This 29-year-old sommelier is making her mark in a male-dominated industry

PHOTO: Odette Restaurant

Lesley Liu, assistant sommelier at Odette, believes it’s important to allow opportunity to knock and not to let fear prevent you from opening the door. It’s one reason why she had no hesitation getting into the wine industry. And she has advice for women who are thinking of working in male-dominated industries too.

“Speak with confidence, be yourself, always know what you are saying and say it with strength. Be a role model,” she says. “Through hard work and experience, you can develop confidence and bring value to the table. And never hesitate to throw an idea out there; it might just be what your team needs.”

“It’s also important to shut down negativity, maintain a positive attitude and focus on what you want to achieve,” she adds. 

The 29-year-old Taiwanese admits she feels empowered when she’s able to mentor others. She feels this, in turn, empowers other women with kindness and strength and helps make their aspirations a reality.

“I would encourage more women to be sommeliers and I would love to mentor you!” she reveals. “When I arrived in Singapore, I joined the Sommelier Association of Singapore.

''It is an amazing group of like-minded professionals who have so much to share about wine and the industry. I have been a member for two years now, and I highly recommend anyone new to the industry to join it.”

Proving herself in a male-dominated industry

The sommelier world might be a male-dominated industry but Lesley believes it’s someone’s personality traits and not their gender that make them suitable for the job. She reckons a successful sommelier has to be observant, instinctive and attentive with regard to their guest. They should also be generous in sharing their knowledge with their peers and be a team player too.

“Wine, to me, is a journey of passion, knowledge and fascination,” she shares. “I believe all sommeliers, whether male or female, are similarly motivated. We are bound inexplicably by the love for this amazing tipple that has endless stories to tell – from history to science and even art.

PHOTO: Lesley Liu

“I do not view gender as a defining factor of how good at the job one is. My philosophy is that wine should be for everyone, regardless of gender or background,” she adds. 

However, she does admit she finds herself working harder in order to prove herself – although it’s not necessarily because she’s a woman in a man’s world. 

“I do feel I must work harder so there won’t be a reason for anyone to say that I cannot do it because I’m a woman,” she says.

“This, however, comes from within, rather than any external pressure. In my mind, I have ‘girl power’ but it’s not so much the need to be ‘powerful’, but rather to be empowered by my passion and emotions.”

How Lesley got into the world of wine

Lesley’s interest in wine began thanks to her father’s tipple of choice – whisky. She describes him as “a whisky man” who had a glass of the drink after a hard day’s work. As she got older, she became more curious about the drink and wanted to learn more about it and the difference between various types of alcohol, to share her father’s interest. 

After studying International Trade with a major in Accounting in university, she decided she wanted a career in the F&B industry so pursued hospitality studies after graduating. She did this at the Department of Food and Beverage Management at National Kaohsiung University of Hospitality and Tourism in Taiwan.

Her first job in the industry was at Le Moût with Chef Lanshu Chen (Veuve Clicquot Asia’s Best Female Chef for 2014) in 2015. She joined as a commis in the service department and left as Senior Captain.

Although she wasn’t a sommelier at the time, she worked closely with the sommelier team. Her interest in wine had grown by then and Chef Chen encouraged her to pursue her dream. 

Lesley left Taiwan and moved to Shanghai in 2018, then to Singapore the year after. While in Shanghai, she passed her Certified Level of Court of Master Sommelier exam. 

“I arrived in Singapore in 2019 by chance, through reconnecting with a Taiwanese ex-colleague, who was working in Singapore,” recalls the 29-year-old. “She passed my resume to the head sommelier of Odette, a three MICHELIN star restaurant, and I have been working there ever since. I am constantly learning and improving myself with certifications, competitions and building a network with industry professionals.

PHOTO: Lesley Liu

“I love that Singapore is one big melting pot with different ethnic groups and cultures, making it very interesting. This translates to the foodscape as well – what variety! I also appreciate how efficient and well-planned the country is. Also, the drinking culture is very developed here, and this is not just limited to wine,” she adds. 

What being a sommelier involves

It has been said that, if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Lesley follows this adage as she genuinely loves what she does and the industry she’s in. Her job as assistant sommelier involves working very closely with the head sommelier to assist with planning the wine list and training the service team.

On the backend, she is also responsible for inventory, liaising with wine suppliers, arranging wine tastings and handling administrative matters.

“For me, wine is life. It is essential for any occasion – when I’m down, a glass cheers me up; when I’m celebrating, a glass makes it a moment to remember,” she shares. 

PHOTO: Lesley Liu

One of her earliest experiences with wine as a professional was enjoying a Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena, Napa Valley, California, with the owner of the chateau in Taiwan. She describes the experience as “divine and unforgettable”. As a wine lover, working in the industry in Singapore is a bonus for Lesley.

“The wine industry in Singapore is very open and inclusive, there is so much camaraderie and sharing,” she explains. 

However, it doesn’t come without its pitfalls: “Being in the F&B industry means time away from family and friends on public holidays and weekends. It’s not easy but I am thankful for an amazing support system from my family in Taiwan and my friends here, who have become family too.”

Lesley’s tips for choosing wine 

If it’s a loved one’s birthday, why not pick a vintage of his or her year of birth?

For a barbeque, full-bodied reds such as Spicier Old Vines Zinfandel from St. Francis 2015, Sonoma County, California work really well.

The wine dominates with Zinfandel but blends with petite syrah and a few reds. I last tried it in Shanghai at a sommelier gathering in a Xinjiang mutton barbecue restaurant. The spicy, liquorice, dark fruit character of this wine makes it full-bodied yet balanced. That’s when I knew it will go well with barbequed foods.

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Think of your favourite dish and the flavour profile it carries – Strong? Fresh? Light? Spicy? Then lean towards a wine that shares similar traits.

My favourite dish is my mum’s Braised Pork Rice with Soy Sauce (Lu Rou Fan), that is full of flavour and texture. It goes really well with a Quintessa Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Rutherford, Napa Valley, which has a beautiful complexity, perfume and nuance on the nose.

In the glass, the wine amplifies with time. Since I have not been able to return home for two years now due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this helps me manage my homesickness somewhat!

Don’t be too intimidated by the price. Set your budget and stick to it. You’ll find something you like.

This article was first published in Her World Online.