Some people find their passion for wines in an utterly romantic story of how they chanced upon a beautiful wine so elegant it completely blew them away. For someone who does not drink, there’s absolutely no way I have a fancy story like that to tell. My name is Amanda, I am a sommelier and this is my story.
I wasn’t a very smart kid and was a constant worry for my parents because I was (to put it bluntly) untalented in every way possible. I couldn’t do well in school, hated playing music and definitely wasn’t fantastic at sports. On top of that, I had the memory of a goldfish and my attention span was ridiculously short.
On my seventh birthday, an insurance company sent me a birthday card decorated with stereotypical occupations in the society. There were firemen, businessmen, teachers, doctors, chefs and lawyers. I kept that card for years, wondering what untalented me would turn out to be someday.
Finally, the day had come for me to decide which route I was about to take. I didn’t fare so well for my O-level and my parents wanted me to be a physiologist, psychiatrist and a whole lot of ‘ists’ that I knew I couldn’t excel in. They filled up five choices on my form, and I filled up the sixth with what my best friend chose as her first. Only because she highlighted one thing: drinking wines in class is so cool.
I landed in Temasek Polytechnic’s Culinary and Catering Management diploma programme and did remarkably well; Learnt all sorts of crazy cooking techniques, served in our all-student restaurant which I enjoyed doing, aced all my subjects but ironically, I was struggling to stay afloat when I studied wine.
For me, learning about wines was like learning how to be a farmer; I had to learn about the sun, the earth, soil types, minerals, the growing cycle of vines, how many different types of grape varieties, where they thrived best in… and many other details. Intense as it was, I blindly memorised the information and passed with a depressing C-grade.
There was one thing I couldn’t memorise, the palate.
I remember how I would be awed whenever wine lecturers claimed they could smell and taste tropical fruits, berries, plums, honey and grass from the very same wine that I had in my glass. I tried hard, and at one point I was close to give up on wines completely but I was constantly reminded why I was here in the first place. It took me a while but I started to detect simple fruits like apples and pears, moving on to blackcurrant (Ribena helped me there) and cherries. I consulted one of my lecturers, Mr Jeremy Sim, in hope that there was a short-cut to improving my palate but all he said was, ‘It takes practice. There is no such thing as talent, just sheer hard work.’
So my journey began. I spent most of my days sniffing fruits and vegetables in grocery store; sitting by the window noting how rain smelled like, nosed the soil in my grandma’s potted plants when it’s dry or too wet. I grew inquisitive, and wines made me realised how we have taken simple things in life for granted because of our overly busy, hectic lives.
In 2010, I won a sponsorship to make wines at Moss Wood Winery in Margaret River, Australia. The ten days wine making experience was exceptional. All the information I was previously memorising started to take form. No longer was I confused with the technicalities of wine making and my palate was pushed to grow day by day. I graduated my module with a high B.
On my last year in school, I finally answered the question I asked since I was seven: I wanted to be a sommelier. I didn’t have a clue on how to go about being one, so I decided to start by attending wine tastings. By providence, I met Gerald Lu, who became my mentor. In two years, I grew tremendously and achieved several awards, one of which was Best Taster 2013 in the Singapore Sommelier Competition. My knowledge of wines grew so rapidly that looking back at the open book tests that I used to struggle with in school makes me wish that wines were that easy.
What fascinates me the most in my career is that my inquisitive nature grew stronger by the day. The more I knew about wines, the more questions I would generate. As a sommelier, meeting winemakers was a given to me, and I enjoyed how effortlessly they can respond to my questions. With each winemaker’s help, my painting of how vines are grown, what kind of soils they’re grown and how the climate there might be, grew less vague. The knowledge to learn more about why and not how amazing wine can be is what’s keeping me going as a sommelier.
To finish, what appals most people is the fact that I don’t drink. My strong beliefs for alcohol never changed since I was a little girl, and I’m proud to say that it has never wavered. Now who says all successful sommeliers are alcoholics?