Tommy Lam: State of wine service in China, national sommelier finals, and more

By Jim Boyce

Tommy Lam is the organizer of the China National Sommelier Competition 2009, which will hold its finals on July 7 in Shanghai, and the junior sommelier series set for Beijing on July 5 and Shanghai on July 6. Lam holds an MBA and Wine MBA, is involved in wine programs in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tianjin, and is a certified wine specialist, sommelier, and WSET trainer (see more details at bottom of page here). I asked him about the upcoming finals, about the state of sommeliers in China, and about the unique challenges that this country presents for wine service.

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Every year for the past decade, stories have come out about how China’s wine market is taking off. Why did you pick this year to hold the China sommelier competition?

The China market has attracted many people who sell wines, but education has not been high on the agenda in most cases.

Improving wine service quality in Singapore became a major part of my work after I completed the Bordeaux Wine MBA in 2002. In terms of China, in early 2007 I started to teach wine courses as part of a hospitality management program at Tianjin University of Commerce and started the first sommelier class there as a trial program. In 2007, I also started a three-level sommelier certification course at the Vocational Training Council (VTC) in Hong Kong. I then heard that the ASI Asia-Oceanic Sommelier Competition was to be held in November 2009. In response, I called on several professional sommeliers to discuss raising the quality of wine services in China and the result is the China national sommelier competition.

What is the difference between the national competition and the junior sommelier event?

The national competition is for practicing sommeliers who have reached a certain skill level. These skills include knowledge of the English language since the winner will have to use it for the Asia-Oceania competition to be held in Osaka.

The junior session is to provide an opportunity to those who are interested in or who have just started to work in wine service. The program is in both Chinese and English, though the written exam is in English.

I am sad to say the response to the junior session has not been encouraging, as the number of people who have signed up is still low.

What are the three things sommeliers need to improve most in China?

One is their English language skills, since thiswill help them to learn more about wine and help them better serve customers.

A second is the need for proper sources of wine knowledge. Many education programs are conducted by wine importers or distributors, but few have trainers with adequate knowledge. Proper wine education should be provided by outside sources. Having said this, wine distributors and brand owners play a very important role in providing products and financial support to wine education.

A third is the willingness to stay in a position long enough to gain management skills. Many sommeliers jump from job to job, but by staying in one spot they can gain experience, knowledge, and skills as well as possible vocational training that can lead to jobs such as cellar master or food and beverage director. These days, having a food and beverage manager with a background in wine services is highly valued by hotel and restaurant chains.

Is there anything unique to China and its culture that make being a sommelier different here?

China’s wine market is lifting off, thus sommeliers need to quickly educate themselves about wine while facing a consumer base that has not experienced a gradual knowledge and appreciation of wine. This makes wine knowledge and customer handling skills equally important. Sommmeliers also face the challenge of knowing about hundreds of China beverages and spirits as well as a vast range of Chinese and international cuisines.

For Chinese who are new to wine, what are three things you would tell them to remember when ordering wine at a restaurant?

One, look at mid-range wines from traditional wine-producing countries. Two, trust and support China’s own developed brands, such as Changyu and Great Wall. Three, become friends with the sommelier when you go to restaurants.

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