Time to put the sommeliers in the spotlight: Reeze Choi

It is so nice to see that this series of interview brings us to all corners of the world. We interviewed sommeliers from all continents and we are faaaaaaar from finished. What intrigued us was to find out that many of the top sommelier have such different backgrounds, some followed the traditional path by going to hotel management school, and others went to university and make an enormous career change at later age. The thing they all have in common is the passion for their job. This brings me to introduce the following sommelier from yet another continent. Please meet Reeze Choi from Hong Kong.

Choi quit school at young age and has worked in different industries. It was actually by ‘coincidence’ that he started working in a restaurant. His career started at Assaggio Trattoria Italiana located inside the Hong Kong Arts Centre, this with panoramic views over the harbour in 2011. This was also where he got the first feel for wines and the trigger that would later become a passion for life. This passion has brought him too many top restaurants in his career, like L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Hong Kong, Upper modern bistro and currently at the PIIN wine restaurant . Not only did it bring him to these fantastic restaurant, it also made him win the Best Sommelier Greater China contest in 2016 and 2017, he also won the greater China Sommelier Challenge the Hong Kong contest in 2017, not to forget his great achievements during a few International sommelier competitions

Today next to working at the PIIN wine restaurant and competing in International sommelier competitions, Choi founded an own company called Somm’s philosophy where he pursues to share his passion for and professionalism in wine with the like-minded. In the belief that wine is for everyone, lending his knowledge and skills to bars and restaurants that have yet to have their own sommeliers, and help support their wine programs and services.

Please join me in getting to know this wonderful sommelier a bit better

What is your favorite wine region to work with?

This first is the hardest question to answer. It would be too many to list out. I would say Bourgogne, Alsace, Mosel, Rheingau, Sicily, Madeira, and Jerez, etc. I also love to discover non-mainstream wine regions, and surprise my customers with them. Eastern Europe is a big field to work with; countries such as Czech Republic, Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia are very interesting to me as well. Asian wine regions like India, Thailand, Indonesia, China, and especially Japan, are also worth paying more attention to.

What does it take to be a good sommelier according to you?

First of all, humble. This important element makes us a good listener to our customers, our colleagues, and our suppliers. Secondly, passion and curiosity keep pushing us to learn more. Then an open mindset. A sommelier should be a creative person who would find out new ways to increase the sales and keep our customers happy. Lastly, of courses, a good set of knowledge and good palate.

Is the job of a sommelier underestimated/valued?

It depends where you are. I am happy to see sommeliers become more and more valued in Hong Kong. Owners and customers here start to acknowledge the importance of a sommelier to the dining and wine experience. But, we still have room for a more developed wine culture.

When and how did you get the passion for wine?

I was by chance included in a wine team of the restaurant I worked at seven years ago. My passion for wine has grown since then. I just got hooked. I never knew I would go this far with this career.

Who is your big example in the wine/sommelier world?

There are two:

Mr. Shinya Tasaki. He shows me that an Asian can also be the best sommelier in the world. And he is a very gentle and kind person.

The other one is Mr. Hiroshi Ishida. You should go to his restaurant, L’aube, and see how he works. He is super precise and meticulous. He measures the temperature of every single glass of wine before he serves it to the guests. Needless to say his pairings are amazing. And he is a very humble man.

What is your approach for pairing wines (or other beverages) with dishes?

First of all and very importantly, I don’t force my customers to do pairing. If they want a glass of red wine with fresh oysters, it is absolutely fine with me, and I am happy to serve that. To me, there is no "must pair with" or "must not pair with" in wine pairing. I think we must taste the food and the wine ourselves to have our answer. I don't agree with those who hear, for example, white wine to pair with red meat and say "it's not going to match” without tasting it. Pairing is quite personal. For instance, if my guest is a lover of explosive sensation of spicy food, I will not serve them a glass of off dry Riesling with their spicy dish, even though it would be a "good" pairing, because the spiciness will be softened by the wine, which may not be what they want. So I might consider a spicy Syrah to match with that in this case.

Another thing is that I believe there are many aspects of one dish to pair with. So when I see the dish, I would think: which taste do I want to enhance? Which element do I want to be balanced out? Just like the pairing for spicy dish I mentioned above: one dish could be served with a few extremely different wines to produce amazing results of different kinds.

I am doubtful about the so-called “classic pairings” somehow, although some of them are great prototypes. However, things are changing with time: the wine style, the wine performance, people's preference, the taste of food, etc. So I think maybe classic pairings change in time too.

Which wine region would you recommend everybody to visit and why?

I haven’t visited enough to give people recommendations. In my experience, I would say Alsace, Yamanashi, and Nagano are highly recommended. Alsace is a unique and beautiful place, a good place to understand terroir and soil because they are very diverse. Yamanashi and Nagano in Japan are rising stars with huge potential in the wine world. Besides visiting their wineries, you may also enjoy a lot of good food, understand their culture, and feel their spirit.

For which wine would you make a big sacrifice to be able to taste?

I'd say no wine worth me to sacrifice anything to taste. But I am happy to pay for a bottle of Henri Jayer Richebourg 1978 IF I AM RICH ENOUGH.

What is your most wonderful memory of hotel management school or viticulture studies?

It is interesting to realize that I don't have hotel/viticulture school experience. My "schools" were all the different restaurants and companies I've worked at. And my most wonderful memory is perhaps the time I worked at L’atelier de Robuchon Hong Kong, and became best friends with some of my colleagues.

A culinary or wine experience everybody should have had besides have a meal at your restaurant, shop, winery, etc..?

I was very lucky to have a chance to join La Paulée de Meursault. It is a big celebration hosted in Chateau de Meursault. Few hundreds of great people including Bourgogne winemakers and wine experts sat together, shared their bottles of wine with a lovely meal. You might as well drink over a hundred of great wine during La Paulée. It is the best event I have ever attended and everyone should join if they have a chance.

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