In just a few years since the government dropped the tax on wine imports in 2008, Hong Kong has been hailed as the wine capital of Asia, if not the world. Interest in wine and the pairing of it with food has grown steadily, boosting demand for sommeliers among hotels, restaurants and a growing number of wine suppliers.
But rather than poaching them from competitors, the Miramar Group has decided to train its own sommeliers.
"There are not enough sommeliers. There is a lot of competition," says Katy Fok, director of human resources at The Mira Hotel. "We have to grow our own next generation. The programme runs for 18 months, and for the first intake, we will have eight to 10 students. We are not only hiring from the outside, we will also train our staff if they are interested."
As an innovative company, Miramar grooms its staff and offers long-term career opportunities, says Fok. "Applicants should be cheerful, outgoing, willing to go the extra mile for guests and know how to smile," she adds.
Creash Wong, manager of group food and beverage (F&B) operations, wants applicants with experience in the F&B industry. "Preferably, they should have a couple of years' experience, basic knowledge of and passion for wine and the service industry," says Wong, who will lead the programme.
Applicants will be thoroughly tested, he adds. The ability to speak Cantonese, English, and some Putonghua will also be assessed. "They need to be able to describe wine in English," says Wong.
To complete the screening process, there will be a written test with multiple choice questions, blind tasting and "blind nosing" - recognising the wine only by its smell, without seeing the colour or tasting it.
Wong says the training will teach participants about wine - country by source country - as well as other types of alcohol, such as sake, Chinese wine, spirits and liqueurs.
"[After the training] they will have to be able to recognise not only the type of drink but also the brand," says Wong, adding that trainees will even learn about types of water, its ideal temperature and mineral content.
"Icy water or certain minerals in water interfere with a wine's taste," he says.
Wong notes that all sommelier know-how can be found on the internet, but practice makes a difference. The Miramar's future sommeliers will have an edge, having been rotated around the group's many restaurants and having learned to pair wine with a variety of cuisines.
"They will also have to learn to organise wine events and suggest dinner menus should a guest bring their own bottle, or suggest wine for a menu chosen by a guest," Wong says.
He adds that sommeliers need to know how to cook as cooking methods and sauces alter the original product. "You have to suggest different wines for fish fillet and a whole fish," Wong explains.
Of course, the profession can be quite demanding, too. For instance, it's a no-no for sommeliers to smoke, and they must be extra careful when it comes to their noses and taste buds, Wong says. For this reason, he says he doesn't use aftershave while his wife avoids spraying on perfume.