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- 25 May 2014 -

Transformation of a Lawyer to Sommerlier

Taking the road less traveled is a terribly daunting thought, living your dream(s) may seem too much of a luxury or plain old naïve in this day & age.  These are fleeting thoughts I had when there were simply too much going on in my life such that I had to humor myself now and then. I usually snap out of these daydreams with a smile and say to myself “Someday…” However, when these thoughts started to populate and consume, they were hard to ignore. I know in my heart I would regret not pursuing them. I knew I had to do something, anything to satisfy my curious mind.

Last year this time was when I made the decision to take a pause of 17 years of life as a corporate lawyer to pursue my interests in food and wine. Believe me, it sounds much more glamorous than reality. I had some experiences in home economics back in my school days and tried to keep up my passion by tying in business trips or annual leave with sporadic courses but it was just not sustainable to keep up my burning desire.  After (yet again!) working solidly for a string of 5 days of public holiday last May and a lot of prayers, I decided it was time to take the plunge.

And a PLUNGE it was! I was in cooking schools in the Loire Valley and Brittany within a couple of months and enrolled in an intensive sommelier course in California early this year.  I still remember taking a look around the sommelier class where the room was filled with young fresh faces beaming with enthusiasm and eager. Not only were the vast majority of the class much younger than me, they all had rich experience in the F&B industry, ranging from Michelin star fine dining restaurants to thriving wine bars featured in industry publications and food and wine critics. We even had an anthropologist and archeologist who are all about the “terrior” of the wine regions and soil compositions…I still have vivid recollections of myself desperately trying to inhibit my uncontrollable shivers working its way down my spine when I introduced myself to the class…. that loud pounding of my heart which (thank goodness!) nobody could hear. What was I thinking??!!! This may be the stupidest move ever! Not only would I fail but now I have an audience to witness the fall!

Wine cellar in the wine theater

Wine tasting, we taste at least 10 wines per region a day!

Starting from ground zero in a new location learning about a subject I have marginal knowledge at best was… Tough. Learning how my mind operates to best retain knowledge, working on improving (and prolonging!) my concentration and focus was another challenge.  The constant uphill battle for me was that tug of war between the inner voices in my subconscious questioning whether I did the right thing, and my conscious mind steering me back on track. It was definitely a psychological battle and I soon learnt…a sensory challenge in every sense of the word.

 

We tasted wines from all sorts of wine regions. To name a few featured here  - California, Italy, Portugal, Greece & Lebanon

For the next 3 months, I completely lived outside my comfort zone. It was extremely uncomfortable, excruciatingly painful at the heart and mind but it had to be done. I had one target, one focus and that was my only goal and path. Failure is not an option and I told myself (I may be the world’s best self hypnotist by now) that not only can I do it, I am going to exceed my own expectations. It is shocking what you can do once you’ve conquered your own fears. I discovered learning about wine is unlike learning about anything else– gone are my law school days of rote learning. This is a subject which knowledge needs to be assimilated (think osmosis) and heartfelt. It is an integration of facts and data in the textbook as it is my own taste memory when sampling the wine. You only fully appreciate the magic when you can create a mental imprint of the two. And just when you thought you “got it”, all it takes is getting the wines wrong in a blind tasting when you have to start over again. I am constantly humbled and reminded that family generations of viticulture experiences and the numerous trials and tribulations of winemakers are much more complex than it seems. Despite all the glam and fame associated with the wine industry, I learnt a glass of good wine is labor of hard work…it is a living and breathing agricultural product. I still get goose bumps looking at photos of farmers working on dangerously steep vineyards at altitudes that Hollywood would mandate a stuntman for the shoot.

Just a few of the French champagnes & wines we tasted...

 

A selection of sakes we tasted under the tutored tasting of the first American sake master

It is at this inflection point when I comprehended the beauty and romance of the subject, I felt incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to learn about wine. I realized all my past experiences brought me to this juncture and the world of wine was able to bring it all together. I loved visiting beautiful wine regions with meticulously groomed vineyards as much as tracing maps of different appellations whilst tasting their wines and listening to their local music.  I enjoyed learning about the geography, climate, weather patterns, soil structures and everything that give the indigenous grapes their unique sense of place. I researched the evolution of local food & wine history to appreciate how it impacts pairing choices. I was fascinated by the heritage of winemaking in the old world and intrigued by the technological impact of winemaking practices in the new world. It is as much a magical culmination of science and art as it is a celebration of intellectual knowledge and the senses.

Typical weekday - line up for my own wine tasting practice...

Visits to wineries, wine tasting in the Bordeaux UGC in San Francisco...

I poured my heart and soul into my studies and felt incredibly lucky that my efforts paid off. I was on the dean’s list for attaining one of the highest marks in the class, came top in the regional exam for introductory sommelier and became a certified sommelier within 10 weeks. I have since pursed further wine studies and aspire to go as far as my mind and energy allows.  Friends, family and complete strangers are still bewildered by my dramatic shift in career, they are even more baffled when I told them sometimes you just need to go with your gut.

I am a firm believer that life is not about gaining the acceptance of others; it’s about having the faith and courage to live out my dreams. If I never stepped out of my comfort zone I would have never uncovered my passion for the subject. I am still figuring out my path but I always remind myself to enjoy the journey. I feel like a child again, a little scared as I am dabbling with the unknown. It reminds me that I am alive and that to me is LIVING. It is the best gift I can give myself and those who love me.

Graduation day!

 

Next
; Interview of Poul Erik Jensen, Co-Founder of the French Dining School