Asian women impact on Asian tipplers

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Asian women working from grape to glass are having a profound impact on the evolution of the world's fastest growing wine culture, including the emerging Asian palate.

"The American or European palate is better understood, especially with respect to wine," said Jeannie Cho Lee.

A popular Hong Kong-based wine critic, she is the first ethnic Asian to earn the notoriously difficult title of Master of Wine.

"We don't have the answers but it's important to begin to ask the right questions now," she said.

In 2009, China outpaced America as the number one client for Bordeaux outside the European Union, with a seemingly unquenchable thirst and increasingly sophisticated palate.

"Wine appreciation advances very quickly in Asia, partly because of our discerning palates for food!" Lee said.

While wine consumption in China started with expats on expense accounts and free-spending tycoons, it's quickly taking on popular appeal.

"The consumer profile of wine lovers is changing rapidly - Asia, with about half of the world's population, is just discovering wine," said Lee. "That is incredible buying power which is being fuelled by one market."

Lee sees a trend in the growing number of young urban women enjoying wine.

"I used to run women-only wine classes and these were always sold out ... There is a definite need to cater to this growing number of sophisticated Asian women."

An increasing number of these Asian women are seeking careers in the wine trade, many earning solid credentials in France's premier wine region, Bordeaux.

"In our sommelier school in Bordeaux, there are more Chinese women than men," said Ma Lin, director of the Chinese branch of Cafa Formations, the Bordeaux wine school for professionals.

And these women see definite opportunities to improve what's being uncorked in China.

"I find there is a lot of cheap wine on the market - for one to two euros - I'm not happy about that." said Fangyuan Zheng, a Shanghai native with a masters degree in oenology and viticulture from Bordeaux University.

Zheng, who is currently honing her palate at Chateau Haut Brion, foresook a career as a chemical engineer and sees a future for herself as a wine buyer.

"People don't know very much about wine and I want to choose good wines at a good price for Chinese consumers."

Clara Yip, in charge of the inflight wine programme on Cathay Pacific Airways, has already carved out an enviable job of buying wines "that can fly."

In Bordeaux to secure her allocations of Chateaux Lynch Bages and Branaire-Ducru, her inflight programme was voted the best business class cellar, beating out 34 other airlines.

"I like my job, it's exciting and never boring. When I meet wine people I see their passion - they have such passion. I love to talk to them."

If Judy Leissner achieves her goal, Yip will one day pour Chinese wine alongside the Medoc's finest.

"I want to try to find out where to grow wine in China," said the 30-something chief executive of Grace Vineyard, China's pioneering fine wine producer.

The former investment banker, who also oversees operations and finance for her family's empire of power plants, property development, waste-treatment plants and department stores, admits it will take years to find the right combination of soil, climate and grape varieties.

"My inspiration is that my daughters will be able to say, 'you can make this style of wine in this place'."

Leissner has more to overcome than matching rootstock with terroir.

While her 500,000 bottle production is substantial by Western standards, it's considered positively miniscule in China and the locals don't understand why she's "holding back."

"In China because everything is going fast, most people look for scale. To explain to them that you want quality and to stay small, that is something they cannot understand. They always say, 'Let's be bigger!'"

There are other obstacles to overcome.

"Most of the time, people think my driver is my boss and I'm his secretary," said Leissner, who was just 24 when she took over Grace Vineyard eight years ago. "You get used to it."

Cho Lee added, "there are challenges to being an Asian woman working in the wine industry. Many times people make quick judgements, especially in the traditional wine growing regions in Europe and see an Asian woman and think, 'What can she possibly know about wine? Especially our wines!'"

For Zheng, wine is so new in China that she admits "wine is something very far from their life. My father is very supportive but my mother cannot understand. She thinks I'm drinking all the time."

"In Hong Kong it doesn't matter if you are a man or woman working in the wine trade but China is difficult," admitted Leissner. "They still perceive people who drink wine as a bit 'loose.' You just ignore it."

Ma Lin looks at the positive side.

"I like wine and still relatively few Chinese women know the wine business. It gives me a mysterious allure."

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