Alexa
  • Directory of Taiwan

Self-taught sommelier Sonny See finds his paradise in 'Vineyard'

Sonny See, left, proprietor of The Vineyard Wine Shop & Bar, has found his slice of paradise in Shihlin.

Sonny See, left, proprietor of The Vineyard Wine Shop & Bar, has found his slice of paradise in Shihlin.

The Vineyard Wine Shop & Bar in Shihlin is Sonny See's dream retreat. A self-taught sommelier, this wine entrepreneur has always dreamt of owning a place where people could enjoy good food, great company, and of course, fine wine in a casual, relaxed setting.
"I'm living my dream," says See, who is happiest when introducing some of his best "finds" to customers and friends. "There are at least 2,000 bottles of wine in The Vineyard, and they come from various wineries worldwide. We have several vintages from France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Chile, Australia, and California to name a few. We also have a temperature-controlled cellar in the basement that contains some of the finest wines produced."
Ever modest, See says he learned everything that he knows about fine wine at the Ritz Taipei (the property has since been renamed the Landis Taipei) - home of one of the country's top fine-dining restaurants, Paris 1930.
The hotel served as See's classroom for nearly two decades.
"I started as a busboy at the Ritz," the soft-spoken wine connoisseur says. "It was 1984, and my wife (Caroline) and I had just migrated from the Philippines to Taiwan at the time. We had to start from scratch. I applied for jobs, and the Ritz hired me."
See blossomed at the Ritz, thanks to the hotel's former general manager, Andre Joulian. The latter is also the owner of Le Jardin, a popular restaurant in Tienmu.
"He was my mentor," he smiles. "Mr. Joulian encouraged me to try new things, to learn, and to follow my dreams. When he learned that I was into wine, he gave me opportunities to know more about it. I read books, attended wine-tastings and seminars, shared notes with wine enthusiasts, and simply enjoyed wine for the sheer pleasure of it. That's how I learned."
See says he joined the Ritz at a time when Taiwan was preparing to open its market to fine wines. Between 1988 and 1989, the first shipments of those premium vintages were delivered to the Ritz.
"The Ritz was a pioneer in Taiwan's wine business," See says. "I consider myself very lucky since I was there when things started happening. It was an exciting period for us. For instance, we were the ones who started holding Beaujolais Noveau festivals in Taiwan. Beaujolais wine, of course, was unheard of in the country at the time. Later, other hotels, restaurants, and wine shops followed our lead."
When he was assigned to work at the hotel's flagship restaurant, Paris 1930, See was able to put his knowledge about wine to good use.
"We have to be knowledgeable about the food and wine. If diners ask you to recommend the wine that will complement the dish that they have ordered, you have to give an informed recommendation," says See. "I loved it."
Eventually, See was promoted to food and beverage director of the hotel's Western restaurants. He even created Paris 1930's wine list.
"Our wine list was named one of the best wine lists in the world by the Wine Spectator magazine for three consecutive years," See proudly says. The wine entrepreneur, together with Joulian, designed Paris 1930's wine menu.
"At the time, the Ritz Taipei and the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok were the only Asian hotels that got into that prestigious list."
Contrary to what some people might think, designing a wine list is very hard work, he adds.
"The wine list symbolizes the property in a way," See says.
During his stint at the Ritz, this sommelier also got to meet some of the world's most famous personalities including opera stars, film celebrities, and political leaders.
See stresses that he gave his best to every customer who walked into a Ritz restaurant.
"To me, it's a passion; it's not work," he says.
See is bringing that same passion into The Vineyard.
Located on Dexing East Road in Shihlin, the wine shop is not only a purveyor of fine wines. The place serves tapas and cheese, and holds six-course wine dinners during the third Thursday of each month. Customers who want to book the place for family reunions, intimate birthday parties, wine-tastings, lunch dates, brunch, and dinners may also do so, says See.
"We are very flexible, and we will do our best to accommodate each request," he says. "Sometimes, people drop by the shop to dine, and they pick the wines that will be paired with their meals from our racks."
For its monthly wine-and-dine events, The Vineyard usually highlights the produce of a particular wine region. Last month, it was all about Bordeaux, says See. In October, The Vineyard will focus on wines from Burgundy. Despite a huge overhead, See keeps his prices relatively low. On average, a six-course, four-wine menu costs NT$2,200 per person.
"The dinner set will also include a cheese plate," he says.
Customers may also pick wines from See's collection, and ask The Vineyard's chef to design a menu that would go with those wines.
"We can recommend a menu that would meet our guests' requirements and budgets," he says. "We can even prepare semi-buffets for them. It's all very casual. People could leisurely enjoy their wine, their food, their conversation. It's all about slowing down a bit - following a hectic day at work - and having fun."
At any wine-appreciation class, the experts will always tell you to evaluate the wine's color, swirl the wine in your glass (it releases its aroma), sniff it, and finally taste it. Wine has four components: Sugar (fruit), acid (sour), alcohol (body), and tannin (bitterness or astringency).
To appreciate wine, you need not be a connoisseur, says See.
"Simply uncork the bottle and share it with friends," he says. "It's a fun experience."
Besides, wine is a personal - even an emotional - type of product, See continues.
"We all have different tastes. You and your friends may be drinking the same wine, from the same bottle, and each individual 'tastes' the wine differently. Its taste may also depend on a person's mood. If you are in a bad mood, even a good wine might taste bad to you," he explains.
"Sometimes, the most simple of table wines becomes unforgettable because of the company."
If you are a novice, start with the most basic wines, he suggests.
"It's like school. You start by mastering the basics, and as you learn more, your courses become more demanding too. If you get 'too aggressive,' that is, if you choose to start with the more complex wines, you won't be able to distinguish the difference between a good wine and a bad one," says See.
Asked why he has decided to call his wine shop The Vineyard, the wine entrepreneur gives us a surprising answer.
"My wife, Caroline, decided on that name," he laughs. "She's a very religious person, and so, The Vineyard it is!"
The Vineyard Wine Shop & Bar is located at No. 196, Dexing East Rd., Shihlin, Taipei. For inquiries, call Sonny See at (02) 2834-5026.


Updated : 2021-10-20 18:23 GMT+08:00