Malaysian-born Chinese, Stephen Wong MW moved from Borneo to Singapore before settling in New Zealand. Shortly after completing his studies, he picked up a sommelier role and started teaching himself on the job.
After seven years as a sommelier, Stephen moved into a consulting role and now runs a hospitality education and support business based in Wellington called Wine Sentience.
Let’s find our more about Stephen and his wine journey in the following Q&A:
Tell us about Wine Sentience and its services. What’s your motivation behind it?
Wine Sentience started back in 2007 as a purely hospitality-facing consulting and training operation – taking advantage of my experience as a sommelier and with managing wine lists.
Three years ago, Sylvaine Novel joined me part-time. We first worked together at Arbitrageur Wine Room. She’s a fantastic French sommelier with a fine wine background and on her way to New Zealand, she worked at Mac Forbes Winery then at Prince Wine Shop in Melbourne.
Over the past few years, I realised that I was being drawn into more and more public events and it reminded me of what I missed most about being a sommelier… that direct contact with drinkers and sommeliers outside of the restaurants I worked with.
After Caitlin Perlman – a natural wine sommelier and ex-cheesemonger from San Francisco – joined the team; and Elissa Jordan – whom I met while helping with Budburst in 2016 – joined us, we realised that we finally had the talent pool needed to run our own public tasting and education events. A chance to take what we had previously only offered to restaurants/hotels, allowing the drinking public to look behind the curtains of the wine industry.
In our hospitality-related roles, we are exposed to stories, ideas and trends in a raw state. Sometimes, these don’t ever make it to the wine loving public, or it might take years for it to happen. We want to break down these traditional divisions and layers so that everyday wine lovers can see and experience the side of wine that we get to see.
The Wine Sentience tasting room and hub on Vivian Street in Wellington is a very diverse space and our activities reflect that. Depending on the day of the week, we would have blind tastings, comparative tastings and exploratory tastings running in our space. We have showcased lesser-known regions and styles. Together with our friends and peers, we have put on a series of educational seminars/classes called Wholebunch. It’s a chance for the wine community to get together, listen to their peers and experts talk about topics which are current, thought-provoking and sometimes controversial.
Having Caitlin in the team means we get to run both fun natural wine events like Fête Nat, SOIF pop-up bar and Weird & Wonderful as well as our version of Cheese & Wine School, called Corks and Curds. Wellington is a small city and our small scale events (between 10 and 30 seats) are about right for the size of our community.
That said, we also offer bespoke and private tastings where one of us will take groups of up to 6 through an intimate tailored tasting – not everyone wants the atmosphere of a community event, and we can appreciate that.
When we’re not busy running tastings and events, we are still deeply involved in formal wine education and supporting hospitality – we continue to consult on wine lists, train staff, hold wine service and tasting technique classes and teach the wine and beverage fundamentals paper for the Bachelor of Culinary Arts and Business degree at Le Cordon Bleu. It’s a varied set of activities, but we all love to share our passion and knowledge of wine and doing both professional education and casual public classes/tastings lets us impact the most diverse group of people in our small city as possible. We want to make learning and talking about wine both unintimidating and easy to access without watering down the experience.
You’re particularly passionate about wine communication and education. What advice can you give people who are at the start of their wine journey? What’s the best way to learn about wine and start a career in the industry?
That’s an interesting question, and I’m sure there are multiple ways to get started. I do think a distinction needs to be made between learning about wine and getting a job in the wine industry. There are many resources for the wine-curious, including online references, videos, and real-world wine groups.
Most metropolitan centres have places which run wine tastings and classes (it’s one of the reasons we wanted to create our hub!) and often wine-loving hospitality operators will fill that niche when there isn’t a separate venue for them. Wine festivals have been increasing in popularity throughout this decade, creating a busier and more bustling setting for exploring wine. Buying wines by the glass and listening to sommeliers at restaurants and wine bars is another great way to learn about wine anecdotally.
Professionally, I think hospitality or wine retail are probably the more straightforward ways to get started with a wine career. They provide not only a chance to taste and learn about wine but also a de facto community and the job forces you to apply your knowledge on a daily basis when you talk about wine to guests and customers. Patience is important though, knowledge and experience take time to accumulate and master.
I would caution anyone who thinks they can fast-track their way into a serious wine job without going through a few years of working in the industry – it’s likely to end in frustration. If you have a true love for wine, the time will pass so quickly, you won’t notice it and your responsibilities in the industry will grow alongside your experience and confidence.
As a side note, I have also found that as the wine industry in New Zealand grows up, it is getting more professional and the need for prior experience/qualification is starting to increase. Where I might have previously expected that most wine businesses would hire a passionate and enthusiastic but unqualified and inexperienced wine lover into a junior role, that may no longer be the case.
Thankfully, the availability of classes like the WSET is on the rise throughout the country and it offers a standardised and uncomplicated way to get a wine qualification. In terms of accumulating starting experience, volunteering at wine events or working part-time in a wine business can help get your foot in the door.
Why did you decide to become a MW? What impact has this qualification made on your wine career?
I come from a family which values education and although I left home early on, I remained close to them and their values. This posed a quandary for me as my formal qualifications prior to the MW were in Law, not wine. I definitely wanted to study it formally and get qualified, so I started exploring my options.
Thankfully, I also had a huge amount of encouragement and support from my local wine community – Stephen Bennett MW, Christine Comerford, Raymond Chan and Jane Skilton MW to name a few. At the stage when I started in the educational programme, I had been working in hospitality for about five years, and although I loved being a sommelier, I was also curious to experience the world of wine outside of hospitality.
The Master of Wine (MW) was particularly appealing to me because it covered such a wide spread of disciplines, requiring me to learn about everything from viticulture to winemaking, tasting through to the business of wine. It’s famously difficult exams were also a perversely attractive because it posed such a challenge. Once I started my journey however, being exposed to the sheer vastness of what there was to learn about wine kept me hooked and continues to do so today.
Wine combines science with art, agriculture with chemistry, history, social sciences and technology all in one – furthermore, the relationship which people have with it is equally fascinating to me.
I wasn’t entirely sure what the MW would bring to me, in one sense, it’s posed new challenges as I have to be so much more prepared and watch what I say to make sure that I can always back it up factually – something which was less of an issue when I was serving it in restaurants.
But it has also created lots of new opportunities, like being able to pull together a team of passionate wine educators and somms to do what we are setting out to do now. The access to other MWs has been invaluable, there are so many fantastic minds out there in the world of wine, and many of them are members of the Institute of MWs – being part of the membership has given me opportunities to meet, work with and learn from them, especially in my current role as one of the coordinators of the Australasian Educational Seminar (a position Jane Skilton MW introduced me to). I get to do what I love at the highest level possible during this seminar and it’s one of my favourite things. It has also opened the door to teaching and talking about wine outside of New Zealand.
I am fortunate to work with NZ Winegrowers, talking about NZ wine in Melbourne, Hong Kong and throughout mainland China. That relationship also allows me the opportunity to work on Sommit here in New Zealand – an international scholarship programme for sommeliers to come there and attend a two day closed-door symposium on New Zealand wine. I’ve met wonderful wine folk from around the world as part of Sommit. It has made the years of study and frustration worthwhile!
What does a typical working day look like for you?
A tough question! I don’t really have a typical working day, but the closest to it would be what my day looks like when I’m in Wellington. I start with a good cup of coffee in the morning, send an emoji to my partner and catch up on news before heading in to the office.
If I have any significant writing to do, this is also when I tend to get stuck into it. If it’s not a terribly rainy day, I’ll walk to the hub. Often, there’s already something going when I get there, so I go with the flow on arrival.
Otherwise, I take the opportunity to clear my inbox. Two days a week, we line-up tastings internally for educational and assessment purposes. Caitlin and I will run through our strategies for our restaurant clients, upcoming wine lists, community tastings and events and Sylvaine and I meet to talk about educational sessions (like Cordon Bleu) and our hospitality training programme.
If Elissa is in the office that day, we would catch-up to plan Wholebunch activities or any larger scale projects we’re involved in (such as Budburst or Women in Wine). On a Tuesday, we spend a few hours meeting winemakers, suppliers and distributors who have new releases or who just happen to be passing through town. The mid-afternoon is normally when the team splits up to do their own thing, be it hosting a private tasting (if we have any bookings), meet with our restaurant clients, or get stuck into managing the cellar and the cellaring programme for future tastings.
If we have an event on that evening, we change gears and start prepping for the event – checking wines, setting-up the tasting room and putting together the notes and handouts before our guests arrive. The evening is usually a strangely a communal time when the team (and some of our partners) pitch in to clear up, clean up and reset the tasting room.
It reminds me of pack-down after working a dinner service and it always brings back warm memories of being part of a community. If I have particularly creative work which needs to be done, I will often save it for late at night. For some reason, I find my ideas flow best after 11pm, perhaps it’s the hospitality background or maybe it’s just because I have fewer distractions and interruptions then – who knows?
If you were a wine, what wine would you be?
Oh hmm. Self-assessing questions are always the hardest, I find! I think I’d identify most with a Riesling – sometimes I’m sweet, sometimes I’m sour and only those who know me well can read the signs. I take myself too seriously sometimes while at other times, I’m all about the fun.
I’m never going to be popular despite having some die-hard friends and I’ll never make much money! Thankfully, it’s also my partner’s favourite variety :D
Share a fact about yourself that only a few know
Despite working in wine, I actually don’t drink much! When things are calm and settled (i.e. there isn’t frantic running around at work) I might enjoy two to three glasses of wine a week, but there are weeks when I wouldn’t drink a glass of wine at all. Sometimes, after a full day of tasting and talking about wine, all I feel like is a beautiful pot of tea.
Things you still want to do – what’s on your bucket list?
I have vertigo and a fear of heights, so one of the things I would love to do most is climb up a mountain or do one of the higher great walks of New Zealand without freaking out. I’m so concerned about holding people up on the track when the vertigo hits that I avoid doing them altogether, but it’s one of my deepest regrets that I haven’t been able to accompany my partner on one of these tracks which I know he would want to do!
Dead or alive, who would you like to share a glass of vino with?
When I get asked this, I always get drawn to the possibility of talking to someone who is no longer with us. Also, I don’t think I’d know what to say if I was in a social situation with someone famous. Like many Kiwis, I have lost friends to depression and suicide. If there was one thing I could wish for, it would be the chance to go back in time and have a glass of wine with any of them – one more chance to share some time together – to listen to them and show them that they are not alone, that maybe there is something to live for in this world. Wouldn’t you?
On August 8th, as a part of 2019 Wellington on a Plate festivities, the Wine Sentience team and a slew of our favourite organic winemakers will be taking over Prefab Hall to pour a fresh look at the 2019 vintage. Here are all details about this exciting new event.