Tommy Lam on the State of Sommeliers in China

Tommy Lam has organized a steady stream of wine education events in China over the past seven years. His most recent was the fourth annual Young China Sommelier Team Competition last Friday in Qingdao, where 63 finalists from an initial group of 1200-plus applicants competed at The Westin Hotel (results here). I spoke to the seemingly indefatigable Lam the night before the event.

Grape Wall: How do you feel with the final just 12 hours away?

Tommy Lam: Every year it’s the same. It’s exciting to see the kids really inspired and supported by their team managers. A lot of them have never been out of their home city so this is a big deal for them. Last year, we took 70 sommeliers to Yinchuan [in the Ningxia region]. This year we have 21 teams [each with a coach and three members] in Qingdao.

When you organized the first China national sommelier contest in 2009, did you think things would get this big?

I expected it to grow but I didn’t think it would be this scale. Two months ago, I saw a news report about a recruitment fair held at a convention center. Representatives from almost every industry attended but the report said the most critical human resources shortages are in the hospitality and food and beverage sectors.

I can see why there is a shortage. Serving people is hard for the younger generation. They usually have little experience or knowledge of serving, they are often only children and are used to being looked after rather than looking after others. It’s not like in my day when we had six kids in the family! They study hard, but they simply haven’t had a practical opportunity to learn service.

Why my project works is that it creates a different direction. If you learn to serve wine — and beer, cocktails, baijiu and other drinks — you gain knowledge, you become more sophisticated, you even become more willing to use a foreign language. It’s not only about serving wine but also knowing and talking about it.

It also creates competition among colleagues in an organization. People see they can get promotions, make more money and become more polished, and this gives them some incentive.

What’s the biggest general weakness of the participants?

Language. Young people in China all have lots of guts and study hard and are willing to learn how to do a job better. Now language is the biggest issue.

When employers hire foreigners in the hospitality industry in China, people say it’s only because they are foreigners. But if you have kids from China who can understand English just as well as those foreigners, they’ll take a bigger share of those jobs.

We know it’s happening, we can see the localization of food and beverage directors. They have the ability to communicate in English, which is the international business language. Who knows, maybe the language of business will one day be Chinese, but for now it’s English.

How did you get started with that first competition in 2009?

I only started to learn about wine myself in 1996. I had a restaurant in Singapore and the joke was: “Tommy, do you have wine?” “Yes.” “Where from?” “France.” “What kinds?” “White and red.” “What is the red?” “Huh? Red wine is red wine.”

I started to learn about wine on my own and went for a wine MBA in 2002. When I graduated and came back, people asked me to teach them about wine and I realized I didn’t know anything. I had only learned about the wine business, not about how to make wine, about viticulture, about service, so I went back and studied again.

In 2007, I brought the Court of Master Sommeliers to Singapore. I didn’t represent the organization, I just facilitated their events. Then in 2009, I did the same thing in Hong Kong. Some candidates from around China traveled to that event and were very enthusiastic, so I organized the first China National Sommelier Competition. I feel like I’m doing something to help people progress, because when I at my situation 40 years ago when I was the age of these sommeliers, this kind of platform didn’t exist.

tommy lam china young sommelier team competition at qingdao westin 2015 (2)

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