Many assume that to work in the wine business, you need a head-start, learning from an early age and the help and influence of your family’s wine knowledge. But Yvonne Cheung is the antithesis of that notion, proving that if you set your mind to it, you have as good a chance as any to achieve the impressive heights she has in this tough industry. Today she is Director of wine for Swire Hotels in Asia, managing a hectic travel schedule alongside her many restaurants.
“I’m not saving lives” she says- but I think she’s selling her achievements short. Yvonne grew up in the USA in a very traditional Chinese family. The only fermented things she ever got to taste were beer and soy sauce. There was no cheese and certainly no wine in the house. Her journey from then until now has been an impressive one.
Her interest in wine was first sparked in university. “Probably part of trying to be cool”, recalls Yvonne, “I’m still trying to be cool!”. Growing up she was, like many of us, a self confessed nerd. Drinking underage was one of her attempts at impressing peers. Although it didn’t always go to plan. She remembers very well her first bottle of wine, aged 17. It was a white Zinfandel (part of a Von’s 2 for $7 deal). The painstaking realisation came the following day, that the all consuming anguish filling her body was in fact a “hangover”. Similarly her first taste of whiskey was a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue Label when she was a child. Unaware of the taste, she took a large gulp of the drink and vividly remembers the firey sensation burning through to her stomach. She took an approximate 10 year hiatus from all brown spirits after that harrowing experience. But these are all testament to her focus, even as a child, on taste.
Her interest in wine as more than simply a beverage came in Yvonne’s early 20’s. Growing up with a mother who had always been dedicated to food, taught her to appreciate a range of flavours. Her palate was now ready for something else. Working in restaurants she became fascinated by the allure of wine, the prestige some bottles hold and the human psychology behind it all. What pushed these customers to spend time and money choosing the perfect wine to pair with their meal? Furthermore, a self confessed “sponge”, Yvonne had the opportunity to work with experienced chefs and sommeliers and soak up their knowledge.
Although food is her first love, particularly the science and culture of food, Yvonne draws many parallels between our relationship with food and that of wine. Wine nourishes us and comforts us, just as food does, and so she can share the same curiosity, passion and interest in wine as she always has with food.
The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park
After university in UCLA, Yvonne went to study at The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park (CIA). This was her build up in switching from food to wine. Her wine educator, Steven Kolpan, built up her confidence in the subject. No small part a result of how studious and academic she is, she became dedicated to learning as much as possible from him. Among the many things he taught her, was that wine snobbery was unacceptable- “Everyone has to start at a different level, like me with my Zinfandel”. It was here she tasted a 1988 Baga Bairrada from Portugal which was to be the first of a few “epiphony wines” in her life. It spoke to her. The full package of the wine connected the dots and brought everything together on her palate.
When it comes to winemaking itself, Yvonne thinks that unfortunately natural wines have gotten a bit of a bad rep for being pompous about their superior state when in fact they can sometimes be dirty and inconsistent. But she doesn’t believe in name calling, instead holding health and sanitation of production in high regard, as well as maintaining the land for future generations. For her it’s also a matter of trust between wineries and customers.
In terms of wine tastes, Yvonne’s personal tastes of course differ to her professional choices for her restaurants. For herself she needs acidity in a wine. Not a huge Bordeaux drinker, if she is choosing from the region she tends towards right bank wines. For rosé she prefers a Pinot base, or if she’s splurging, then a rosé from Bandol, Provence. These rosés display both flesh and dimension which she considers to be unrivalled.
While chatting we drank Bellenos Rosé
Favourite place in Hong Kong to enjoy a glass of wine? “At home with friends! – am I allowed to say that?”.
What’s the last bottle you bought for yourself? Whites: Mac Forbes, Woori Yallock Chardonnay, Victoria, Dauvissat, Chablis and Ganevat, Jura. Currently Yvonne is enjoying discovering the new wave of winemaking in South America; wines that focus on finesse rather than heft, both whole cluster pinots from Chile and high altitude Cab Franc’s from Argentina, however she adds that these can be harder to source in Asia.
Lets imagine you’re hosting a dinner party, and you can invite 3 people from the wine-world (dead or alive) to attend. Who would it be? I’ll say straight off the bat that Yvonne really struggled narrowing this to 3 guests. Eventually concluding that she should like to host people from along the wine making process- a cooper, for example, and hear his/her opinions and stories of making barrels. Also a seasonal harvester, who has traveled and picked grapes at a number of exciting wineries. Hugh Johnson, the acclaimed wine writer. A top German VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikats) producer. A historical wine figure like Charlemagne or even Hitler’s right hand man, Herman Goering, who was known to be a keen wine enthusiast. For the live music Yvonne went on to suggest inviting guests who could play, earning their dinner. These spanned from the classical Russian composer, Rachmaninov (who she was certain would have been a wine lover) to modern American musician Jack White.
A proper hostess, she insisted that if this dinner were going ahead she would hire a cigar roller and live band to keep guests entertained while pouring them a range of different wines to seek their opinion. I’ll hold out for the invite!
– Lucy Kelly