Thriving in the wine industry at a young age can be very intimidating. Like how wines tend to taste better as they age, so as does the need for experience to understand the stronghold of customary ideas and practices to bring out a well-rounded drinking experience. But to the 26-year-old Wine Director of the Park90 Group, Mason Ng, the right mentality and discipline are all it takes to break through society’s inherited misconceptions.
Getting to Know Asia’s Youngest Certified Sommelier
Mason Ng’s interest in wines began at the age of 13. Unlike teenagers of his age group, he got more curious about studying alcoholic beverages than reading comic books or watching anime. He recalls spending meals together with his uncle – who brings a lot of wines – and having all sorts of thoughts about the difference between a wine purchased at $15 and $1,500.
So, at 18, instead of pursuing the scholarship he got on Accounting and Finances in Hong Kong, Mason decided to stay in Singapore and give the world of sommeliers a try. He began working at La Strada, the modern Italian restaurant that is part of Les Amis Group, the iconic pioneer in Singapore’s gastronomy scene. At the age of 19, he emerged as Asia’s youngest Certified Sommelier and was eventually transferred to the multi-awarded flagship of the Les Amis Group, the currently three Michelin stars, Les Amis Restaurant.
Having to give up on university, Mason found the need to prove to his parents that he was worthy of the trust he was given. “I should at least give them back something for them to see that I’m serious about what I’m doing. Starting out with the career caused a lot of pressure. At that same time, my brother was also studying mechanical engineering at Imperial College in the UK and it was financially very straining for the family. I don’t want to give more stress to my parents. They had so much faith in me by allowing me to just go ahead and see how far it can go.”
Dealing with the ‘More Experienced’ in the Industry
“I’m very lucky to meet a lot of people in my life. And I think for me, luck is definitely part of it – the time that you meet the right people. I’ve met a lot of very nice people who helped me in my career, as well as outside of this career. And that wouldn’t be possible if I was an accountant. Spending four years of my life in Uni, I would have met different kinds of people. So definitely, what I’ve achieved today is not so much about myself but the people that I’ve met that really guided me along the way,” shares Mason.
Alongside these insights, Mason also took note of the things he learned from people who put themselves at the standards of the industry – those who succumb to their years of experience. “When I just came into F&B, there was a mentality that I really dislike. I don’t really agree (a lot of times) with people who don’t want to improve and don’t want to find out what’s happening in the world. They always live in their old world. That ‘this is how we do things’ sort of mentality. For me, if you stop learning, then there’s really nothing to be proud of even though you’ve been here, or in whatever industry, for 20 years and start living in that shell. That kind of mentality is very toxic in the F&B environment.”
He also pointed out those people who want to exert power and discount others. “The most toxic part about it is talking. Just talking about the experience. It’s just like listening to war stories but they’re not productive at all. And that kind of thing that really pisses me off.”
Balancing Work, Life, and Studies
Despite his many achievements, Mason continues to study more about his field as he plans to take the wine industry’s most notoriously difficult exam, the Master Sommelier Exam. He admits to really struggle balancing his work, life, and studies at present. “You study a lot of wine doesn’t necessarily mean that you can be good in your career. That just means that you’re very good at this subject. I think the toughest part is maintaining relationships with your family, who are overseas, and friends in Singapore as well. You need to spend your day split into five parts, and the last part is sleeping, right? So, in general, a unique 24 hours a day; but every day it’s very packed. And usually, most of the days, if I have extra time, I’ll use it for studying wines. It’s juggling with time chasing.”
Becoming a Sommelier
Mason tells that to those who are really not aware of how the wine industry works, it could really get intimidating. But with the resurgence of sommeliers in Singapore, things have become more interesting. “We are really just alcoholics and we just want you to drink a nice wine and enjoy your meal. So, to get off with the intimidation, first, I think you just need to speak to the sommelier. Simply tell them what kind of wines you like. You can be honest and tell them about the budget that you have in mind. Second, is just to read a little bit more on wines if you really enjoyed the product. It’s okay to spend a bit of time just reading about one of the grape varieties, what kind of regions produce what kind of styles of wines. And then, you can go on and taste more and find wine groups. Find people with similar interests and go out with them like once a week. You don’t need to be opening a few $100 bottles. You can just buy a bottle from the supermarket and sort of do a tasting together.” He believes that the bigger the group that you drink with, the more that you can learn as long as you keep it educational. “Never stop learning and just keep trying on different things.”
Mason also sees a strong interest kicking in among the young people of this generation, Generation Z. Though not much on wine drinking, he believes that more and more are getting into the wine rule – after probably addressing the curiosity on the different types of spirits and alcohols. A lot of wine bars in Singapore are already opening up to accommodate them – like 67 Pall Mall, Wine RVLT, and Park90. “This generation is very much into fun. And it’s not intimidating because you don’t need to know much about it. In RVLT, they actually serve wines in water glasses – which makes it less intimidating because in a normal situation you hold a stem and there’s a lot of things that you feel scared of doing it.”
As one gets more acquainted with the wine industry, Mason also noted on the unpleasant individuals he met as a sommelier – the wine snobs. “I can see why places like natural wine bars would be fun. People would like to hang out there more often than places that are very stiff. Stiff places usually attract more wine snobs. These are arrogant people who only drink expensive stuff ninety-percent of the time; and they don’t really know what they’re drinking. They only know the names. It’s like driving a Ferrari and knowing how it looks and feels, but they may not know how the engines and stuff work. They’re drinking in the pleasure of actually owning something that not a lot of people can afford. They’re annoying. And I usually don’t hang out with them. As much as I can.”
“I think the first part is actually to be brave.” Having no one in the family who’s in the F&B line, Mason found the need to really jump out of his comfort zone and be courageous enough to do things on his own. “Don’t worry about too many things. You won’t even know if you live the next day, right? So, just do it and see what happens. Let it flow. Make the most of your youth. You have a lot of margin of error. And if you fail, you can just climb up again.”
Mason shares a heartwarming incident as he was just starting things out in Singapore. He applied for 130 different jobs but had zero experience in F&B. He was 18 then. When he applied for Les Amis Group, he was told that they will get back to him in two weeks if they get a pass for him or when they’ll have an opening. After two weeks, he went back to Malaysia. “After a few more days of waiting, my mom told me that if nobody’s willing to hire me I should go back to Hong Kong to study. We were having tea then when my phone rang. It was a Singaporean number. By that time, we already paid for everything for Hong Kong. It was the wine director of Les Amis Group. He said that they’re ready to get me in. I was confused. We just paid everything and then they called me. But my mom told me to go. And if I don’t like it, I can just come back, work things out, and find a way to go back to Uni again.”
“I’m very lucky to have my parents that actually support that. But the first part is that you will need to be brave enough. There are sometimes some things that people might not agree with you. Like, your parents might not agree with it. But as long as you can prove to them that you’re really passionate about it, you really like it, go for it. The second thing is not to stop learning. Once you stop learning, you start to become like those very toxic people. You just start to live in your own glory. And that’s not a very pleasant lesson.”
To keep up with his studies while preparing for the Court of Masters Sommeliers, Mason’s routine usually involved studying while brushing his teeth, studying on the bus all the way to work, having coffee and studying again. “It’s a tiring process. But by that time, we really wanted it. So, for me, it was just really giving 100% into it. I repeated it for five months and then I passed the exam in the fifth month.”
Looking Forward and Beyond
“I think the next for me would be pretty much focusing on Korea. Because we actually opened up a setup company in Taiwan. We have a team of three sommeliers in Taiwan. We’re intending to expand to Taiwan by this year. So, probably when the travel bubble opens, we’ll be relocated to Taiwan. So, we’re focusing on a career for the next three years or so. And then maybe think about studying like a nerd again. Because preparing for the exams means that you really can’t focus on your career. Career developments require you to wake up and study at least eight hours a day. So, it’s like going to school. It’s about self-discipline because there’s nobody with you. And you do that for eight hours a day for two to three years but you still fail because the passing is just ridiculous. Two or three out of 30 people pass? Like ten percent passing. So, I’m still thinking about whether or not to take the master exam.”
“Be humble and treat everyone at the same level as you are. Don’t look at people of different status and feel intimidated or try bullying people because of where you are. You need to have the right mentality and discipline; the rest just don’t matter. Although some people are your superiors, everyone is the same because we are just human. The benefits and pay may be different but we are doing the same. We all sit down with a bottle of wine; gathered for our love for wine. We are all equal. So just be normal and have a strong mentality.”