Talking Wine with...

Talking Wine with...

Sarah Heller, Master of Wine, artist and creator of the Visual Tasting Notes series

In our interview series Talking Wine with..., we are talking with interesting people from the international world of wine about their love of wine.

How did they become wine lovers? What are their favorite wines? And which producers and appellations should we keep an eye on?

This time we have the honor to talk wine with Sarah Heller. In 2017, she became the youngest Master of Wine at the time. She combines a succesful career in wine with a background in the fine arts as she is a graduate of the prestigious Yale University.



FAVORITE PRODUCER: If I'M forced to pick, Aldo Conterno

FAVORITE WINE REGION: Barolo + Barbaresco

BEST MUSIC TO DRINK WINE TO: Jazz (Duke Ellington with John Coltrane)

Aldo Conterno Barolo Bussia Romirasco 2012
Bibi Graetz Colore 2005
Weingut Prager Zwerithaler Kammergut Grüner Veltliner 2018

In 2017 you became a Master of Wine at the young age of 29. At the time, you even were the youngest Master of Wine. The exam is by far the most challenging wine exam in the world with a pass rate of only 15%. I am particularly curious about the tasting part of the exam. Did you immediately know what the wines were by smelling them or was it more of a deduction process? And do you recall (and are you allowed to tell us) what the wines on the exam were?

Thank you! I actually tell all of my MW mentees and anyone who studies with me that it’s absolutely critical that you not leap to conclusions based on one sniff. People like to believe that wine tasting is something instinctive and almost magical, but in fact I find judging too quickly is dangerous. Once you’ve decided what a wine is it’s very hard to steer yourself back onto the correct path if you’re wrong. By withholding judgment, making observations about the structure, which rarely lies, and putting that together with the aromas, you usually come to a more robust conclusion.

A great example is a pair of wines on the 2016 MW exam (when I passed) that I immediately assumed were both Chardonnay because one of them had noticeable oak aroma, so I shoehorned the second wine into also being a Chardonnay even though in fact they were a white Rioja and an Albarino. If I’d paused and more carefully considered the texture of the two wines and their relative weights, I would probably have come to a different conclusion.

Which bottle did you open to celebrate?

I was actually still nursing my son when I found out that I passed so the celebration had to wait!

Your MW Research Paper is about wine e-commerce among Chinese millennials. What were the most eye catching conclusions?

One of the most press-worthy conclusions was that among the particular group I surveyed, which was people aged 20-40 with annual salaries over RMB60,000 (about €7,700, which was considered middle class at the time), their preferred price point for wines to purchase online was RMB195 (about €25), which was much higher than people had assumed. Everyone had been talking about e-commerce as a channel for young people buying wine at €5 or less and this was a strong refutation of that idea. Another notable point was that this group of consumers responds best to generic wine descriptions like “smooth and mellow” or “sweet and fruity” as opposed to either western or Chinese tasting descriptors like “strawberries” or “red date.” This was part of where I got my idea for my wine glass collection, the Elements, which aims to make any wine served in a particular glass more like that Element: clean and fresh like water or smooth and mellow like the earth, etc.

You started your wine career interning at a natural wine importer in New York. The natural wine movement is currently quite big all of the world. Are you still that much into natural wines? And what are some of your favorite producers?

I would say I’m not into wine that sells itself purely on the basis of “naturalness,” which is too often just a figleaf for poor winemaking. But I would say that the winemakers who were making natural wine back then who have matured and refined their craft have become some of our most exciting producers, like Henri Milan in Provence (where I interned), Gravner in Friuli or COS in Sicily.

You have a degree in Fine Art from Yale University. In your art project ‘Visual Tasting Notes’ you have merged your two passions: art and wine. Can you describe how the idea for the project arose and how it is going thus far? 

Honestly the project had quite humble beginnings. I had been looking for a way to communicate about wine in a more compelling way. I was tired of laundry lists of aroma descriptors and knew I wanted to do something visual, but I also didn’t just want to create infographics that just substituted words with pictures. I landed on the idea of somewhat abstract digital collages that used a color and contour to express the overall mood created by the wine and some more specific imagery placed on a “timeline” from top to bottom to reflect the experience you get when you smell, taste and swallow a wine. Since then the works have become much bigger and more elaborate and I’ve been surprised and delighted by the reception. I now have gallery representation in London and Shanghai and have sold a handful of pieces privately at an auction with the wines they represent. Going forward, I am making far fewer pieces and getting back into physical painting – it’s much slower and I’ve been enjoying the change of pace, like writing a novel vs. short stories.

Could you virtually lead us through your own wine cellar? What are the classics - or out-of-the-box-wines - we will find there?

My wines are mainly stored in Hong Kong in a locker facility called Hong Kong Wine Vault, although I have some in the US too. Sadly I stopped collecting for a span when I was studying for the MW and then only slowly got back into it after becoming a mother, so it is looking a bit depleted at the moment with somewhere between 500-1,000 bottles left (I should also get better at tracking). I always have plenty of wine from Piemonte (Barolo and Barbaresco), some Tuscan wines (both Sangiovese and Supertuscans), northern Rhône and a bit of Burgundy and from there it gets pretty quirky: Etna, Austria, old California and Australia for example. One thing I wish I had more of was Bordeaux. The thing I wish a lot more people collected was Hunter Valley Semillon – these wines are dynamite after 10-20 years but I only know about 3 people who collect them. Mount Pleasant Lovedale and Tyrrells Vat 1 are icons for good reason!

We're very curious: What kind of wines does a Master of Wine drink on a lazy night at the couch? Is it even possible for a wine pro – and I have even heard you use the word ‘geeky’ to describe yourself – to just sit down and enjoy a glass of wine without thinking about it?

Haha, it’s hard not to get too analytical, so what I generally do is make sure I take a note right at the beginning of the evening and then just enjoy. Because I’m in New Zealand for a few months I have been drinking my way through the two islands; the Syrahs here, both from Hawke’s Bay and some from Marlborough, are obscenely high quality – super delicate, perfumed and ethereal – plus they’re really low alcohol (many are around 12%), which is perfect for a weeknight.

You are based in Hong Kong, a wine minded city where fine wines are omni present. What are your favorite places to go out for a glass?

Coravin has transformed the by the glass landscape in the city as it has in many places; while I’m normally a 'by the bottle person' when I go out (because it’s better value), I like to have a range of pairing options when I’m eating Cantonese food and I would say Piin have done a spectacular job putting together a Coravin list of fine wine that accentuates their refined modern Cantonese food. My casual favorite is Brut! which is downstairs from where I used to live in Sai Ying Pun – the co-owner and wine buyer Camille Glass has a great eye for natural wines that are refined and poetic.

Can you tell us about the biggest wine faux-pas you have ever witnessed in a restaurant?

Because wine isn’t a part of Hong Kong’s traditional dining culture, I think the people who do order wine or BYO are both quite familiar with it and/or are very conscious of the stereotypes about people in our part of the world (like the old one about mixing Lafite with Coca Cola, which I have literally not seen for 10 years) so I can’t say I’ve seen anything too awful. The biggest faux pas I experience on a regular basis is servers who automatically assume that my husband is going to order the wine and then, much more irritatingly, still pour it for him to try after I’ve ordered it. Once somebody practically refused to sell me a bottle of champagne because he thought it would be too “advanced” for me.

During your Master of Wine studies, you must have visited many wine makers all over the world. Can you tell us about the winery visit that you have the fondest memories of?

Winemakers are some of the most extraordinarily generous people I’ve ever been fortunate enough to meet. My favorite trip was one to Piemonte that I co-organised in 2014 with my friends from the Hong Kong Wine Society– virtually every producer we met rolled out the red carpet, but I particularly remember Luca Roagna rushing back into the part of the cellar where the wines older than he is are stored and coming out with a bottle looking like the cat who caught the mouse. Those wines are getting so expensive now but I always remember him as this down to earth, generous, beautiful soul.

And finally, if you could relive one very special wine moment, which moment would it be?

Standing in the Abbey at Hautviller watching the handover of Dom Pérignon from Richard Geoffroy to Vincent Chaperon. Dom Pérignon has been such a cultural touchstone for me (for instance it is what we opened when I found out I got into Yale) and it was such an extravagant few days of celebration and pomp but in that moment it just felt like I was watching a deeply personal, heartfelt passing of the reins to a new generation.


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