STYLEGUIDE sits down with seasoned wine sommelier from JAG Wine, Vasu K Chia, who is armed with decades worth of experience pursuing his infinite passion for the one drink that’s ‘made by God’ in the words of Martin Luther - wine.
STYLEGUIDE: Thanks for taking the time out to do this interview Vasu! Could you tell us how you first got interested in wine?
Vasu: I’ve always got this taste for wine. I’ve never been a spirits drinker, nor was I a fan of cocktails, and I never liked beer as well. Even during the time when beer was cheap back in the army about 35 years ago, I still never liked it.
I got involved with wine even more as I was serving in the army after being appointed to the Foreign Military Liaison Branch where I was involved with some of the planning of the cocktail parties. The planning included finalising the guest list all the way to the very detail down to the dress codes required of the invited guests. These parties were held to entertain and welcome military VIPs and other important personnel that have decided to pay a visit to Singapore. And of course it’s during these parties, which were held about two to three times a week, that I got to taste and savour the wine as well.
STYLEGUIDE: So what made you decide to pursue wine wholeheartedly?
Vasu: Since I was done with my service for the army in the mid 1970s, and I disliked my then-office job that I had at a bank, I figured the first thing I had to do was to leave the corporate world and excel in something that I loved, that I was passionate about, which was wine.
STYLEGUIDE: How was your experience like in learning about wine?
Vasu: Even when I had university breaks whilst studying wine at the United States, I never flew back (to Singapore). I spent those breaks at the vineyards of Napa Valley, California, where I was paid 5 USD per hour to pluck the grapes at the vineyards. I had plenty of wine available to drink over there.
I spent years attending wine classes and working at the vineyards. Afterwards, my bosses who owned the vineyards at Napa valley decided to sponsor me to attend a 14-month wine sommelier course held in France, with a working bond lasting up to three years after that.
Three years stretched to more. In between, I was posted to other various vineyards that my US bosses bought shares in, so that they could harvest the grapes in that area and export the wine back to the US for sale. The vineyards with the bought shares were scattered all over Europe; I ended up going to vineyards located in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria and Greece then.
Ever since, I’ve also travelled to vineyards in South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia and New Zealand.
STYLEGUIDE: Given that you’ve spent a long time at the States to train and learn to be a wine sommelier, have you had anyone who influenced you or that you look up to?
Vasu: No, not really. My father was always a spirits drinker and my mother drank red wine on the side occasionally. It was always my own passion for wine that got me through. Passion was what drove me to where I am today and I love what I do now.
STYLEGUIDE: What was your most memorable moment while you were training or working as a wine sommelier?
Vasu: I think the most memorable moment for me was when I had the opportunity to taste this wine offered to me by my American boss. This happened after I have worked at their vineyards for about three to four years.
He asked me if I liked it, and I said it was extremely good. So on he went, pouring a total of two glasses for me and two glasses for himself. There was only about a glass worth of that wine left in the bottle. He then revealed that this wine we are drinking now is worth around four and a half thousand US dollars and bear in mind, this was in the year 1983 or 1984. That’s the equivalent to about ten thousand Singapore dollars back then!
The wine was called ‘Screaming Eagle’, and I remember it had a scratchy-looking logo of an eagle about to land from flight. I can’t describe the taste exactly as it is now but it was definitely one of my most memorable moments.
STYLEGUIDE: You have conducted many wine appreciation classes for people from all walks of life. Why do you think it is important for people nowadays to learn about wine?
Vasu: One thing that everyone needs to know is that people can be very critical. I have been to multiple corporate functions, and I have seen some guests getting judged behind their backs simply because they are holding the wine glass in the wrong manner.
It’s the same for those who are trying to make their way up the corporate ladder. Sometimes, you are expected to attend exquisite functions or be the host to important clients or guests as part of work. So imagine if your superior entrusts you the task to be a good host for your company’s clients or guests, but you find yourself looking completely lost in front of them when the server brings you the wine list.
Even till now, I am still learning about wine everyday. There are times when people ask me questions during the wine appreciation classes, and I’d do a quick search and check on certain things that I need to refresh my memory on. Because I do not know for sure on what they are going to ask during these wine appreciation classes, I have to make sure that I am fully prepared as well.
STYLEGUIDE: What wine etiquette tips do you think everyone and anyone can take note of right now?
Vasu: On tasting wine, all you have to remember is the 4 ‘S’s - Swirl, Smell, Sip and Swallow. Swirling allows the wine to open up, or oxidise which causes it to give out aromas. This is why you smell afterwards, to prepare yourself for the taste and then you sip and swallow the wine.
When it comes to wine available at functions, the one thing that you need to take note is that there is always a technique when it comes to holding a wine glass. You should never ‘cup’ the glass with your dominant hand, and only hold it by the glass stem with your fingers. Because doing so will cause the taste of the wine to be changed due to your body temperature. The same rule applies to white wine. White wine will always be served to you chilled. If you hold the glass by ‘cupping’ it, the taste of the wine will go flat.
So when you go back to sip the glass of wine, the temperature change can cause it to taste like beer that’s not chilled. You end up putting the wine glass down, and picking another fresh glass of wine as the server comes by with a tray filled. This is also one of the reasons why at the end of functions or events, you’d always see many wine glasses left unattended still halfway or three-quarters full with wine.
But it’d be tiring to hold the wine glass by the stem throughout the entire event, especially when it’s filled with wine. So the trick is to hold the stem as low as possible and take your pinky finger, then tuck it under the stem where the base of the glass is. Now let the entire weight of the wine glass rest on your pinky. You can stand there and hold the glass until the cows come home.
The last thing to note is that it is important to stay hydrated and drink lots of water as you enjoy your wine. However, never drink lemon-infused water if provided and ask for plain water from the servers instead. The acidity within the lemon-infused water will actually distort the way your wine tastes.
STYLEGUIDE: Being a wine sommelier for so long, what are some of the pet peeves that get to you over the years?
Vasu: The saying that the longer the wine is stored, the better. What many don’t realise is that this saying is only applicable to the wines collected back in the past.
During the olden days, all the grapes were harvested through hand plucking. Now they use machines. When machines are used, some of the grapes will get bruised in the process, which causes them to oxidise earlier even before the fermentation process. So some wines purchased in the year 2010 can already be deteriorating in quality, even if it’s unopened. At the end of the day, the overall lifespan of the bottled wine is cut short.
So when you say the older the better, you are really talking about the wines that were made in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. It’s not really applicable to recent wines (with an exception to a few) produced in the early 2000s.
STYLEGUIDE: What kind of red wine would you recommend beginners to start with?
Vasu: I will suggest always starting ‘light’ in terms of the wine body so that it’s not too strong or overwhelming for the beginner drinker to take. So a Merlot is a good way to get into red wine at first because it’s light and easy. I’d advise against a Pinot Noir because it would be too light and might not fit right with a beginner drinker.
Seasoned drinkers who are accustomed to red wine can choose to order red wine that is known to be medium or full-bodied instead.
STYLEGUIDE: After having tasted so many different kinds of wine over the years, what is your preferred wine by choice?
Vasu: In terms of country, for now I’d rank it according to my personal preference with Italian wine taking the lead, followed by wine from Chile, Argentina and then Spain.
STYLEGUIDE: On a parting note, do you have anything else to add?
Vasu: Enjoy your red wine, and stay healthy!