The wine and Asian food pairings Jeannie Cho Lee dreams up are about as diverse as her background: Master of Wine from the Institute of Masters of Wine in London and a Master of Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Born in Seoul, raised in the U.S., and now residing in Hong Kong where she's raising four children, Lee is the first Asian Master of Wine, and at the heart of the explosion of the Asian wine market. (Christie’s recently announced that the prominent Korean business house, SK Networks, will be auctioning off over 100 cases of premiere wines in Hong Kong next month.) Her work is, in many ways, an exercise in targeted messaging — that is, how to present her fusion sense of wine culture to an Asian audience that has its own customs and rituals and yet is less familiar with what she was exposed to growing up in the West.
It’s entrepreneurs like her that gnaw at your brain when you're questioning whether to pursue your ultimate dream or not. I mean, really, switching from public policy to fancy food and wine? We’ve all been at that point, the crossroads between practicality and creativity, and thanks to Lee we’ve got one more success model to look up to. And oh yeah, we get to enjoy her awesome recipe, wine, and restaurant suggestions as well. (Take a look at her blog for more on that). Without further ado, FastCompany.com presents to you Master Lee and the inside scoop on how she carved out a niche market for herself in crowded Hong Kong.
What was the Asian wine market like when you first started out?
This was early 1994, when I arrived in Hong Kong to work in the publishing industry. It was quite dismal in Hong Kong as well as in Korea/Seoul where I travelled to quite often. Hong Kong only had Remy wine shops with very little competition. The beer selection in the supermarkets during those days were bigger than the wine sections. I also remember my first trip to Shanghai and Beijing in 1994 and in these cities, wine was not available except in the hotels which were frequented by tourists and business people. It is a very different scene now.
How did you make the choice to switch from public policy to wine and food?
I interned at the Korean Embassy in Washington DC and briefly at the United Nations. I had a sense of what my life would be like if I had pursued a career in public policy and I felt that working in something closer to my heart (writing, food, wine, travel) was better suited for my personality.
It was when I arrived in Hong Kong that I realized an entire world of enormous possibilities laid in front of me. Given that the regional Asian economies were booming and given my educational background and my numerous interests in many fields, I knew I could pursue many career options and I chose publishing. My other loves in life (food and wine, in that order) tugged at my heart and over time I was fortunate enough to combine my many passions in life — writing, food and wine.
Can you compare the Western love affair with wine to the Asian love affair with tea?
Interesting question. Both beverages are part of their respective dining and beverage cultures for centuries and both have avid fans and aficionados. The love affair with these beverages are more similar than different, however the beverages themselves are very different in what it brings to the dining table.
Teas have a huge variety of styles and a fairly wide range of flavours. Tea at the Asian dining table acts as a neutral backdrop to most dishes and is not meant to be overtly present. Wine on the other hand is definitely present during the meal and has a much wider and more pronounced range of flavours.
In terms of the attitude towards these beverages, I think there are more similarities than differences. Both are revered and have a long heritage and tradition of enjoyment at the dining table.
You are something of a rockstar, to be honest. How do you raise four children, travel constantly, write, and run your own businesses?
Not sure my children would agree that I am a rockstar; they see me as just a mom who has a strange profession of spitting wine for a living. When I taste a lot of wine at home, I am always spitting into a spittoon and scribbling notes so they are used to this but to others it probably seems odd. How do I juggle the numerous demands on my time? Very carefully!
It is a challenge that I believe all highly educated women face in this modern age — we have triumphed and proven that women are just as capable as men in the work force but we have not been able to reduce the demands from us in our family and personal lives. There is no clear cut solution to this except that for each of us needs to prioritize our time and really understand what is most important in our lives. Being organized, loving what you do and bringing your family as much as possible into your work life are some of the ways I try to maintain balance.
What is the most unique and surprising aspect of working in wine and food in Asia?
The most unique and surprising aspect of sharing my love for wine in Asia is how very quickly Asian wine lovers develop fine palates. There is such a strong food culture — of enjoying and seeking delicious food that wine quality is very quickly appreciated. I love teaching and sharing the concept of wine quality to a region of foodies makes it that much easier!
How do wine producers in the West view the Asian market?
Many see Asia as a panacea to wine sales troubles in other markets or surplus situations which I think is a mistake. China and the key markets in Asia will certainly grow in parallel with economic growth, but there will be a saturation point. In Japan it has been 2 litres per capita which really is not very much at all. In addition, growth has been focused on highly recognized large-volume brands and the top prestigious brands mainly from France. The very large middle sector has struggled and will likely continue to struggle since the polarized market seems ready to splurge for the luxury brands or buy according to price.
Last but not least, a little pairing tip just for us?
To choose a versatile wine for most Asian meals, go for wines from cool climates (e.g. Germany, Burgundy, New Zealand, etc).