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INTERVIEW: This top sommelier used Wine For Dummies as his first textbook
How does a kid just out of National Service learn about wine when there are no teachers in Singapore? Wine for Dummies, of course.
Gerald Lu, one of Singapore’s leading sommeliers, partner at Praelum Wine Bistro, and current chair of the Sommelier Association of Singapore, had no choice. “The industry wasn't very helpful then. There wasn't a sommelier association. All the best wine guys are at The Raffles Hotel or Les Amis, and these guys are very busy so you email them and nobody replies.”
Choosing to become a sommelier is unconventional in Asia, and hard graft in a place like Singapore where alcohol is expensive and wine isn’t baked into the culture. The Ministry of Manpower created a category for the job only in 2015.
Gerald is an example of how you can pursue the work you love despite being misunderstood or dismissed. In this interview, we talk about how he found a path through an underdeveloped industry and a sommelier’s role as storyteller.
Here are some highlights:
1. No curriculum? Create your own.
Gerald knew he wanted to work in F&B because he could meet people and learn new skills. But he didn’t do well in hospitality school because he sucked at cooking, so he decided to get hands-on experience working the floor and bar at a restaurant. This is where Gerald fell in love with beverages, because of the amount of knowledge required to be good at the job.
To focus his learning, he reached out to sommeliers in Singapore, without success. “Either you sit down and do nothing or you make something happen for yourself, so I went to Kinokuniya and bought Wine For Dummies and French Wine For Dummies.”
Gerald got a job in the wine cellar of Waterfront Restaurant by Indochine, a pioneer in Singapore’s modern Asian dining experience, and created a simple learning system for himself.
“My job was to open stuff. I just did stuff near the cellar. So I put the two precious books I had in the cellar, and every time somebody ordered something, I’d look it up. ‘Oh, Sancerre from the Loire Valley.’ I go into the cellar, pick up the Sancerre, put it on the trolley and prepare the glassware. And while waiting for the sommelier to come, I just read the book quickly. At least I know something.”
This six-month stint was enough to get Gerald a job as a wine captain after National Service. (Male Singaporeans do mandatory military service for two years.)
The day before he started, Gerald got a call from the restaurant manager. "None of us here have any wine knowledge. You probably have the most, so tomorrow when you come to work, instead of being a captain on the floor, we'll elevate you to wine captain. We’ll pay you 50 bucks more, and you take care of the wines as well."
2. Saying “I don’t know” increases learning speed
So Gerald started his first full-time job, making SG$1,250 (before CPF deductions) and working six days a week. To compare, this was less than half what his peers were earning working in banks and large corporations. But he was truly part of the industry now.
As the wine guy, Gerald was invited to trade tastings. It was at one of these tastings, hosted by Louis Jadot, a producer from Burgundy, that he realized he was truly at the bottom of the hill.
“I was staring at the 18 wines trying to remember information from my poor little Wine For Dummies book. They're all pinot noir, so how the hell do I know the difference? Do you arrange it left to right, right to left? Oh shit. So I just stood there and stared.”
While Gerald was trying to figure out what was what, a gentleman came up to him and gently said: “Hey, you look lost. Do you know what you're doing?”
Relieved, Gerald admitted he had no idea, and asked where he should start. This was Tommy Lam, the man who would become Gerald’s mentor. Tommy owned a wine bar and was trying to start up the fledgling industry. He eventually founded the Sommelier Association of Singapore.
At that time, Tommy had just started conducting WSET classes. The Wine and Spirit Education Trust provides education and qualifications for drinks professionals and enthusiasts. He invited Gerald to sit in on a class for free. “Wow, it’s very good and structured knowledge. Great for an Asian boy like me. I guess at some point he was marketing his business, sure. But the approach was very kind.”
Gerald borrowed money from his mom (“at that time I was spending all my money on tasting wines”) and completed the first level.
He is also quick to emphasize that certification is secondary. “I strongly encourage you to take accreditation, but I think most important is the passion and natural drive and instinct to be good. It doesn't make a sommelier less than the other if he doesn't have a certain accreditation.”
3. Do things before you’re ready
Gerald bought a third book, Italian Wine for Dummies by Mary Ewing Mulligan, then was encouraged by Tommy to take the Master Sommelier exam that had just been introduced to Singapore.
“Obviously I did badly because I have no clue what to expect. I remember opening the paper, and out of a hundred questions, I know ten. And out of the ten, I think I know five. Oh my god, I'm going to fail. This is the first time I opened a paper in my life that I don't know so many things.”
What followed was a year of nothing but study. Gerald prioritized this over everything else, then joined the competition again.
He stuck out for his youth (he was 25) and his outfit. “Everybody was wearing the sommelier outfit of black, white, tie, apron inside of a jacket overcoat. One of them even had a tail jacket. Then I rock in, light gray suit, pink shirt, grey tie. And the tie is a cotton woven tie, baby blue pocket square. No socks, brown loafers.”
He would’ve been happy just reaching the semifinals, but found himself in the finals with two much more experienced sommeliers.
“During the finals, we probably all screwed up, but they screwed up more than me. It took everybody by surprise because this guy has only been in the industry for two and a half years and then suddenly he won. Who the hell is this guy?”
The perception of what a sommelier should look like was changing. “But it was a slow transition. And along the way, there's so much criticism and so much flak, just by not conforming to the norms.”
4. Growth over comfort
Following his win, Gerald was promoted to Head Sommelier, a fun job that paid well and carried reputation and authority. He was active in the small but growing professional community. One day he was helping a friend launch a wine bar when she suggested a career change.
“I said it was a stupid idea to open a wine bar, but she's a smart lady and was determined to do that. So she went ahead anyway. During the opening, there were a lot of hiccups. I was trying to help her out as a friend and she said, why don't you just join me?”
Why did Gerald decide to give up a comfortable job and a great salary in a stable company for something small-scale and new? “It was a leap of faith because I was young. I might lose some time, but at least I gain some experience. So I said, okay, let's go from ordering 30 cases of one wine, to three bottles.”
Praelum Wine Bar wanted to offer a great selection of wines, including 50 by the glass. This was a new idea in Singapore when most drinkers kept to brand-name wines and “wine by the glass” meant a cheap house pour. Praelum’s cellar has 1,000 bottles, where Burgundys and Brunellos rest next to bottles from small winemakers, New World producers, and uncommon locations like Hungary and Lebanon.
But with no marketing budget, and without the online platforms and advice available today, the business started slow. “People walking up and down Duxton Hill are like, ‘What’s this new place? A wine bar. No, I don't feel like drinking wine, bye-bye.’”
To get the business going, they couldn’t always stick to just wine. “Some people will come in for a beer because it’s a quiet place and they wanted to chat. So I served beer, I served cocktails. I served wine. I served whiskey. I was serving everything. This became a drinking hole. What I’m really good for is wine. But I wasn't moving enough wine.”
Gerald describes that trial-and-error period like this: “You know how you play video games, right? When you want to level up the character, you just go whack the tree 1000 times.”
It was word of mouth, patiently over time, that worked. “It was really table by table. One friend introduced the next friend and the next friend and it just grew like that. And it was a very slow process. It's nine years old and is still growing. In a way it was good, we had time to figure it out. But it’s not great for the investors, they have to wait.”
Over the years, Praelum has become a home to local sommeliers in Singapore. Gerald supports young people who have decided to pursue wine as a career. He recommends getting hands-on experience and sets realistic goals for mentees. With hard work, one can become a decent sommelier in two years.
“I spent a significant amount of time just figuring it out and banging walls. When I was banging all these walls, nobody gave me a hammer. How I wished someone helped me, and I was lucky I met somebody.”
5. A sommelier’s job is to tell a story
Gerald tells a great story about each bottle and feels a responsibility to represent the winemakers who make the product.
“If you don't help by explaining what's so special about the wine, then you're just a vending machine. Just put a coin in, and dispense. You are a sommelier because you bring to life this inanimate object.
“And if you truly like your industry and you fall in love with these things, you realize you fall in love with the people who made this product. Your job as a sommelier is to bridge this story across to someone. I think sometimes, sommeliers lose the plot on that. They are so concerned with just serving the best wine.”
This responsibility carries through when judging wines, and the difference between silver and bronze can be material to a winemaker’s livelihood.
“If you are 89 points, you win a bronze medal. If you are 90 points, you win a silver medal. Because you are a silver medal, you can charge $1 more per bottle. If you make 300,000 bottles, that can send one of your kids through school for a lifetime.”
Gerald is also on a mission to make wine accessible to new curious Singaporean drinkers. He’s presented a wine education series with local supermarket chain Fairprice, where one learns that the reason wine is decanted is the same reason kopi uncles pull teh tarik -- to aerate the drink.
At recent competitions run by the Singapore Sommelier Association, which Gerald currently chairs, competitors are now expected to recommend a wine to pair with Asian dishes. For slow-braised wagyu beef, one somm proposed a cabernet from Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena, and for chilled mango sago cream with pomelo, the 1996 Vin de Constance, a sweet wine from South Africa. For xiao long bao: ginger ale. (I get that. Let XLB be XLB.)
“I think it's very sad when you tell people you're a professional in food and beverage, and you actually have to teach people about somebody else's culture, then as a Southeast Asian, you don't know anything about your own. Quite embarrassing, right? I think you are not getting your priorities right.”
Gerald himself, in an interview with Vice Munchies on how to pair wine with Singapore’s iconic foods, is happy to drink a vinho verde with char kway teow and chenin blanc with fried bee hoon. For most dishes, though, from chili crab to assam laksa and chicken rice, he suggests a simple rule. “When in doubt, turn to the saving grace of Southeast Asian dishes: riesling.”
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