients, writing up articles, or assessing hundreds of wines. Don’t choose wine to make a lot of money — real estate or banking are better options for that.
Go into wine because you are intrigued by this amazing beverage that is part of a region’s history, culture and people. Go into wine because you are eager to grow and learn every day, and to be humbled on a regular basis. Even after all the studying, tasting and experience, you will find mystery and enchantment in the glass. Go into wine because you can’t imagine doing anything else. And cross your fingers that you can make a decent living to support yourself and your family.
What are some of your favorite wines of 2017?
I am lucky to enjoy some of the world’s greatest wines, but I also enjoy everyday, affordable wines. The great thing about wine is that you are constantly discovering and being surprised. You can never become bored. Enjoying wine is a journey, not a destination. Below is an eclectic selection of my favorite wines from this past year: