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Leading food, wine matchmakers face off for China sommelier title

THE battle for the honor of being Chinese mainland's supreme sommelier has been fierce and eight contestants will meet in the final next week. Aubrey Buckingham checks the chances of three Shanghai finalists.

The country's top sommelier will be picked from a pool of eight next week in the China National Sommelier Competition with the winner going on to represent the Chinese mainland in the first Association de la Sommelelerie Internationale contest for the best in this craft in Asia and Oceania.

The finalists were selected after a grueling qualifying round held concurrently in Beijing and Shanghai last month. The 17 contestants were required to taste two wines blind and answer a number of multiple choice and short answer questions.

Competition was so fierce that the judges picked eight finalists instead of the intended six.

Leading Shanghai's charge in the finals, held at The Westin Bund Center Shanghai next Tuesday, are three promising young wine professionals - Pudong Shangri-La's Leon Jin, InterContinental Puxi's Diego Zhang, and Kee Club Shanghai's Vivian Tian, the country's first certified female sommelier.

The contest is not solely to pick the best wine waiter but also to raise the bar across the industry.

"I can see the competition will sort out a few good ones, which is what we're looking for," says organizer Tommy Lam, professor and director of the wine program at Tianjin University of Commerce.

"At the same time there will be a few with good potential but they will need more training and opportunity."

According to the Chaozhou (Guangdong Province) native, who currently resides in Singapore, being a good sommelier requires "maturity, a very dedicated thinking that service is part of the game and regular practice." As sommeliers progress in their careers, they are also responsible for directing the wine program at their hotel or restaurant.

Language is also very important, and the contest will be conducted in English.

When you come to the international platform, you need a foreign language like English, French or Spanish.

Those are the international standards. Vivian Tian

The wine industry may be male dominated, but that doesn't faze Gansu Province-born Vivian Tian.

With experience in Switzerland, Greece and Hong Kong and a Court of Master Sommelier Second Level Certificate, this elegant and well-spoken young woman is definitely one of the favorites to clinch the title.

Winning isn't everything, however, and even though Tian strives to get the best out of all her endeavors, she also sees the contest as the perfect opportunity for China's wine waiters to come together.

"I want to test my knowledge and also to meet the other sommeliers to see if we can do anything together," she says.

"In Hong Kong, there's a sommelier association which does a lot of wine tasting and wine training, but in China it's a new profession and not many people know about it and we don't know each other (personally)."

"I hope we can share experience and I can learn from the other sommeliers. Eventually, hopefully we can do something in Shanghai and Beijing."

The Kee Club at 796 Huaihai Road serves both Western and Chinese food and Tian is equally adept at pairing wines with both.

She has also been responsible for managing the cellar, which she says is tricky given that local customers still go for more widely available wines instead of unique offerings. Leon Jin

Fresh faced and smartly dressed, Leon Jin is confident of putting in a good showing.

Trained by Singaporean wine guru Kelvin Tay, the 27-year-old Jade on 36 assistant manager has gained invaluable hands-on experience during winery visits to Australia organized by suppliers and the hotel.

"It is important to see vineyards and know how they grow the grapes, as well as the process of wine making," he explains. "I went to Australia because I wanted to see how they make wine in the New World and compare it to what I've read about the Old World."

Much has been made of the potential of the Chinese market, but appreciation is still in its infancy. "At the moment, just a few people know about wines and mostly Bordeaux wines - more expensive and high level."

Jin pays homage to his mentor, however, for introducing a wine program that educates paying guests and weans them onto other wines that offer a better tailored dining experience.

"I sometimes stand behind him and listen to him explain to people that the expensive wine is not always the quality wine. I would strongly suggest maybe start with a glass of easy-to-drink New World Riesling or New World sauvignon blanc, maybe a little sweet. After that, it would be easy to see what they want." Diego Zhang

Shanghai native Diego Zhang has about 10 years' experience in the business, starting first at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai, then the InterContinental Pudong, the award-winning Laris restaurant and the Park Hyatt Shanghai.

Now with the soon to be opened InterContinental Puxi (projected to open its doors at the end of September), Zhang is operations manager for the property's Western restaurants.

With all these years under his belt, the 28-year-old is clearly a front runner to bag the coveted award.

"This is the first year they have the competition here, and it's a great experience for me. The main purpose is to get as much experience as possible, and it's also recounting what I've learnt before."

Zhang himself expects to win, and believes his advantage stems from having tasted many wines over the years.

He also feels he is good at describing wines, using a lot of international terms. "Wines are very gloabalized, and if you want to be successful in this industry, you have to use the language. If you want to win this competition or even to move forward, you have to improve your English."

He also feels that local customers are getting more sophisticated when it comes to wine, although this also means they are less likely to put faith in sommeliers. "Local customers are very straightforward, like Germans, and are clear about what they like, so they sometimes don't like any opinions of yours. But as people get more experienced, they are more open to recommendations."


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