SPECIAL REPORT

Behind the Bottle

by Anton D. Javier
Portrait photography by Chino Sardea
06 Sep 2017

Meet six of Singapore's top sommeliers and bartenders who will open your eyes to a whole new world of alcohol

Sommeliers and bartenders are indispensable fixtures in today’s vibrant culinary scene, setting the direction for an enjoyable and holistic dining experience. But if you have this vision of a snooty gentleman scoffing at questions you throw their way, think again. Today’s sommeliers and bartenders are a new breed of cool, doing away with rigid rules and instead, will encourage you to go beyond tried and tested options.

  • Mason Ng, ATLAS
  • Zachary Tay, SPRMRKT
  • Vincent Tan, Odette
  • Paolo Colzani, Zafferano Italian Restaurant & Lounge
  • Peter Chua, Crackerjack & Junior
  • Zachary De Git, Crackerjack & Junior
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  • MASON NG, HEAD SOMMELIER, ATLAS
  • ZACHARY TAY, GROUP SOMMELIER, SPRMRKT
  • VINCENT TAN, HEAD SOMMELIER, ODETTE
  • PAOLO COLZANI, RESTAURANT MANAGER, ZAFFERANO ITALIAN RESTAURANT & LOUNGE
  • PETER CHUA, HEAD BARMAN, CRACKERJACK & JUNIOR
  • ZACHARY DE GIT, HEAD BARMAN, CRACKERJACK & JUNIOR

Mason Ng, Head Sommelier, ATLAS

“I’ve been interested in wine since I was 13. My uncle was into wines and he would let me try small sips of his amazing varieties. This triggered me to study as much as I could about wine, and by the time I was 18, I knew wine was the only way forward. I was going to start my studies in finance in Hong Kong when I learned I was hired at La Strada, under the Les Amis Group. I convinced my parents that my future was in wine and began my F&B career. Once at La Strada, I explored what degrees I could obtain in the wine world and decided to study for Court of Master Sommeliers. I passed the Introductory and Certified Sommelier Examination, and received my certification as a sommelier at the age of 19.

Most people see the sommelier life as a fun job with lots of drinking, and not a job where you have to work hard. There is a lot of organization involved in getting a wine program together and ensuring guests have a great experience every night. There are a lot of challenges too, and one challenge I’m faced with is defining what I want to become as a sommelier: Do I want to specialize in a region, or become an all-rounder? Another challenge is my preparation for the advanced exam of the Master Court of Sommeliers.

Challenges aside, getting to try a wide variety wines and other spirits is an experience like no other. I try around 15 new wines a week, though most I taste on my days off. At ATLAS, I have been fortunate enough to taste many spirits as well, and I get to try unique whiskies form the ATLAS Collections. We also have weekly gin training where we try three new gins from the tower.

Based on the varieties I’ve tried, I feel that German wines in general do not get the same level of appreciation as their French counterparts and can be on par, quality wise, with any of the great crus. I personally love German wine and the history it has. As for food pairings, my favorite would be Verdejo Madeira with foie gras. The combination of the freshness and nutty character of the Madeira works well with the buttery texture and flavor of foie gras.”

  • MASON NG, HEAD SOMMELIER, ATLAS
  • ZACHARY TAY, GROUP SOMMELIER, SPRMRKT
  • VINCENT TAN, HEAD SOMMELIER, ODETTE
  • PAOLO COLZANI, RESTAURANT MANAGER, ZAFFERANO ITALIAN RESTAURANT & LOUNGE
  • PETER CHUA, HEAD BARMAN, CRACKERJACK & JUNIOR
  • ZACHARY DE GIT, HEAD BARMAN, CRACKERJACK & JUNIOR

Zachary Tay, Group Sommelier, SPRMRKT

“My journey to becoming a sommelier started over a decade ago. While in Switzerland, I was exposed to a number of well-crafted wines, which piqued my interest. I was on a tight budget then and wanted to avoid racking up more student loans; hence, I did a lot of self-study on the subject. When I returned to Singapore, I was presented with an opportunity to ‘compete’ for a scholarship organized by World Gourmet Summit. My Executive Chef then suggested that I should go for the wine scholarship since I enjoyed wines and had already won a culinary competition in Switzerland. I didn’t win, but managed to secure a spot in the finals. A few days later, I got an opportunity to learn from Randy, maître d'hôtel of Les Amis, and it was a chance I could not resist!

Since then, I’ve learned tremendously. When it comes to varieties, Austria and China are underrated wine regions; but at the same time, in every wine making country, there’s a lesser known region or young winemaker who’s giving the old guard a run for their money. With spirits, I’ve come to appreciate Agricole Rhum and gin. And by gin, I don’t mean gin tonic and the likes. I’m referring to gin that’s so well made, it’s best taken neat. I also feel that classic cocktails are so overlooked. Everyone is looking to curate the next new cocktail, but don’t have the classics or foundations at their fingertips.

When it comes to food pairings, it’s a very personal and subjective topic. Being open minded to suggestions from your friendly sommelier could change your life! I would suggest letting your sommelier know how adventurous you are with food pairings, because as the saying goes, there’s more than one way to cook an egg.
My favourite pairings are Barbaresco with foie gras, and Pinot Noir with duck tongue.

So far, my journey has been long and winding. Many customers and colleagues have now become friends. More consumers are beginning to pay a little more attention to what’s in their drink and that will only serve to improve our standards as a whole. The biggest challenge for me would be to pass on this knowledge to the next generation of sommeliers. Many are enamored by the ‘glory’, but give up before they get to the difficult parts. Don’t sell yourself short by giving up halfway. I can guarantee the first three to five years will be extremely challenging. But when you grasp the skills and knowledge required, this industry is one of the best out there!”

  • MASON NG, HEAD SOMMELIER, ATLAS
  • ZACHARY TAY, GROUP SOMMELIER, SPRMRKT
  • VINCENT TAN, HEAD SOMMELIER, ODETTE
  • PAOLO COLZANI, RESTAURANT MANAGER, ZAFFERANO ITALIAN RESTAURANT & LOUNGE
  • PETER CHUA, HEAD BARMAN, CRACKERJACK & JUNIOR
  • ZACHARY DE GIT, HEAD BARMAN, CRACKERJACK & JUNIOR

Vincent Tan, Head Sommelier, Odette

“Getting into the business was a total fluke for me. While studying multimedia computing in polytechnic, what was meant to be a part-time stint at a wine retailer exposed me to what is now a life passion. I’ve been fortunate to have a pretty smooth journey so far. There is a lot of camaraderie in Singapore’s tight-knit sommelier community, because the people have a mutual respect and a genuine interest in your personal and professional life. I am lucky to be surrounded with people who inspire me, and blessed to be able to count many of them as my closest friends.

However, there are challenges. As a sommelier of Asian descent, one of the biggest challenges is the stereotyping of sommeliers based on age, race, or perceived lack of experience. In the same way you would trust a local to give you tips about a certain locale, people are naturally more inclined to trust the French, German, or Spanish for their opinion, and for good reason. They grew up surround by vines, and the appellation system is hence more inherent to them. On the other hand, we get our start a little later and have come to grasp with a very foreign concept. It’s no wonder then that we find more foreign sommeliers within Asia, yet barely a handful of us have struck it out in the United States, and even less so in Europe.

That said, I believe there are many admirable sommeliers around the world, but if I were to name one that I look up to, it would be Gerald Lu. His charisma and passion for wine opened my eyes to what a sommelier could do. It was at one of his wine dinners many years back where I was extremely impressed by a sommelier. While he may not have been working in a fancy restaurant or serving only legendary wines, he was able to portray simple wines in the best way possible. Most of all, he was brilliant at making sure that his customers always feel very much at ease with his presence.

For those who are interested in pursuing a career in this field, I have this to say: Learn to love your job. The service industry can be very demanding and will take a toll on you personally. It is difficult to do a good job if you are dragging yourself to work everyday. As a sommelier, you will devote a lot of your personal time to studies and research, and your personal holidays will almost always revolve different wine regions.”

  • MASON NG, HEAD SOMMELIER, ATLAS
  • ZACHARY TAY, GROUP SOMMELIER, SPRMRKT
  • VINCENT TAN, HEAD SOMMELIER, ODETTE
  • PAOLO COLZANI, RESTAURANT MANAGER, ZAFFERANO ITALIAN RESTAURANT & LOUNGE
  • PETER CHUA, HEAD BARMAN, CRACKERJACK & JUNIOR
  • ZACHARY DE GIT, HEAD BARMAN, CRACKERJACK & JUNIOR

Paolo Colzani, Restaurant Manager, Zafferano Italian Restaurant & Lounge

“My family has always, somehow, been involved in the F&B industry. Within the family, we run a 1-star Michelin restaurant, a hotel, a pastry shop, and producing chocolate and fresh juices. Therefore, my love affair with wine just fell into place, as I had to learn on the job. Along the years, I’ve picked up the knowledge and nuances of wines and beverages, and how they complement the overall dining experience.

In this line of work, people assume that we have an easy and good life, and that is not true. We not only have to set the right ambience for our guests, but for our staff too, so as to allow them to work in a healthy and motivated environment. We work in a very delicate sector of business. We not only sell products, food, and wines, but are also responsible for the overall guest experience at the restaurant.

Being in contact with guests is much like being on a theater stage. Every day, you have to conduct the show and make it perfect. We are dealing with people and their different lifestyles. There are times when we are more like psychologists trying to understand what’s best to say and when to approach the guests.

With this job, I’m always exploring new ideas as well. While I still love classic pairings like red wines with meats and white wines with fish, pairing boundaries are definitely lesser now compared to a few years ago. Styles of wine are becoming more flexible with less austerity, as they have adapted to the trend and demand of the market. Having said that, I would also like to encourage people to try Port wines more — they’re incredibly underrated. Those are beautiful products, which I always love to drink at the end of the meal.”

  • MASON NG, HEAD SOMMELIER, ATLAS
  • ZACHARY TAY, GROUP SOMMELIER, SPRMRKT
  • VINCENT TAN, HEAD SOMMELIER, ODETTE
  • PAOLO COLZANI, RESTAURANT MANAGER, ZAFFERANO ITALIAN RESTAURANT & LOUNGE
  • PETER CHUA, HEAD BARMAN, CRACKERJACK & JUNIOR
  • ZACHARY DE GIT, HEAD BARMAN, CRACKERJACK & JUNIOR

Peter Chua, Head Barman, Crackerjack & Junior

“I got my start in the industry as a necessity to earn quick cash whilst looking for another music gig and studying. I chanced upon the opportunity of meeting my bosses and they told me about a new bar they were setting up. They also told me they would pay an extra $1 per hour more than my then job. They had me at $1. After working at 28 HongKong Street and learning the ropes of bartending, something in me sparked a passion for the profession.

Once I got into the profession, I’ve learned that one of the biggest misconceptions about our job that bartenders are uneducated flirtatious drunks. Due to the environment we work in and how the F&B career wasn’t taken as a serious profession until recently, it is not difficult to see how this stereotype began. Most of us are guilty at exhibiting one of those traits are some point of time in our careers. In order to combat that preconceived prejudice, I made sure I attained a degree, never closed the deal with any over-friendly ladies, and I drink a glass of water after every shot.

Right now, my biggest challenge is fighting the gravitational pull of my bed whenever I need to wake up — and of course, keeping my health in check. There is also the challenge of having to continually hone my craft and staying relevant in the bartending scene. Due to late nights, commonplace debauchery, and having to be on our feet for long hours, choosing to be a bartender is not merely choosing a profession but a lifestyle.

Currently, I am running Crackerjack and Junior, alongside my co-Head Barman Zachary de Git, and our team, which are merely in their infancy stages and they require a lot of nurturing. Before Junior officially started, we saw that the popularity in agave spirits like tequila, mezcal, and raicilla was on the rise, which is what the first concept, called NORMA, focuses on. Not only is it delicious, it also has a wide spectrum of flavor profiles due to the different species of agaves and methods of production.”

  • MASON NG, HEAD SOMMELIER, ATLAS
  • ZACHARY TAY, GROUP SOMMELIER, SPRMRKT
  • VINCENT TAN, HEAD SOMMELIER, ODETTE
  • PAOLO COLZANI, RESTAURANT MANAGER, ZAFFERANO ITALIAN RESTAURANT & LOUNGE
  • PETER CHUA, HEAD BARMAN, CRACKERJACK & JUNIOR
  • ZACHARY DE GIT, HEAD BARMAN, CRACKERJACK & JUNIOR

Zachary de Git, Head Barman, Crackerjack & Junior