Dream job? SIA’s wine panelist Jeannie Cho Lee on selecting vino

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Jeannie Cho Lee is one of three people charged with choosing what wines will appear on board Singapore Airlines’ flights. She is Asia’s first Master of Wine and is also an award-winning author, wine critic, judge and educator. She was born in South Korea and has lived in Hong Kong since early 1994.

Lee’s original career was in publishing, writing at financial publications including Far Eastern Economic Review and The Asset. “When I arrived in Hong Kong, I joined a publication called Asia Inc., and everyone knew that I was mad about wine,” she says. “So I started contributing there as a wine writer. At the time, there were not many people based in Hong Kong looking at the wine market and how it would be evolving here.”

Lee chose the Master of Wine track rather than a Master Sommelier, because the wine track allowed her to be more strategically involved in choosing wines. “I started the Master of Wine program and in 2007, I passed the exam. A year later, after sending in a dissertation, I was given the title.” She joined Singapore Airlines’ wine panel in January 2009.

In addition to Lee, Singapore Airlines’ wine panel includes Michael Hill Smith and Oz Clarke, both of whom are well known in the wine community. “Michael is the first master of wine from Australia and Oz Clarke has written numerous books and been on television and he’s very well known throughout the UK and Europe,” says Lee. “It’s an interesting interaction, because the wines are all served to us blind from each category when they come in for tender.”

The tendering and purchasing department sends out a notice to all the airline’s contacts with information detailing the number of cases needed and the budget, along with a request to submit samples. “If there are 30 wines, Michael might start with wine number one, I’ll start with wine number 10, and Oz might start with wine number 20. We want to be sure that we are being fair to all the wines,” she explains. “We make our notes and scores separately. At the end of the blind tasting, we come together and call out our scores without knowing what the other has voted for. Given we do this without consulting each other, we are probably most of the time unanimous in what we choose.”

The panel does tastings every six months or so, where they taste around 1,000 wines.

Singapore Airlines has created a grid that shows which wine is being poured on which route so everyone knows when a wine needs to be replenished. “We normally buy wines six to 12 months in advance for every category, understanding the routes Singapore Airlines fly,” says Lee.

Adding to the challenge of choosing wines for an award-winning airline is picking ones that can be enjoyed at 35,000 feet. “We are united in how we feel about this because we taste all the wines up in the air. For example, we know the tannins and the oaks in red wines can be saturated, so we try to keep that in mind.”

So even if a wine is a really good quality, the tannins can be too strong or it may need to be decanted, which doesn’t work in-flight. “For white wines, we avoid whites that are really astringent and high in acidity without much fresh and warm flavor characteristics because these really get saturated as well,” notes the wine expert.

The carrier only serves second growth Bordeaux in its Suites and First Class, including Cos d’Estournel and Chateau Pichon longueville Comtesse de Lalande. Every year, the airline serves $6 million in vintage Dom Perignon and $4.2 million of Krug Grande Cuvee in its First and Suites classes.

Singapore Airlines premium

Singapore Airlines takes its food and wine pairings seriously. Image: SIA

Lee attributes her career success in an industry that is still dominated by men to being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. “No one would have guessed, especially when I was even studying to be a Master of Wine, that Asia would become such a big market for wine,” she says. “I just happened to be here. That’s probably the majority of the reason why I’ve been so lucky and given so many opportunities. I have my own television show, I still write, I teach at Hong Kong University and I have my role with Singapore Airlines.”

And how does Lee handle the work/life balance? “I’ve been faced with a dilemma faced by all women our age who are working and also have a family. It is balanced only in the sense that if you draw it out over a 12-month period, then you might say there’s some balance. But on a day-to-day basis, for example, during the spring and fall season when a lot of activities are happening in the wine industry, then I’m not balanced at all.”

But because the wine industry is seasonal, Lee has most of the summer and winter months off. “One of my daughters is in university and three of them are still here in Hong Kong. I’m really very happy about my balance because that’s when I get a chance to catch up with my girls,” she says.

One of the things that is important to Lee is that her children feel they’re always her first priority. “For a long time, when they were little, I felt so guilty even traveling. I always asked would you rather mom stayed home. And I meant it. I wasn’t just saying that. Maybe my kids were very mature, but they said ‘no’.

“That’s my way of balancing, but I think we all have to struggle, how to do it better, or whether we’re actually doing the best that we can. But at the end of the day, the children have to feel that they are the first priority.”