A sommelier is more than a man with expert taste or encyclopedic knowledge of wines. He is a mentor and guide to the novice. He makes the haughty familiar and the esoteric intimate. In short he makes dinking fun, without any pretense or faux pas. He tells what foods to pair with which wine to appreciate it best, how to care for and best appreciate a drink. Sherwin Lao is such a man. And sommeliers like him become even more sought-after during the holidays, when wine-drinking is at its glorious peak.
You are a member of FIJEV (Federation Internationale des Journalistes et Ecrivains des Vins et Spiritueux or International Federation of Wine and Spirits Journalists and Writers) This membership represents a Philippine presence in a global wine organization involving 51 countries. What exactly is FIJEV and how can the wine industry in our country benefit from this representation?
FIJEV is, as its name suggests, an organization of international wine and spirits journalists. Members are invited to join based on one’s contribution to wine journalism whether one is a columnist, feature writer, blogger or book author. I guess this mere fact means that the Philippines is in FIJEV´s radar and that we are considered as an emerging wine market.
As a wine importer, what’s your assessment of the state of the Philippine wine industry? What are the challenges it faces and what are its strengths?
As part of Golden Wines, Inc., I can say that my business partners and I are very bullish about the local wine industry. For one, based on statistics, our country´s per capita consumption at present is only a bit over a tablespoon, and yet our wine imports have been growing in close to double digits every year for the past four years. This shows that there is so much potential, as Filipinos learn to embrace the wine culture gradually. Our taxes and duties on still wines (sadly excluding sparkling wines) also happen to be the lowest in the region, after tax-free Hong Kong. The challenge is always to reach out to new wine drinkers. As a population, we are closing in on 100 million people, and probably only 5 percent of Filipinos at present drink wine. Plenty of people still to convert then.
Enjoying wines is closely associated with the holidays. How can holiday revelers have the most exciting wine tasting adventures during these times? What events should they look out for and in what restaurants should they go?
I really feel that the best kept secret on drinking the best wines is for one to attend wine dinners. Wine dinners are a concept where several wines are paired to specific menus in a multi-course dinner. What makes this exciting and even economical is that wine dinners are normally sponsored by the wineries, so wines are almost totally subsidized. You just need to pay for the dinner. And in wine dinners, a visiting winery principal normally visits the market to talk extensively on their wines. So you are getting free lecture as well, though it may sometimes be extremely biased as expected. And if you get lucky, the best and most expensive wines from the winery, even of older vintages, are sometimes even brought in to be featured. This is not only in Metro Manila, but in most of our regional counterparts, from Shanghai to Taipei, Seoul to Tokyo, Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, and so on. I really suggest wine enthusiasts look out for wine dinners. Start by having your name enlisted with every important wine importer in the country, or with hotels and restaurants doing these dinners regularly, so you can be informed of such wine events.
In what countries have your interest and devotion to wine related activities brought you?
I have been covering the Asian region since 1995, first with E&J Gallo Winery for their Sonoma and more premium range. That job lasted ‘til 1998. Then last 2008, I returned to a regional capacity as wine consultant for two Spanish wineries, the present one being with Marques de Murrieta. I pretty much cover the region, from Indonesia to mainland China. I travel roughly twice a year to each market, with the more important ones like Hong Kong, China and Singapore slightly more frequently.
Where in the world can you find the best wines?
Hong Kong is without a doubt the place with the most complete wines. First Hong Kong is neutral, being a non-wine producer. Hong Kong is tax-free on wines. Hong Kong is also a huge tourist destination. And local residents have one of the highest per capita incomes. All of these explain why Hong Kong, despite its small size is the most important market for wines in the whole region. Every wine made for export will find its way to Hong Kong. Believe it or not, there are over 2,000 wine importers in Hong Kong, as compared to less than 80 in the Philippines.
Wine lovers commonly say that a glass of wine everyday can be helpful in preventing health problems. Is this true? What particular health benefits can consuming wine give to people?
It is scientifically established that antioxidants found in wine, and a by-product of fermentation, help prevent damage to blood vessels and curtail heart disease. One of these antioxidants is the flavonoids, more pronounced in red wine because of the color associated from fermentation with grape tannins, but can actually also be found in select white wines. But even having said this, we all do know that this is on moderate consumption only, and abusive alcohol consumption can damage our liver and harm our body worse than the benefits. However, wine may still be the healthiest, relative to other alcoholic beverages, when you need to unwind and relieve stress.
What is your all-time favorite wine, and why?
I just love wines, and continue to discover new favourites along the way. But if I have to summarize my top five favorite wines and regions, it will be 1) Pessac Leognan, Bordeaux, 2) Chablis, Burgundy, 3) Ribera del Duero, Castile-Leon, 4) Barolo, Piedmonte, and 5) Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, California. I have however very vivid memories of some of the best that I was fortunate enough to drink in the past: Chateau Margaux 1986, Chateau Haut Brion 1985 and 1988, Dom Perignon Champagne 1982, Penfolds707 1985 and Gallo Estate Sonoma 1991 Cabernet Sauvignon (inaugural release).