Top 10 Singapore sommeliers
There’s no shortage of wine talent in Singapore, so we’ve quizzed industry experts, harassed friends and pounded pavements to unearth ten of the very best sommeliers, writes Mandy Lynn.
ALVIN GHO, DB BISTRO MODERNE
Despite being the only current Singaporean sommelier to achieve an Advanced Sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), Alvin Gho has never expected his passion for wines to flourish into a full time career. “I have always been interested and curious about wines.
I am passionate about wine, food, and my guests. Being a sommelier allows me to do so,” he says. His interest and passion has slowly but surely led him to the top. In 2010, Gho did Singapore proud and brought home the Champion title for the French Trophy (SOPEXA). The following years saw him achieve national recognition with awards at the Singapore National Sommelier Competitions; Best Taster (2011) and Best Theory (2013), before winning the coveted title of Champion in 2013.
Gho also represented Singapore in the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) Contest of the Best Sommelier of Asia & Oceania (2012) and Contest of the Best Sommelier of the World (2013).
“I wish to be a sommelier for as long as I can, and show the younger generation of sommeliers that a career in sommellerie requires a lot of time, studying, and hard work to get to the top. It is then you will achieve the qualifications you need to take care of your guests.” Gho’s ultimate goal is to achieve a Master Sommelier diploma and eventually become a wine director at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
DAISUKE KAWAI, TIME & FLOW
Despite the language barrier, the warmth and friendliness of Daisuke Kawai evidently shines though in his personality. Having spent three years (from 2010 to 2013) as head sommelier at Les Amis, Kawai was in charge of selecting the restaurant’s wine list of over 2,000 labels—the largest selection in Singapore by far.
A Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) by the Society of Wine Educators (US), Sake Navigator by Sake Service Institute Japan, and Senior Sommelier by the Japan Sommelier Association; a highly sought- after certification that is arguably more difficult to achieve than a certification by the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), Kawai is one of the most prominent Japanese sommeliers in Singapore. In addition, Kawai was also the Top Wines Best Sommelier of the Year at the Singapore World Gourmet Series Awards of Excellence 2013.
To be a good sommelier, Kawai believes that knowledge and service is key. “I always tell my staff that making a guest comfortable is more important than showing off wine knowledge,” he says.
FABIEN DUBOUEIX, JOËL ROBUCHON
At the bright young age of 15, Fabien Duboueix pursued a passionate career in wine and hospitality, taking him to Europe, the United Kingdom, and now Singapore. He has always enjoyed wine for as long as he remembers: “When I was born, my father bought 400 bottles of Bordeaux from my birth year.
As a kid, I remember my father constantly requesting my permission to open a bottle but I would decline, as I wanted to keep it. Now I have about 60 bottles left.” Perhaps it is his father’s encouragement in wine that motivated Duboueix. His professional training began in 2001 in a series of F&B positions in restaurants around the world, including the Michelin- starred Lucknam Park in Colerne, England, and the Michelin-starred El Castell de Ciutat in Seo D’urgell, Spain.
“Everything about wine is amazing. The history, the geology, the people behind it; pairing it with food… having dinner without wine is unthinkable,” he says. Having achieved his Certified Sommelier certification (CMS) in 2011, Duboueix had a short stint as head sommelier at Saint Pierre Restaurant before moving to Joël Robuchon in 2012, where he currently works.
Over the past two years, Duboueix has added Certified Spirit Specialist, Certified Sake Sommelier, and Advanced Sommelier to his list of accreditations. “Singapore’s wine industry is very challenging and competitive. We have to keep improving ourselves,” he says.
FAZIL MOHAMMAD, SALT GRILL & SKY BAR
Recently crowned Champion of Singapore National Sommelier Competition 2014, Fazil Mohammad will be going on to represent Singapore in the fifth South East Asia Best Sommelier Competition held in Bangkok this year.
The most defining moment of his wine career thus far, Mohammad is teary-eyed as he shares his journey. He says, “The past three competitions left me with the runner-up title. It took me four competitions to finally nail it. I am incredibly happy and thankful to my mentors Gerald Lu and Fabien Duboueix.”
Mohammad’s passion for wine was uncorked whilst cleaning a restaurant’s wine cellar 12 years ago. It opened up a fascinating world of wines and he has never looked back since. From achieving his Certified Sommelier certification in 2009, Mohammad has since gone on to score a string of professional achievements under his belt, including Certified Specialist of Wine, Advanced Level qualification by Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and Italian Sommelier diploma.
One of the organizers who brought the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) programme to Singapore, Mohammad is also a mentor to students, facilitating weekly tutorials to coach them on tackling the CSW exams.
GERALD LU, PRALEUM WINE BISTRO
Vice President of the Sommelier Association of Singapore (SAS), Gerald Lu had his first sip of wine when he was 19. “To be honest, I found it sour and unpleasant,” he says. “Perhaps when I was younger, I preferred Tequila shots. Look what has changed now!” he laughs.
Head sommelier of Praleum Wine Bistro, Lu is in charge of procuring wine whilst managing the day-to-day operations of the gastrobar. Despite that, he still manages to find time to conduct workshops, organize wine events and competitions under the SAS, such as the annual Singapore National Sommelier Competition (SNSC). “The association acts as a platform for sommeliers to access, hone and polish their sommellerie skills.
It is a support group made of former champions and sommeliers to provide the necessary support and mentorship to the younger generation. This ‘people’ element is crucial to achieving sommellerie excellence,” he says. Lu believes that the wine industry in Singapore is getting stronger, with younger sommeliers breaking into the game: “The youngest participant to ever make it to the semi finals, Alexander Peh, showcased the most potential at this year’s SNSC.
It’s his first time entering the competition, yet he nailed the Best Theory award. Winning next year is all he’s going to be looking at.” Despite less-than-ideal working hours, Lu presses on, saying, “It started with curiosity, transformed into a passion and realization that much more could be done for myself and the [wine] industry. It is a job I am lucky to fall in love with, and I would never trade it for anything else in the world.”
HAN YEW KONG, OSTERIA MOZZA
Having achieved his certification for Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) and Certified Sommelier, Han Yew Kong went on to extend his accreditation list with titles Champion of Malaysia Best Sommelier Competition 2013 and Champion of South East Asia Best Sommelier Competition 2013. In 2011, Han moved to Singapore to gain exposure in the wine industry and learn more about Italian wine and cuisine.
“The wine industry in Singapore is diverse and adopts an open market approach; tastings are constantly happening around the island.” “I get excited whenever I tell people that we only serve Italian wines and beverages [at Mozza].
Recommending an extensive Italian wine list to guests on a daily basis makes me feel like I am an ambassador for Italian wines. Italian singapore somms wines may be a little intimating to some, but my role gives me an opportunity to provide guidance and advice.” Of the wines in his portfolio, Han shares that more artisanal wines, like boutique grower Champagnes, really gets his motor running. “Egly-Ouriet Champagne is from a family-owned winery based in Ambonnay.
I chose the 2002 Grand Cru Brut because of its stunning nose of ginger and flowers, and creamy palate. Recently, I sampled their 100% Pinot Meunier based Les Vigny des Vrigny; it was outstanding!”
INDRA KUMAR, THE PRIME SOCIETY RESTAURANT & BAR
With an impressive list of accreditations under his belt, Indra Kumar is no novice to the industry. From winning the championship title of Singapore Best Sommelier 2009, Kumar has proceeded to judging wine competitions like Decanter Asia Wine Awards 2002, China Sommelier Competition 2013, as well as Indonesia Sommelier Competition 2013.
As the Beverage Operations Manager at The Prime Society & Bar, Kumar works closely with wine growers associations, winemakers and winery owners. “I strive to bring in high quality boutique wines to the restaurant. Consumers usually only recognize big commercial houses.
I work hard to introduce wines from small-scale growers who are passionate about their trade so that guests can understand wines more intimately,” he says. Secretary to the Sommelier Association of Singapore (SAS), Kumar is also actively involved in grooming and training young sommeliers to success. “For 10 years now, I have been actively involved in improving and supporting the younger generation of sommeliers.
Most of the time, people think that sommeliers are only educated in wine. Little do they realize that sommeliers are required to know about other beverages like non-alcoholic beverages, cocktails, spirits and liqueurs as well; all of which are tested in the Certified Sommelier examination,” he reveals.
JACQUES CHUA, THE 1855 BOTTLE SHOP
One of the few females in this male- dominated industry, Jacques Chua wowed the judges with her personality and skill during the service segment of the Singapore National Sommelier Competition 2014, placing second in the competition: “Even though it may still be a male-dominated industry, people are more accepting of female sommeliers now. I am very fortunate to have good mentors who advised and shared their personal experiences and knowledge with me.
This has helped me grow towards being a better sommelier.” Chua began her journey to sommellerie excellence at the ripe age of 25, honing her skills at Marina Bay Sands, Osteria Mozza and The Knolls at Capella Singapore. Despite her relatively short sommellerie resume (having been in the trade for three years), Chua has achieved a certification for Certified Sommelier and Certified Specialist of Wine, and was part of the team for Business Times CEO Wine Challenge (2013 and 2014).
She believes in constantly educating and upgrading herself, saying, “The journey as a wine professional is a never-ending one, especially with the dynamism of wine markets and international wine scene.” She continues, “What I love most about my job is the sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that the job brings; when guests return to share their experience of the wines I’ve recommended.”
MATTHEW CHAN, BACCHANALIA
The youngest Singaporean sommelier to first attain the Certified Sommelier qualification of the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) at 23, Matthew Chan is regarded as one of the “new generation” sommeliers in Singapore who dares to push boundaries. “Being part of the new generation of sommeliers, I am not bound by traditional ways of thinking. Perhaps it is my youth that encourages me to think out of the box.
I am always on the look out for obscure wines, in terms of grape varietal and producing region,” he says. The head sommelier at Bacchanalia, Chan made a name for himself as the youngest participant (at the age of 24) to have ever won the Championship title at the Singapore National Sommelier Competition in 2013, continuing to establish his competence when he made it into the finals at the World Gourmet Summit Awards of Excellence 2014 for ‘Sommelier of the Year’.
Despite having job offers from abroad (where sommellerie is highly regarded), Chan, along with many others, have chosen to stay in Singapore to encourage sommellerie as a profession. “We want to change the image that sommeliers are wine snobs who hide in our cellars and command fat paychecks— which we don’t,” he laughs. “We can be fun and friendly while doing our job. At the end of the day, it is through proper food and wine pairings that makes all the difference between a good night, and an amazing one.”
STEPHANIE RIGOUD, HILTON HOTEL
At the age of 29, Stephanie Rigoud already has an impressive wine resume that dates back almost a decade and a half from when she first started out harvesting and winemaking in France. She then went on to complete her Formation Complémentaire d’Initiative locale de Sommellerie, with special mention of the jury at the Technologic Hospitality High School of Tain-L’Hermitage in France.
“When I was younger, I remember watching the movie, L’aile ou la Cuisse, and I was so impressed by a character who was able to recognize a wine through a blind tasting without even tasting it.
I told myself that one day, I will be able do the same.” Head sommelier at the Hilton Hotel, Rigoud is also the wine consultant for Hilton Worldwide Group in Singapore and Indonesia, with four hotels under her belt: Conrad Singapore, Conrad Bali, Hilton Bandung, and Double Tree Hotel Jakarta. As do many sommeliers, Rigoud tends to veer away from commercial wineries, saying, “It is crucial to bear in mind the clientele, and the type of food that we serve. Boutique wines allow me to adapt accordingly to cater to the preferences of my guests.”
It is evident from her passion that she takes pride in her job. “I do not see my job as a daily work routine. It is an important part of my life. Each and every bottle of wine has a story to tell. A good sommelier acts as a messenger of the winemakers; a ‘pleasure transmitter’ who is able to tell an interesting story and spread the joy of drinking and understand the wine.”