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Wine guru cultivates the next generation

SINGAPOREAN wine sage Kelvin Tay is training aspiring sommeliers at the Pudong Shangri-La and teaching them to dive in and be bold. "I refuse to accept a boring recommendation," he tells Aubrey Buckingham.

The problem with wine here is that it is still just so foreign. Everything from the provenance to the labels to the sommelier is daunting to the average consumer looking to add some enjoyment to his or her meal.

Chances are, most people take a look at the indecipherable wine list and end up picking a soft drink or beer instead. It won't help either if a nervous young waiter hovers about, muttering something about the suitability of white wine with fish.

The Pudong Shangri-La is taking this problem rather seriously, and spearheading its solution is Director of Wine Kelvin Tay. The Singaporean has been on board for nearly two years and is changing the way local staff approaches the tricky subject, in turn making it less incomprehensible for the average guest.

"We're starting a program where (a team of five local team leaders) will be appointed the wine ambassadors of the Shangri-La," explains the bespectacled wine guru. "We're getting them to understand food and wine pairing. This harmony is an interesting subject."

The Shangri-La brand has its regional corporate office locally, and is undertaking a program to train local staff into full-fledged sommeliers within two years. Tay's own initiative aims to fine-tune his charges before they embark on the program so they are better equipped to absorb the training.

Rather than just preach textbook facts to his proteges, the 42-year-old experienced sommelier is encouraging them to dive headlong into the subject. The five have been picked from the Lujiazui's three fine-dining outlets - two from Jade on 36, two from Yi Cafe and the last from Chinese restaurant Gui Hua Lou - and are being taught first and foremost to enjoy the beverage they sell.

"When we taste, they have to come up with a dish; I refuse to accept a boring recommendation. I want them to picture something they are used to, an everyday dish. One of my pairings was steamed minced pork with water chestnuts and salted fish - it was perfect with an old Medoc (from Bordeaux)."

Tay's approach thus far has proven successful, and his charges are gaining the confidence to make their recommendations. "I've given them an idea of good quality wine. With the classified growths, everybody knows them and they only make a small percentage of sales. About 95 percent of my wine sales revolve about 250 yuan (US$36.80) to 400 yuan a bottle."

The five-star property has a list of 600 labels in its premium Jade on 36 restaurant, while all-day diner Yi Cafe features about 300 labels.

"We want quality and actual value. If someone's budget is 400 yuan, then we want to suggest something that is about 350 yuan to 380 yuan and surpass the taste of the more expensive wine."

Tay's own extensive wine education stemmed mainly from personal interest, with healthy nurturing from his own mentors. While attending Singapore hotel school SHATEC in the early 1990s, his first wine appreciation lesson opened his eyes (and palate) to the wonderful world of wine.

"I remember tasting a Beaujolais village and hearing it compared to a summer, poolside wine. We were told to close our eyes and imagine ourselves there; I just went 'wow'."

That lesson forced the connoisseur to change his focus from bar management to wine, a move he has not regretted the slightest. By the end of his early tutoring from Singaporean wine legend Goh Hock Qwee, or Hock as he is known to his peers, Tay was equipped to tell his Corton-Charlemagne from his Gevrey-Chambertin.

His first visit into the heart of the wine-producing world also opened his eyes. Traveling in a group of 18, he saw first-hand the vineyards of Bordeaux, Champagne and Chablis. There, his rudimentary knowledge and experience were given a working over. "During a blind tasting we were given a glass, which we assumed to be an Australian sauvignon blanc, but turned out to be from Bordeaux. It was quite special," he added.

There was one particular glass, however, that highlighted his own potential not only to his peers but also to himself. Convinced that the glass of red wine was in fact an aged Rioja (he had earlier seen a color chart at the Academie du Vin in Paris), he stated his opinion and not only earned the praise of his tutor Hock but acquired the confidence to voice his impressions in public.

Today Tay is right at home addressing panels of wine experts from all over the world. In addition to developing the local wine education scene with other professionals such as local wine maker and columnist Li Demei, he is also regularly invited around the world to sample the newest releases and explain the Asian approach to wine.

He is also mindful of the fact that his Shangri-La charges have a wealth of opportunity that he was not blessed with in his youth. While Tay had to pay his way to visit the various wine producing regions in the Old World and New World, scrimping and saving for nine months of the year for a three-week trip, local wine waiters today are courted by the local distributors eager to develop these local talents to build the market.

"Before they go, I teach them how to behave and to speak up. I worked hard to where I am today, not just studying but also tasting. When they go on a trip I tell them to make full use of it and not to just treat it like a holiday. They have to make PowerPoint presentations when they get back," he adds with a wry smile.


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