PETALING JAYA - For one whose first job had to do with serving wantan and noodles, Stephen Wong Neng Hui has come quite a long way.
He is the first Malaysian to set foot in the Hall of the Masters of Wine.
The Master of Wine (MW) is a qualification issued by the Institute of the Masters of Wine. Only 343 people globally can claim the title, one of the most prestigious in the wine world.
Wong, 37, was one of five new MW announced on Feb 29, allowing him to use that prefix after his name.
Currently based in Wellington, New Zealand, he is the owner of hospitality training business Wine Sentience.
Wong was born in Sarawak, and divided his childhood between Kuching and Sibu.
"My first job was as a preschooler, serving wantan and noodles with my aunt in Sibu, at the kopitiam she worked in," he said in an e-mail interview.
"I still have great memories of riding to 'work' in her motorcycle basket, or paddling along the streets in a bathtub when it flooded!"
An ASEAN Scholarship recipient, he went on to study in Singapore before moving to New Zealand to read Law at the University of Otago. Wong evolved from a young wine waiter and vineyard worker to a sommelier, then a consultant.
"I was drawn to the incisive mastery displayed in the writings of Clive Coates, Jancis Robinson and Bob Campbell, all MW. I wanted to learn how to understand wine in the same way."
His MW journey began at 24.
"Personally, it has taught me to be a calmer, more reasoned person. I rushed in headlong, unprepared and naive. It took me five attempts to pass the tasting exams, but the setbacks and failures taught me patience and faith.
"One of the things I love most about wine and the wine industry is how it touches so many disciplines, and the combination of science, art, philosophy and business involved provides an endless subject of study," he said.
Wong is eager to facilitate wine education courses in South-East Asia.
"The wine industries in Malaysia and Singapore may be young, but as in Hong Kong, Thailand, China and Vietnam, they are growing rapidly. Asia is on the ascendant," he said.
"There is great opportunity for wine culture to develop in SEA. We have an open-minded approach to flavour and food because of our diverse influences, and as countries we are relatively young, although our cultures are ancient.
"In terms of wine consumption, Europe has plateaued, and in some parts declined, and the United States and Canada have experienced rapid growth over the past few years but are much further along the growth curve. Asia has the largest potential," he added.
On a personal note, Wong's ties to his homeland remain strong.
"My parents are back home in Kuching, so I will never lose that connection, and I hope to forge more memories back in Malaysia!" he said.