I met wine sommelier Benson Yuson during the 3rd Grand Culinary Challenge where he gave a short wine seminar for the participants. Apart from being extremely passionate and knowledgeable about wine, what set Benson a cut from the rest of the wine sommeliers I’ve met was the fact that he’s 100% pure Filipino.
From his humble beginnings as a member of the Food and Beverage staff at the Kamayan Restaurant located in Padre Faura in Manila, Benson Yuson today is a respected wine sommelier and educator. Driven by his passion, he now goes around teaching Filipinos and Asians how to appreciate wine in a cool and easy way.
Over lunch, Benson shared to me his journey to become a wine sommelier, his perceptions on many Filipinos’ attitude towards drinking wine, and even gave me a quick course on Filipino food and wine pairing.
Adeline: Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to sit down and interview you on such short notice. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got started as a wine sommelier?
Benson Yuson: I started out working in F&B at the Kamayan branch in Padre Faura in 1992. A year later, I was hired to be part of the opening team of Shangri-la Makati where I was part of the Concierge Team.
While I was working there, someone offered me a job on a cruise ship. I grabbed the opportunity, mainly because I wanted to travel. If you’re working in a cruise ship, you can do that for free. In less than a month, I got hired as a bar tender first, and then eventually a bar steward.
Unlike the other workers on the cruise ship that would usually spend their time at the mall, I would spend time learning about the culture of the place, and would try out their local delicacies. Since some of the ports of call we docked were in European countries, sampling the local stuff also meant tasting their wine. I would head over to some of the wineries, chateaus and vineyards around the area where the ship would dock to do a bit of wine tasting.
When I was told that they were going to promote me to become a supervisor, I declined, telling them that I wanted to learn first more about wine so that I’m more equipped for the position. Like many other Filipinos working on the cruise ship, I was very comfortable with beers and spirits. But when it came to wine, I was handicapped. I guess that was the reason why many of the people, especially the Europeans, looked down on us Filipinos when it came to wine. So I enrolled for a few wine courses at the Berry Bros & Rudd The Fine Wine Center in Hong Kong, and also attended wine tasting events when I got the chance.
I got my first opportunity to hold a wine seminar at the Venetian Hotel and Casino where I am now currently based. The Training Manager there asked me if I could train the employees there. At that time, there was already a British guy doing the wine seminars and training for the employees. But the Training department at the Venetian noticed that the number of employees passing the evaluation at the end of the wine seminars was low. Since the Training Manager knew I had some background and training also on wine, they asked me to give it a go. I gave the training and they did the evaluation. Most of the employees this time passed. The rest, you can say, is history.
Adeline: When you were going through all these trainings and classes on wine, did the thought of becoming a wine sommelier ever cross your mind?
Benson Yuson: No. When I began to study about wine, it was just to get some knowledge about it. But the more I began to learn more about wine, the more I got drawn into it.
Adeline: I have been to quite a lot of different wine seminars and wine tasting events featuring wine sommeliers, and I have to say, your approach is quite different. What made you decided to use this?
Benson Yuson: There is this huge gap between Asians and Europeans when it comes to wine, especially among Filipinos. You need to bridge this gap so that they would be able to get it. I discovered that the best way to bridge this gap is by using things that were more familiar to them when I do my wine seminars.
For example, when I did the session on explaining the body of wine, I used three different kinds of juices as examples: apple for light bodied wine, orange juice for medium body wine, and mango juice for full body wine.
Adeline: Why juices, and these juices specifically?
Benson Yuson: Asians drink these juices more than they drink wine, so they are more familiar with them.
Adeline: Sounds quite unique.
Benson Yuson: Yes, it is. I know that other wine sommeliers will probably frown on my techniques because they are rather unorthodox. But for me, the most important part is that they learn. If it works, why not do it, right?
Adeline: True. Speaking of gap, I’ve always been curious about why Filipinos haven’t really developed this appreciation for wine, considering that much of our food has been influenced by Spain, which is one of the Old Wine countries. Why do you think that’s the case?
Benson Yuson: This is just my perspective, but I think that it has a lot to do with the relationship between the Spanish and the Filipino people during the time we were under the Spanish rule. Although we were under Spain for more than three centuries, the relationship between the Spaniards that lived here and the Filipinos was more of a master-slave relationship. So, many of the things that they enjoyed, like wine, was exclusive to them. I’m sorry to say that, but that’s a reality.
That’s why even today, Filipinos are not that equipped when it comes to wine. I’ve spoken and trained a lot of Filipino Food and Beverage graduates, and they know very little about wine. I myself only started to learn about wine when I began to take additional courses from other schools.
Another could be the fact that Filipinos would rather go for quantity. For the same price of a bottle of wine, you can already have a few cocktails or bottles of beer. That, for me, is another reason why drinking wine is not yet that rampant here in the Philippines, especially among the younger generation.
Adeline: Let’s talk a little bit about food and wine pairing. How easy or difficult is it to pair Filipino food with wine?
Benson Yuson: Out of the different Asian foods, Filipino food is the easiest to pair with wine because it’s got a lot of European influences. Most Asian cuisines, particularly Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, are very spicy so it makes them quite difficult to pair with wine, unlike Filipino foods, which tends to lean on the sweeter side.
Another reason is that many Filipino foods are rich in protein, which make it easy to pair them with wine, especially with red wines, because they can cut through the high fat content of the dishes.
Adeline: Interesting! Is it okay if I throw you a few popular Filipino dishes for you to recommend some wines to pair with them?
Benson Yuson: Sure.
Adeline: Okay. Let’s start with Crispy Pata. What would go well with it?
Benson Yuson: A full body red wine like a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux will go best with it since it will cut the high fat content.
Adeline: How about Sisig?
Benson Yuson: I’d go with a Shiraz because even though sisig tends to be on the spicy side, it still has a rich fat content so the two will work really well.
Adeline: How about Kare-Kare?
Benson Yuson: Kare-kare can work well with both a red and white wine because of how it’s prepared. I’d recommend a Pinot Noir if you want to go with a red wine, or a Chardonnay if you want to go with a white.
Adeline: How about for seafood, say Inihaw na Tilapia?
Benson Yuson: I’d go with a light white wine. A Riesling, Pinot Grigio or a sparkling white will go well with it.
Adeline: Last. How about Ginataan?
Benson Yuson: That’s a bit tricky because of the gata (coconut milk). But I’d go with a Gewürztraminer. It’s a rather dry white wine, but has a bit of sweetness to it so it marries with the gata quite well.
Adeline: They say that the more expensive the wine, the better it is. How true it that?
Benson Yuson: It all depends. Drinking wine is all about the experience you have, and your personal taste. Price may factor in the experience. There is something about saying that you’re drinking a $10,000 bottle of wine, for example. But price doesn’t equate with taste. I’ve tried a lot of wines that go for a few hundred pesos that taste really good for me. So no, price is not that much of a factor as enjoying the flavor of the wine.
Adeline: There are now a lot of Filipinos pursuing culinary and Food and Beverage degrees today. What tips can you give them so that they can be more prepared, especially when it comes to wine?
Benson Yuson: Don’t be limited to what your professor feeds you in school. Be willing to do some research. Attend seminars and wine tasting events if you can afford them. If not, there is the Internet. Go online and do some research about the different kinds of wine. Learn as much as you can because in the end, you cannot give to your customers what you don’t have.
If it works, why not do it? Click here to Tweet!
Also, you have to start drinking wine too. That is the best way to practice what you’ve learned. It will also help you develop the taste for it, which is very important if you want to get into the food and beverage industry abroad. I recommend you start with a Pinot Noir for the reds and a Riesling for the whites. They are very light and sweet, making them very friendly to the palate of Filipinos.
There are a lot of good quality wines between P400-P700 a bottle. Form a group with your classmates so that you can do a group study and share in the price.
Finally, be willing to invest. Yes, learning about wines can be rather expensive. But if you think about it, this is part of your future career. Start investing in it. In the end, it will be worth it.