New to town: Getting started as a Shanghai sommelier

By Yvonne Chiong


This is the first of two posts by Yvonne Chiong about her move to China to be a sommelier and her early experiences on the job.

I came to Shanghai in 2003 from my native Singapore for an interview to be a restaurant sommelier. I was unaware of and unprepared for what to expect. Amazed by the vibrancy of this cosmopolitan city, I wondered, “Why do so few people here only appear to be interested in wine? There is some curiosity, but no broad wine scene, only isolated pioneers.”

I heard comments that caused me to think about the wine scene. For instance, a few people told me that “some Chinese mix 7-Up or Sprite with red wine worth thousands of dollars!” I wondered if I should take the job and what I would face if I did.

After three weeks of consideration, I accepted the offer, signed a contract and started packing. I began work in a restaurant in a classic 1920s building on The Bund, overlooking the Huangpu River. From the restaurant, I viewed the sprawling construction across the river in Pudong as a visual manifestation of the increasing importance and openness of China.

People at the restaurant were curious about me. Some employees asked, “Are you a bartender?” I had to reply, “Yes.” As well as being a sommelier, I had received training as a bartender, although at the restaurant I was a “bartender for wine.” A sommelier! The questions from the staff continued. In addition, many people dining at the restaurant had to get used to having someone stand next to them at their table, talking about wine and food.

As a sommelier, I enjoy being asked questions and explaining to curious people about a particular wine or about how to pair wine with food. The restaurant gave me an excellent opportunity to contribute to a deeper understanding and appreciation of wine in Shanghai, to influence that city’s budding wine scene. At the same time, as a sommelier I had to be concerned and learn about my customers’ palate for wines.

My Shanghai experience also afforded me a rare challenge: to learn the Mandarin vocabulary of wine. In Singapore , the preferred language for talking about wine is English. It took effort to naturally speak and think about wine in Mandarin. What would be the Chinese name for yeast, for Grenache, for terroir? It’s not that easy to learn!

Next post: Three lessons learned during her first day as a sommelier in Shanghai.

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