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Taipei’s top sommeliers

Taiwan’s burgeoning wine industry is flourishing in the steamy, cosmopolitan capital of Taipei. We shine a light on a crop of Taipei’s talented sommeliers.

The Taiwanese have a long and affectionate relationship with the Chinese spirit, Kaoliang with the nearby islands of Kinmen and Nanken producing Kinmen and Tunnel 88, traditionally much favoured among Taiwan’s young drinking crowd.

However, with the influence of European restaurants and hotels mushrooming alongside the skyscrapers and street-food stalls in glitzy Taipei, wine is fast becoming a mainstay on the capital’s dining scene.

We’ve tracked down several of Taipei’s passionate members of the trade who are helping to bring premium international wine to this corner of South East Asia.

Click through to read about Taipei’s top sommeliers… 

Alex Tsai, assistant manager and sommelier at Bencotto Restaurant, Mandarin Oriental

Alex Tsai started life feeling that he should be a biochemist but it was while he was studying for his PhD project in Biochemistry in the UK that he realized research wasn’t for him. Faced with no further funding, he worked part time as a dish washer in a local restaurant and while observing the sommelier at work, finally found his calling.

“I eventually worked my way up to become assistant sommelier and passed two levels of WSET in London,” he said. “I learnt about wine service, and Western food and wine pairing which was invaluable. Even though I came to the wine business fairly late in my late twenties, I think I’m lucky because I went into the area I wanted to work in straight away.

“It can be tough because no matter how late I get home, I spend at least one hour reading and studying.

“A defining moment for me was winning second place in Sopexa’s Best Sommelier Competition of French Wines in Taiwan in July last year and representing Taiwan in the next round of the competition in Kuala Lumpur in December.

“The restaurant I work in, Bencotto Italian Restaurant, is very popular and reputed in Taiwan, thus my work is very challenging and busy. However the chef, Mario Cittadini is a very active and energetic man and together we have the best service and kitchen teams and it makes every day at work exciting.”

Ting-Hsin Chen, sommelier at Villa 32 

Surrounded by hot spas and tropical gardens, Villa 32 is one of Taipei’s most picturesque and elegant hotels. Sommelier, Ting-Hsin Chen has presided over the extensive wine list at Villa 32’s restaurant since 2010 and enthuses about the evolving palates of Taipei’s wine drinkers.

“Taipei is such a diverse city,” he said. “People here enjoy trying all kinds of wine from different wine regions and with unfamiliar grapes. Wine helps me discover the world in many ways and I love to share this experience with people.”

Previously, Chen was in France where he was awarded the Brevet Professionnel Sommelier in France in 2009. “It makes all the hard work worthwhile when I get such positive affirmation from my guests for my wine choices. I am so appreciative of the opportunities I have had with my work so far.”

Kenny Lee, sommelier at 168 Prime Steakhouse, Grand Victoria Hotel

“The best part of being a sommelier in Taipei is the idea that we are creating something, maybe pioneering this young wine industry,” said Lee. “Being a sommelier in Taiwan – even in Taipei – is like a baby learning how to walk. We are are the forefront of promoting wine and food culture to the public.”

Kenny Lee’s first job in the trade was as a waiter in the upscale Paris 1930 restaurant of the Landis Hotel. “We were always encouraged to taste different wines, and try different pairings. At the time, I was thinking of how to understand more things about the world of wine so I dived in head first, moved to France, lived in Dijon and immersed myself.”

Lee’s efforts paid off as he scooped Sopexa’s Best Taiwan Sommelier in 2015 and came fourth place in the Best Sommelier in Taiwan in French Wine, and currently hold the International Sommelier Guild’s Level 1 and Level 2 certificates.

When I talk about wine to customers or friends, I create a small world of happiness and joyfulness. We learn a lot thing from each other – that is the most amazing thing. Every day I see a different world.”

Carlos Chen, sommelier at the Regent Taipei

“I have always loved wine as a hobby,” said CMS certified Chen. “But five years ago when I was working in a French restaurant, I thought to myself that I should turn this passing interest into my career. So I decided to study and trained myself as a sommelier.”

The Regent in Taipei is one of the city’s busiest luxury hotels and Chen has been at the sommelier helm for two years.

“One of our biggest highlights is our yearly guest chef events, where we curate the wine pairing list for these world famous chefs’ beautiful dishes. This really is a great honour and challenge for me.

“During the event, when I see the customers’ faces lit up with joy and satisfaction, it makes me happy for days on end.

“Working as a sommelier in Taipei is like working in two different worlds. You’re introducing Western wine to local Eastern flavours and you’re helping customers who are unfamiliar with wine to find out what they like, and when you achieve that, it is the best feeling.”

Sean Yeh, sommelier at Bencotto Restaurant, Mandarin Oriental

Sean Yeh started F&B life learning about hospitality management before studying winemaking and working in Napa Valley and Marlborough.

“I wanted to share my ideas and introduce many different wines to customers,” said Yeh, “so I came back to Taipei and my sommelier career with my new found knowledge.”

The pinnacle of Yeh’s career was winning Sopexa’s Best Taiwan Sommelier in 2012 and joining the Asia Independent Wine Critics Alliance (AIWCA) in Hong Kong as a judge for its 2014 Wine Award.

“Sharing wine stories with guests is my favourite part of my job because every bottle of wine has a unique tale behind it,” he said.

“Also working in Taipei is like living in a small food and beverage community, we stick together and share information with each other. Luckily, we can find and taste most of the wines from many regions in the world. Sometimes if I cannot find a particular wine, my friends and suppliers will help. We are a tight-knit community and I hope more people can know about us and try our fantastic hospitality.”

Campbell Hsiao, sommelier at Café Un Deux Trois, Mandarin Oriental 

“I have had an interest in wine for as long as I can remember,” said Campbell. “One of my proudest moments was becoming a certified sommelier when I had passed the International Sommelier Guild Certificate Level 1 and Level 2. My next ambition is to study the Court of Master Sommelier in September this year.”

Hsiao joined Café Un Deux Trois last month from the No. 168 Prime Steakhouse in the Grand Victoria Hotel where he had been for four years and had “revolutionised the wine list” as well as scooping Wine Spectactor’s  Best Award of Excellence in 2015.

“Taipei is a really interesting place to work as a sommelier,” he said. The hotel guest chef events are always amazing. Between us, we will create the menu and wine pairing until the balance is perfect and it makes us learn from each other. Then the guests enjoy food and wine from other countries and everyone is happy.”

Tony Wang, sommelier at STAY by Yannick Alléno

“Taipei is not a big city as Shanghai, Tokyo or other places, but I love being a sommelier here,” said Tony Wang who works at celebrity hangout, STAY by Yannick Alléno.

“We are the first generation sommeliers, so we have a mission to pass on our knowledge and experience; we need to keep learning and sharing. It is still a long way to go, and we really need to catch up the world but we are big on passion for wine and food and offer welcoming service to all of our guests.”

Wang’s defining moments as a sommelier include placing third in Sopexa’s Best Taiwan Sommelier in 2012, winning Wine Spectator’s Best Award of Excellence in 2013 and scooping Best Wine List in Taiwan at the 2014 China Wine List of the Year Awards.

“But really my happiness comes from customer feedback. I love customers who appreciate and even criticize my wine suggestions because communication is so important and it means I always try harder and never stop learning.”

Xavier Tzeng, President of the Taiwan Sommelier Association

Xavier Tzeng is a familiar face on the Taiwan sommelier scene and his career spans to 2003 where he worked for Paris 1930 at the Landis Hotel, to Le Moût Restaurant and then Jason Atherton’s Table No.1 at the Waterhouse Hotel in Shanghai.

“The world of wine itself is fascinating enough for me to become a sommelier,” he said.

“When I first started working in the restaurant industry, I watched the sommelier enchanting the customers with his professional wine knowledge to complete a perfect wine-pairing; his elegant moves and charming smile all put together a wonderful dining experience. That was when I first learned how a sommelier can completely enhance a restaurant experience for a customer.”

Apart from heading up the Taiwan Sommelier Association, Tzeng’s achievements also include winning the 2010 Grand Prix Taiwan’s Best Sommelier of French Wine, and placing as a semi-finalist in the 2011 South East Asian Best Sommelier Competition and as a semi-finalist in the Best Sommelier of Asia-Oceania in 2012.

“As a sommelier, wine knowledge is essential for sommeliers, but presentation of that knowledge and interaction with customers are even more important. Sommeliers should be approachable, and share professional wine knowledge without arrogance to their guests. My best satisfaction and reward from work is to see the contented smile and enjoyment from customers by the end of the night.”


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