From Novice to Expert: Jeannie Cho Lee on Becoming a Master of Wine

by Katherine A.
09 Oct 2019

Ahead of the inaugural Wine Pinnacle Awards, we speak with Asia’s first Master of Wine, Jeannie Cho Lee, on her title, assessing great wines, and wine pairing misconceptions.

The ancient Greek God Dionysus is associated with wild frenzy, festivity and wine. Perhaps his attributions are a little too harmoniously paired, but his association with the grapevine was credited to his acclaimed discovery, and possessing a delirious spirit permitted his followers to produce offerings of wines in his worship.

Here on mortal grounds, to be officially recognized as an expert on the wines requires more than just distinguishing the reds from the whites, and has to be conferred the title of ‘Master of Wine’.

So what on earth is a ‘Master of Wine’? The construction of these words is so simple it was as if they were loosely formed to create a self-proclaimed title of skill one would carelessly stick on a car decal. Unbeknown to me, Jeannie said my ignorance — or as she would so kindly imply, my curiosity — is commonplace. 

“It’s both a qualification and a title. It’s given by the Institute of Masters of Wine. It’s been known by reputation and also within the wine professional industry as one of the highest qualifications you can achieve because of the rigour and the difficulty of the examination itself.

“It’s different from the Master Sommelier where sommeliers have a position in hospitality, and they serve wine – that’s the job of the sommelier. So a Master of Wine doesn’t necessarily work as a sommelier. They may also never be on the commercial side.

“Up until the 1980s, most of the Masters of Wine used to be in the trade; it was a trade examination when it started in the 50s. Nowadays, Masters of Wine work in academia, journalism, or education. They can also be buyers and traders.

“So it’s a little broader, and also slightly more academic in its focus because it doesn’t have a service element but it has a very rigorous theory and essay-writing component over four days.”

The program is accessible to anyone worldwide, and depending on how you progress, it would take a candidate between three to eight years to complete the course. It comprises of three stages, where the first critical assessment would determine if the candidate can continue on with the program.

A fail is an immediate drop out, while a “near pass” would require a do-over of stage one.

The second stage involves the heavy lifting – examinations and practical and theory tests which allow candidates three attempts to pass within four years, or five attempts within six. Lastly, a dissertation has to completed which encompasses the entirety of the program’s application.

I could ask you to imagine that it’s like preparing for the Olympics, but what do both you and I know? Yet it’s exactly that almost-impossible scale of vigorous intensity where people have dedicated most of their lives to attain the coveted title of wine mastery.

Since its founding in 1955, the Institute of Masters of Wine have certified just 390 Masters of Wine around the world. According to Jeannie, about 100 candidates take the examination every year, and only 10% of the cohort fulfil the passing rate.

“There are lots of people who are not aware of the sacrificial measure the qualification can take out of you. There are also just as many who give up their jobs to study full-time for two to three years to pass.

“Some even lose their partners or their jobs because they have to sacrifice so much time to study for this. Half of the time, when people ask you why would you do this, I say, “yeah … that was kind of dumb.” [laughs] I wish I could say with 100% confidence that I knew I was gonna pass but I really didn’t.”

So why become a Master of Wine? What do these people do exactly?

“What’s expected of them is to be the best buyers and to curate the selections. For someone like me, I do a number of things from consulting to teaching, writing books and wine columns, and even doing television. I identify myself as a wine communicator.”

Hong Kong is garnering a reputation for being the wine hub for Asia. In propelling the wine industry to a greater standard, Jeannie aided in launching an 18-month-long MSc program in International Wine Management at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. 

“There’s a lot of people in the wine profession that we could help educate and elevate the management level to a more well informed senior level. We’re now in our fourth year with about 30 students every year.

“It’s a program that has put both the University and Hong Kong in the middle of this dynamic energy and growth that the wine industry has been realising over the last 10 years. 

“Additionally, Asia definitely has a growing wine culture and is a promising region. There has been a dramatic growth in consumer interest in enjoying new and different styles of wine. With wine becoming an important element when dining, consumers also look to purchasing and selecting wine more critically.”


First Asian Master of Wine

As our conversation progressed, it was harder for me to grasp Jeannie’s reality of her wine mastery journey. Not that I ever doubted her ability, but while I was aware of the demands of a prestigious international certification, it seemed as if the only advantage one could have was if you started drinking wine from a sippy cup.

Being born and raised in Asian culture barely did Jeannie any favors, who only discovered good wine at 18 years old. 

“It’s a little bit late compared to other people who have grown up with wine, or been exposed to it. Even then, my family wasn’t wine drinkers so I had to seek it out on my own.

“It took a long time for me to learn about it and make the extra effort. The other challenging thing doing my Master of Wine while I lived in Asia was the access to wines.

“15 years ago, Hong Kong had 80% on wine duty and carried a very small range. If you wanted wines from South Africa or Loire Valley, you couldn’t find them.

“So studying for an exam that looks at the entire world of wine meant that I had to make an extra effort to go to London or New York where they had tastings, or order wines on my own that I could try them.

“And I don’t want to make it a gender thing, but as a mother of four, my family is always my anchor to fall back on. Throughout the test, I had so many things against me – family obligations, an active social life, and my job.

“Don’t get me wrong, the title is wonderful. But you tell yourself, since you’re embarking on this and with the commitment you put in, you have to do your best. The people who supported me indulged me in something that was high-risk, and potentially no return.”


Wine Pinnacle Awards at The Great Wine & Dine Festival

Jeannie leads an 80-strong wine jury in the awarding of the best wines around the world – based purely on nominations without submissions or entry fees. It’s the first of its kind based on the discerning expertise of the Wine Pinnacle Awards Committee led by herself, and four other professionals: Kenishi Ohashi (Japan), Doug Frost (USA), Oz Clarke (UK), and Andreas Larsson (Sweden).

The award categories are vast, comprising 27 such as ‘Best Organic/Natural Wine of the Year’, ‘Best Chinese Red’, and ‘Best Young Winemaker of the Year’ to name a few. The coveted ‘Grand Jury Award’ is the Committee’s choice which will be a selection from the category winners. 

“No matter what the wine or style is, there are five things a great wine should have in common. Firstly, a sense of balance with all the components. Secondly, the intensity. From the middle through the finish, there must be a sense of gravitas where the presence isn’t just fleeting.

“Thirdly, its complexity. How many layers and dimensions does it have? Fourthly, the length. How does the wine finish on the palate? How long can you taste it after it’s gone – five seconds? 10 seconds? 20 seconds? The longer it lingers, the higher it is in quality.

“Lastly, its age-worthiness. How long can the wine can age and be kept in the cellar? That’s the one thing all collectible or expensive wines have in common is that they’re very age-worthy.”

Jeannie didn’t leave me with a lot of wine jargon to brood over (which I take as a good thing), but she did enlighten me with a particular misconception.

“There is a big myth about wine pairing where it creates a magical combination that creates a new experience when matched with food. It is true at times, but it only works very well when the food is bland to begin with.

“Wine has its own set of flavors. Do what you will with most European food, but in our Asian cuisine, the food is always the star because our flavors are so strong. Wine does nothing to enhance that. If you have a great bowl of laksa – which I love – no wine is gonna make that laksa taste better. I guarantee it.”

The Great Wine & Dine Festival is happening at the Resorts World Ballroom on 11 & 12 October. Passes start from $60 and are available for purchase on