Winnie Toh grew up in Singapore and is currently head sommelier at the Aman resort in the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean. Her story continues our series devoted to applicants for a Taylor’s Port Golden Vines Scholarship and we judges were so impressed by her that she has been awarded a special £12,500 scholarship to help her in her determination to become a Master Sommelier.
My journey in wine began almost 20 years ago as a young, curious intern at the prestigious Raffles Hotel in Singapore. During my internship, I was intrigued as I listened to visiting winemakers speak of wine. It seemed very odd that a bottle of alcoholic beverage told stories of history between lands, geography, climate, human intention and gastronomy. It was also magical to taste wines from some of the world’s most iconic producers, and to understand how wine paired seamlessly with the cuisine prepared by gastronomic chefs of the world.
Perhaps it was good fortune; I was quickly selected as part of the hotel’s wine team and was tasked to swirl, sip and spit every bottle that was to be served at special dinners. I do not know why I was selected for the task, but I would like to believe someone’s intuition at that time allowed me to enter a fast-track discovery of the world of wine.
As I graduated from my internship, I proudly went back to school declaring that I would like to become a sommelier. The journey began – I chose the path less travelled, and I was on my way. Being an aspiring sommelier in Singapore wasn’t easy. There were no sommeliers who could be good mentors. I interviewed with the top restaurants, and I contacted hotels. However, opportunities were scarce.
I took a leap of faith and contacted all the Michelin chefs I have met in my short career. Fortunately, someone accepted me for an internship in France. I am grateful for the learning experience, and I said to myself: ‘I will become Asia’s top female sommelier, and I will mentor future generations of sommeliers who needed help like me’.
I clearly remember the fear as I entered the halls for the Advanced Sommelier exams. I thought to myself that I would back out if the exams were too difficult. I was so wrong. I failed my first attempt at the Advanced exams. As the panel of kind Master Sommeliers patiently provided me with feedback, I said to myself, ‘I will continue until I nail it’. Why? All the Masters I met have been patient, kind and nurturing. I clearly remember tasting wine with the late Gerard Basset. He encouraged us to continue pursuing our craft and not be embarrassed to make mistakes, because Master Sommeliers are human too. It should not be embarrassing to identify a wine wrongly. It is more important to try.
Being a student in wine has made me a better person. I learnt courage, the importance of grit, consistency and humility. I understand that wine is an infinite subject. The more I learn, the more I realise how important it is to keep my feet on the ground as the industry evolves. Hence, I am always patient when nurturing my colleagues and always kind to the curious diner. The current challenge I face as a sommelier and student in wine is being in such a remote location. I have tried moving to larger cities to be among like-minded professionals, but it is challenging for an Asian sommelier to be considered.
Should there be an opportunity to be considered for the scholarship, I am confident of becoming an excellent mentor as I will be able to reach out to a wider audience to share my knowledge and skills. I have a generous spirit, a do-it-all attitude, and I would always stop to take time to share a drop of knowledge wherever possible.
English is my native language and I love writing and travelling. I aspire to write a book about my travels and journey in wine. I am still finding the path, and the diversity scholarship would open many doors to future opportunities. I can imagine the excitement of picking during harvest and the aftermath of bent backs. I can imagine snorting at the sweat on my sleeves and the pride of tasting the juice of my first crush. I am ready to go all-in anytime! I aspire to make the wine world a more accessible universe.
It is hugely comforting to know a middle-class girl next door who believed in her dreams has travelled hundreds of thousands of miles and broken stereotypes to arrive at where she is today. ‘She turned her can’ts into cans and her dreams into plans.’ I believe in myself, and I am counting on you to believe in me.
After learning that she had won the award described yesterday, Winnie commented:
‘I am humbled, and overwhelmed with joy for being the recipient of the Golden Vines Master Sommelier Scholarship. My leap of faith has taken me onto paths less travelled to achieve my career goals. I am grateful to the judges and my community for believing in me and cheering me on. My mission is to be an inspiration for young sommeliers finding their path. I will relentlessly continue my journey in wine by being a mentor and reflect the good work of the late Gerard Basset and the wine icons who have contributed to my growth over the years.’