Few industries are as, dare we say, pale and male as that of wine. All throughout Asia, these female sommeliers are breaking vino’s glass ceiling.
As the struggle for gender equality and female representation wages on in F&B – a space long dominated by older White males – Asia’s wine industry is a refreshing anomaly. On the vast subcontinent, amongst bustling metropolises and sprawling fields, it is women who lead the charge in the many facets of viniculture – whether it means they are assuming prestigious titles, founding companies, leading wineries, or simply speaking and writing on their various vinous passions. And in honour of International Women’s Day, we celebrate these ‘women in wine’ who are paving the way for many to come.
1. JEANNIE CHO LEE
In 2008, Korean American sommelier Jeannie Cho Lee became the first master of wine from Asia. The title – one that is notoriously difficult to assume, mind you – is awarded by the London-based Institute of Masters of Wine, an über-exclusive institution with a worldwide membership of just 384 people. Her host of talents are varied and many: award winning author, television host, and educator, to name a few. She has published two books, launched a wine glass collection, and trained as a Master Sake sommelier. In Lee’s own words, “I was mesmerised by wine – not just because of its complex flavors that are mercurial and fleeting but because intuitively, I sensed that wine was alive.”
2. DEBRA MEIBURG
Like Lee, fellow master of wine Debra Meiburg may just be the pinnacle of versatility. Though she calls Hong Kong home, the multi-media journalist, educator, and judge has also worked in vineyards around the world: Chile, Bordeaux, South Africa, and New York. She also serves as a wine consultant for Cathay Pacific Airways, hosts several documentaries and TV shows, and co-founded the world’s first pan-Asian wine competition, the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit Competition.
3. ARLENE OLIVEROS
Talk about breaking barriers – Arlene Oliveros is the first and only Filipino certified wine sommelier in Canada. In an interview with Canadian Immigrant, she recounts her foray into wine at George Brown College, when she would spend days sniffing produce at St. Lawrence Market – cherries, apples, roses, and other tastes seldom found in the Philippines – to develop her palate. Her first book, Wines for Filipino Cuisines: A Gastronomic Adventure of Sommelier Arlene Oliveros, is an homage to her roots, and she has only continued to bridge that cultural gap while serving as an Ambassador of Italian Wines.
4. EMMA GAO
In China, a country that has long lauded tea over wine, Emma Gao is turning the tide. She works as chief winemaker of Silver Heights vineyard in Ningxia, a region hailed as the Napa Valley of the East. Since its debut in 2007, Silver Heights now covers over 67 hectares and produces around 30,000 bottles of wine per year. The winery’s 100% Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Emma Reserve’ and Bordeaux blend ‘The Summit’ exemplify Gao’s uncompromising standards: made from cold-macerated grapes, aged in high-end oak barrels, and completely untampered with in terms of sugar or acid. It was precisely this connoisseurship which led renowned wine critic Jancis Robinson to describe Gao as the most “naturally vivacious wine producer I have ever met” and her work as nothing less than “wine magic.”
5. KATRINA CHANG
The Ordes des Coteaux de Champagne (OCC) may be best described as the ultimate champagne fraternity. It was founded in 1956 during the reign of Sun King Louis XIV; since then, over the course of four centuries, the 5,000 inducted as members have included royalty, celebrities, and business leaders alike. In 2010, Katrina Chang joined their ranks. In 2019, she was promoted to the Consul-General of OCC China. One of few women to assume such rank, Chang has embraced the OCC’s mission in spreading knowledge and information on champagne.
6. FONGYEE WALKER
Even at first glance, with her electric blue hair and a dazzling smile, Fongyee Walker is an unassuming force to be reckoned with. The Malaysia-born and Cambridge-educated master of wine is the co-founder of Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting, one of China’s most successful wine education companies, and the only to provide WSET Level 4 in the mainland. Apart from moonlighting as a wine commentator on CNN and contributing to award-winning documentary Red Obsession, Walker also regularly judges international shows, travelling abroad to Australia, Chile, South Africa, to name a few.
7. SONAL HOLLAND
Sonal Holland is India’s first and only master of wine, with a list of accolades far too long to list. Her three organisations dominate the country’s vino market: SoHo Wine Consultants offers bespoke services to the hospitality industry; Sonal Holland Wine Academy is India’s leading wine-centric institution, with courses tailored for companies and individuals alike; and Vine2Wine serves as a contemporary wine retail space. In addition to such entrepreneurial ventures, Holland also hosts her own digital channel, bringing more light-hearted content on wine travel, pairing, tastings, and even tips.