#12 Interview with Ying Tan, Master of Wine

July 2020 by Marie-Pierre Dardouillet, Cépages communication

The title of ​Master of Wine  inspires respect and admiration in the wine world. When I met Ying for the first time, he didn’t mention it. We were having dinner at La Dilettante in Beaune with Marie and Sébastien, friends from ​Les chambres de l’Imprimerie​. 

Discret, humble, smiling behind his round glasses, he was taking a paragraph of notes about every wine we were tasting. It aroused my curiosity and after 2 or maybe 3 glasses, we were speaking the same language : the language of wine enthusiasts!

One year later, I called him and asked if he would accept an interview for my blog in order to share with us about his career and how becoming a MW is a long journey to run with a humble attitude. With a smooth and gentle voice punctuated with hints of humor, Ying explains how his passion for wine has become a full-time activity. It is the first interview on the blog going outside of the wine cellar. I wanted to also explore who are the people behind the glass of wine, drinking and talking about it!

How did your passion for wine start?

At home, my parents were drinking pre-dinner cocktails and we were drinking wine sometimes with guests. My favorite alcoholic beverage when I was a teeenager in Singapore was gin and tonic, I wasn’t really a wine drinker. When I went to London to study at the University in 1982, I had a small allowance and drinking gin and tonic was quite expensive. So, I started to go to wine shops such as Oddbins, with my sister who was more interested in wine than me at this time. We could choose wines recommended by Jancis Robinson and Jane Macquitty for instance and it is how the interest started. At the beginning, it was for fixing my alcoholic needs!

In the early eighties, there were only a few books available about wine or wine guides. I bought the 3 or 4 available and I started my knowledge about wine this way. Also, wine merchants were just beginning to develop special activities with their direct customers. I signed up for wine tastings. It was a nice way to have access to good priced wine and also to learn more about wine.

Did some people mentor you at this time?

Not really. I was a student wearing jeans and a casual jacket. But there was a wine merchant in London, La Vigneronne, where the husband and wife owners, Mike and his wife Liz Berry (a Master of Wine, who recently passed away in April 2020) held many wine tastings. Their shop not only focused on Bordeaux, Burgundy or Champagne, it was my first introduction to Rioja, Vega Sicilia, Alsace wines and so many different winemakers… After a few years attending their classes and buying wines from their shop, they invited me to their home for dinners. It is where I met Jasper Morris MW for the first time as Liz mentored Jasper during his MW education program. Liz didn’t really mentor me but she introduced me to several winemakers and also people from the trade such as Jean Trimbach and Clive Coates MW. It was a combination of reading, tasting, meeting people and buying wines at the best price.

Also, I subscribed to Christie’s and Sotheby’s catalogues so that I was allowed to go to the presale tastings. I was learning about good and not so good wines or the vintages differences. I spent a lot of time in wine shops and I first met Stephen Browett of Farr Vintners when he was working in a Knightsbridge fine wine shop called La Reserve. I would ask people like Stephen for wine recommendations. … This was how I started to be excited to taste a classed growth claret, a Clos de La Roche or an Amarone! I was definitely a wine geek.

Do you remember the first winemaker you visited?

It was our first summer holiday at the University in 1983. Two friends and I decided to do a trip to France. In Paris, we rented a small Renault 5 and drove down to Bordeaux. We went to Chateau Lafite and someone chased us away as we didn’t have an appointment. So, we drove along Pauillac and ended up in Château Batailley, the first wine estate I visited. Emile Casteja welcomed us and asked us if we wanted to taste some wines in the barrel and it was the vintage 1982! He was very hospitable and asked us about our stories and so on. I went back to London after that week, I bought some Château Batailley 1982 en primeurs at 20£ more or less … nothing when you think about it today!

In 2009, you started to study for the Master Degree. Could you please share with us what is the path for becoming a MW? What have been the main steps? What are your best memories during these 6 years of study?

The MW qualification is considered the top wine one in the world. The MW qualification was initially started in the UK by the Vintners’ Company, one of the English royal livery companies established by royal charter in the 14th century, and the Wine and Spirit Association. It was a wine trade qualification focused on wine professionals in the trade buying and selling wines. Today, while studying for this qualification, you meet people who are at the top of the wine profession in whatever area : wine merchant, winemaker, journalist, educator… It is an association of wine professionals of the highest standards understanding production, social issues or techniques about wine. With the MW qualification, you have a knowledge of the broadest aspects of the wine industry.

Since 1953 when it was first established, over 400 people have qualified as Masters of Wine. 1953 was also the year that Mount Everest was climbed for the first time!

When you are a MW, you have to sign a code of integrity and to promote understanding of wine. I qualified in law, it is not the easiest qualification to get. I ran 28 marathons in my life, the last one was the Marathon du Médoc in 2012. I have always said it was much harder preparing the MW exam than to pass a law exam or finishing a marathon. It is tough because it is intellectually and also physiologically demanding as you use your stamina for going through 3 blind tastings in a morning … it is non stop!

All my wine knowledge was from the books I read, the tastings I attended and the conversations I had with winemakers, vine growers or wine merchants. I really needed to work hard for the theory exam of the MW that I did first. The tasting part, as I left London to

How did you manage to train for the practical exam from Singapore?

In the 80’s in London, you had many wine enthusiasts like me and there was more and more interest and demand for quality wines and wines from different regions of the world. It all started developing at this time.. Around the 90’s, when I went back to Singapore, it started to seriously develop and 15 years ago there was an amazing selection of wines available all shipped and stored in good conditions. The challenge was to look for who was importing who and only after, I could attend the seminars and tastings planned. As a student of MW, you can also join some of the Institute’s programs to visit some wine regions. I passed the theory on my third attempt, the practical part the year after and my research paper was passed the year after that.

What was the subject of your research paper?

It was about the history of the Clos de la Roche. I was very interested in Burgundy but it was not the first region I visited. My first visit was Bordeaux and Loire in 1983. Burgundy, it was only in 1986. It took me a while to understand Burgundy and one producer I got to know well was Laurent Ponsot, formerly of Domaine Ponsot.

I was always intrigued by the Clos de la Roche because it was not a well known vineyard in the past. The famous names were Clos de Bèze, Chambertin, Musigny, Romanée Conti, Romanée, Bonnes Mares… but somewhere in the 50’s, you started to see more and more Clos de la Roche. When I started learning about Burgundy in the 80’s, Morey-Saint-Denis was always not considered as prestigious as the other villages of the Côte de Nuits. Nowadays, all the grand crus from Morey Saint Denis are recognized and also difficult to find! The original plot of Clos de la Roche was only 4 hectares and the Domaine Ponsot owned 3 hectares of it. They were the biggest owner of the original Clos de la Roche and I was curious to know about the history and how it became a top vineyard.

What are the responsibilities of being a MW and the unique Singaporian MW?

As I was not a wine merchant, writer or speaker, the most important for me was to nurture the wine trade in Singapore when I became a MW. It is important to say that I had no professional experience in the wine industry before the program, I was a lawyer working in a bank. Now, I am working full time in the wine business. I started by identifying people working in the wine trade in Singapore that could aspire to the Master of Wine. Today, we have 4 Singaporean candidates in Singapore and in London on the MW program. I try to inspire people to apply to the program and I hold tastings and classes to nurture their interest in wine. I really would like a second Singaporean MW so that I can relax! As one of the first two Asian men to qualify as an MW (the other was a Japanese MW, Kenichi Ohashi MW), I wanted to explain to people in Asia what this qualification involved.

How do you like to speak about wine to wine enthusiasts?

Generally, for non-wine professionals, I try to organize blind tastings and they might have the list of the wines or communes or wine grapes. I like to get people focused on the tasting and make them understand how things affect the taste of the wine. It is maybe due to the grape, the vintage, the way it is being produced… I like talking about wine from that perspective because it is also an opportunity to show how the process is complex. It sounds theoretical but because you relate it to what you are tasting in the glass, I find it very effective.

At the ESSEC conference I gave, they were not wine drinkers. It was more a talk about a change of career. I tried to draw strengths from all my experiences and how all that helped when I did the Master of Wine. I was a science student which was relevant for understanding biology and winemaking. When you are a wine merchant, you need to explain or adapt your recommendations to your clients and my experience as a lawyer was also very helpful because communication skills are part of all of that. The financial aspects of my career in banks and running a wine bar provided a context for the business of wines and understanding the wine market. All these experiences helped me with the MW qualification. These experiences were relevant in many aspects for working in the wine profession. It is important to always be open to how your career will progress.

How do you train your wine memory ?

It is like preparing your muscles for a marathon! The olfactory sense is located in the very old part of the brain. It is a survival sense as you need to smell the predators, poison… I like to say to anyone attending my classes that irrespective of any effort he will make, his brain will remember. The trick for me was to taste as much as possible and consciously remember this taste associated with this particular element. This requires more theory. In both ways, it forces you to learn the theory behind the wine to associate it with tasting. I don’t have a massive memory and I cannot remember a specific wine. But when it comes to associations with the words, it comes back to my mind. You have to practice for that but it is achievable. I remember recognizing a Canadian Ice wine at the tasting examination just because I had tasted it many years previously and had the correct associations!

You are tasting many wines and I know that you have a full library of notebooks! How do you take notes? Do you have a specific method? Do you often read them?

I take notes because I have a bad memory! Nowadays, we have instagram, notepads… but I started with writing notes. I taste around 7 to 8 000 wines a year so how could you remember all of that! As a wine enthusiast, I was tasting a lot and by writing it down it was a way of fixing a vocabulary and to find the words that I was associating with the wine. It works very well if you read back your notes but I am very bad at that. Now, I have around 100 000 notes over the years. I am trying to collect them in an excel spreadsheet to develop a website where people could access my notes and reviews. I am working on that and also it will be very helpful for myself to explore my own notes! Taking notes was very helpful for me to guide my buying decisions and also it is very useful when I am writing an article or review.

What are you the most proud of?

Probably, I am proud of two things. The first one is obviously having become a Master of Wine because I never thought I could ever be a MW as wine for me was a passion. It is a hard and long exam that only few people pass and especially when the last exam I had taken was 20 years ago! At my age, it was a challenge that I am proud of having met. Running marathons is the second thing I am proud of and actually also helped me in the preparation of the MW. I suffered from child asthma and nearly died at the hospital because of that. So one of the issues with that illness was physical activities. After a few years with no asthma attacks, I started running and in 2000 I ran my first marathon! Finishing 28 marathons in 7 years was a big achievement that I am proud of. Preparing yourself for a sitting exam is like a marathon, you have to start slowly, to understand what you have to do, to identify your weaknesses and your strengths for reaching a peak that is the exam.

When you start something, you do it with a very high expectation level. So, what are your next challenges?

Trying to retire will be the next challenge! My next ambition would be to write a book. I would love to get some books out. I already have the discipline that writing a book requires.

Have you never thought about making your own wine?

I have thought about it but I think I am too lazy for it! I am not sure to have the talent to do it properly nor the patience to wait one year after one year for that. I leave it to the talented people. There is something I learnt from my different experiences : even if you love it, don’t do it if you are not good at that!

Is there a wine region you would love to explore?

Actually, there are many regions that I need to explore : Chile, the Victoria region in Australia, Germany is a big gap for me, South of Italy with Sicily for instance… I also need to revisit Loire valley and Rhone Valley. Right now, I am visiting Champagne a lot as I am writing a book about champagne.

Can you tell us more about this book?

It is all about what the chef de cave and maitre de cave do to produce the style or quality of the wine. The assemblage, the selection of the grape varieties, the proportion of the wine grapes … It is a very complex process where every producer has its own way of doing it. My book talks about how the whole decision-making process affects the taste of the champagne from a producer to another one. I have been working on it for 4 years now!

What would be the best compliment someone can tell you when you are talking about wine?

I don’t sound like a wine snob !

Our first meeting at La Dillettante in Beaune
(Ying, Ming San, Sébastien, Marie and me)

Stream of consciousness

Music : I love music and I grew up listening to classical music : Beethoven, Brahams, Bach… I don’t listen to music as much as I want as I am too busy. When I was a student, I loved pop and rock such as Pink Floyd and in December last year, I went to the U2 concert in Singapore ! Music is like wine, you adapt it to your mood of the moment.

Book : The Albert Einstein’s book, The Evolution of Physics, explaining the basic concepts of relativity inspired me when I was a student. When it comes to wine, there was a book written by Hugh Johnson called “​Wine​”. The way he wrote made you salivate about wine and I remember his description of a Château Montrose 1967! I met Hugh Johnson in 2011 in the cellars of Pol Roger when I was studying for the MW and I was so excited to meet the person who inspired me to explore wine!

In terms of life philosophy, ​Meditations by Marcus Aurelius helps me settle down in difficult times.

Movie ​: I love going to the cinema, being seated in front of a big screen with a great sound system and popcorn!

2001, A Space Odyssey was for a long time my favorite. I was 7 when I watched it and I was fascinated. After that, I love gangster movies such as ​Godfather​, Goodfellas and Mean Streets.

Recipe : my own recipe of oyster omelette, a local street food specialty! I use smoked oysters and it comes more like a frittata and that’s my signature dish!

Memorable bottle : 1955 Krug, it is on the top of my list! It was special because it was a birthday present for my sister and I cooked dinner for her.

Vintage​ : my birth year, 1961! So expensive to buy any!

Wine grape​ : amongst reds, probably Pinot Noir and whites, Riesling

Smell ​: the smell of coffee even if it is not a nice smell for wines! But there are so many smells I love such as when I am cooking my oyster omelette! It is hard for me to pick one.

Color​ : blue

Sport​ : running

Destination : I want to see the northern lights in Scandinavia, Machu Picchu and trekking to the Everest Base camp

Perfect sunday​ : a day where nothing is planned!

If you want to contact Ying, you can visit his website.

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