Big, bustling Prego has long been one of our favourite Italian restaurants. In the past two years, personable German sommelier BRITTA GIESE has been presiding over the corkscrew, so to speak, and taking the Fairmont Singapore’s wine culture to a whole new level.
Where are you from?
A small wine town called Ingelheim in the province of Rheinhessen, which specialises in pinot noir. I like to say that there are just seven cows in our province; all the rest is vineyards, for mile after mile.
How did your love affair with wine begin?
It all started with picking grapes – we all did that. But when I was growing up, to make wine your career you had to be from a winegrowing family; no one would ever hire a winemaker.
Never thinking I could actually study wine, I studied social work instead. I was a bit of a rebel, though, and didn’t conform to the extremely conservative European and German system, where your pedigree, who your parents are and what pieces of paper you have are all-important. For a while, I drifted.
Moving to Vancouver at the age of 22 was a total eye-opener; attitudes in North America were completely different, and I realised I could do anything I wanted. So I studied for my certification through WSET (the Wine and Spirit Educational Trust), one of the two top schools; the other is the International Sommelier Guild.
At one stage, I thought I’d become a chef. But F&B is gruelling anyway, and hardest of all is working in the kitchen. I have the greatest respect for anyone who does it, but it wasn’t for me. That said, the experience gave me a useful understanding of the challenges the kitchen faces, a great help in my work as a sommelier.
Your Canadian fiancé Jason Sych is a chef, right?
Yes, I met him in Victoria. But after 15 years in the kitchen, he went back to school to study marketing, with a focus on F&B. He was with Swissôtel the Stamford here for a while, and is now working with Peter Knipp, of World Gourmet Summit fame.
How does one become a sommelier?
You don’t become a sommelier by taking a four-year university degree in the subject; I learnt on the job, by educating myself through courses and by keeping up to date through extensive reading.
I worked my way up in a series of restaurants, from food-runner – a terrible job! – to food and wine server. Selling wine was always part of the job. Then I became the “wine expert” for an excellent wine company in Victoria, British Columbia. Moving through their stores, I developed a staff training manual on advising customers what to buy.
In 2005, I was taken on by Sooke Harbour House – British Columbia’s best and one of the world’s top restaurants, famous for seafood, its extensive cellar and its groundbreaking vision for organic wine production. I became chief sommelier and was in charge of the wine cellar. They’re an eccentric lot, and not easy to get along with. But I’m opinionated, too, and quite capable of standing up for myself.
My three years there were idyllic, in so many ways. Jason and I lived in a nearby cottage in the countryside, where bears would come into the orchard at night. But as always, there comes a time to move on.
Vancouver Island has been called “the velvet rut”; it’s easy to get stuck there. I already had the best job in my field; there was nowhere for me to go. So when the recession hit, we decided to move to Asia.
Describe your role at the Fairmont.
I maintain the wine list and oversee wine-related matters for all the Fairmont restaurants: Prego, Szechuan Court for Chinese, Mikuni for Japanese, Alligator Pear for poolside vegetarian fare, and the INK Bar.
When I started, the wine cellar was in a dismal state, and the staff had little knowledge of wine. I inherited a bunch of wines that were useless, or dead, and I had to get rid of them. What’s more, the wine list made no sense; as a sommelier, you shouldn’t buy wines just because you like them: you should be buying them for your guests, with a proper understanding of your market’s needs and wants. Purchasing wine involves dealing with suppliers, building relationships, negotiating prices, and doing all the admin that comes with it.
Another thing I realised was that I couldn’t do this job on my own, so I developed a comprehensive training system to bring everyone on board. All serving staff are trained in Tier One, the basics. Tier Two teaches the theory, practice and psychology of wine appreciation, and from there we get our Wine Friends. Wine Friends with the greatest aptitude and interest go on to do Tier Three; two of them are now responsible for Mikuni and Prego.
I also spend every lunch and dinner period in the restaurants. That lets me get a feel for the market, see what’s happening and know where we may be falling short. My team is excellent, but we’ve been doing this together for only a year and a half, and there’s only so much I can expect from them.
When you relax with a glass of wine, what do you choose?
It depends totally on the weather, how I feel, on the time of day and what I’m doing: reading a book, eating a meal, alone, or with Jason, or with friends. In Canada, in winter at the fireplace, I would choose a medium- to full-bodied red. In this climate I find red wine tricky – it sometimes gives me a headache.
It also depends on how I want to relax. If I want a “Wow, what a wine!” experience, I would choose something of great quality and just have one glass. If I want to relax with friends, I’d choose something less attention-demanding. On my own after work, I don’t want to focus on anything complex, so I’d choose something simple but good.
Why does red wine give some people headaches? (Apart from drinking too much of it.)
I’m really not sure, and research by the Californian wine university, UC Davis, proved inconclusive. Some suspect that tannins might be a trigger. Others blame sulphites, but I’m not convinced: canned tomatoes are full of sulphites, and so are apricots, so if you can eat those, it’s not the sulphites in wine that cause the headache. There are so many other compounds in wine that are unknown.
What do you do in your free time?
My mornings are my own; I took a night job, starting at noon, so that I would be able to spend time with my two birds, Felix and Ribbit. They’re very social animals, they’re super-smart and they need a lot of stimulation and attention. Every morning, I take them out into the garden for a shower and some enrichment activities, such as colour games.
Then I have my chores and my studies. I always read the Wine Spectator, for example. And if I feel I’m weak on a certain region, I’ll concentrate on that, or if a particular wine piques my interest, I’ll find out more about it. Vintages are a massive preoccupation. You just have to keep on drilling the information into your head on an ongoing basis.
I exercise, too. A fitness instructor friend of mine put together a programme for me, and MacRitchie Reservoir Park is nearby. It’s a wonderful place to walk. You can smell the rainforest, its dense humidity packed with a myriad scents from the vegetation and the water – rich, sometimes sweet, often strange and even rank. I absolutely love it.
Speaking of aromas, how important is it for a sommelier to have a good sense of smell?
It’s essential. After the first visual impression, assessing wine is all about the palate, and if you can’t smell well, you can’t taste well.
At a certain level, it’s possible to do the job with textbook knowledge alone, and unfortunately that’s what many sommeliers here do. I work at a different level, a sensual level, where you stick your nose into the glass, inhale the character of the wine, and it goes straight into your brain; nothing can replace that.
There’s nothing like wine. Banana juice will always smell and taste like banana; it will never remind you of grapefruit, or strawberries, or alpine forests – and if it does, there’s something wrong with it. Only wine can taste like a cow-patty on an alpine meadow, or MacRitchie after the rain. A wine can even evoke a complete dish – say roast venison with baked potatoes and green beans – and that, for me, is what makes it so exciting. Passion for wine comes not from the theory but from life experiences.