At the age of 31, Gus Zhu MW made history by becoming the first Chinese national to achieve the Master of Wine title after grueling examinations and tastings. 

At the age of 31, Gus Zhu MW made history by becoming the first Chinese national to achieve the Master of Wine title after grueling examinations and tastings.

Notoriously low profile and humble in today’s socially networked world,  Zhu’s meteoritic rise took China’s wine trade by surprise. Born in 1988 in Nangjing, China, Zhu studied Horticultural Science at China Agricultural University, and later at UC Davis for Master of Science in Viticulture and Enology.

A keen researcher and wine educator mentored by Fongyee Walker MW and Edward Ragg MW, co-founders of Dragon Pheonix Wine Consulting, Zhu got accepted into the Master of Wine program in 2016. More stunningly, he passed three stages of examinations in one go on first attempt within three years.

Dividing his time between China and the US, Zhu in the interview with looks back to the very first bottle, a Graham’s Six Grape Port that sparked his interest in wine, and shares how he celebrated on hearing the good news, his career plans on academic research, and the best advice he got on taking the MW exam.

Q: How did you get into wine?

GZ: I attended a wine appreciation class by professor Huiqin Ma when I was studying at the China Agricultural University. Back then, my major was Horticultural Science but I wasn’t sure if I should pursue a master or doctorate degree in horticulture. One day professor Ma mentioned that Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting founded by Fongyee Walker MW and Edward Ragg MW need help. I briefly met Fongyee and Edward during one of the wine appreciation courses and would like to gain working experience with them. Luckily, I was employed by Dragon Phoenix as an intern. And somehow, I ended up “helping” Dragon Phoenix for 5 years.

Q: What was the first wine that you drank that sparked your interest in wine?

GZ: Graham’s Six Grapes Port. After the first day of internship at Dragon Phoenix, Fongyee and Edward gave me the Graham’s Six Grapes Port to taste. They also explained clearly how it was made to achieve the sweetness and high alcohol level. I had such a sensory pleasure by tasting that wine and I was fascinated by the unique winemaking techniques of Port. I got hooked on wine since then.

A bottle of Chinese vinegar
A bottle of Chinese vinegar

What was the first thing you did when you were told you passed the MW exam?

GZ: My friend and I set up two bottles and several glasses on the kitchen counter. One bottle is 2008 Pol Roger, and the other bottle is 镇江香醋 a branded Chinese vinegar made in Zhenjiang city. If I pass the final MW research paper, I will celebrate with others with the Champagne; If I fail, I need to take shots of the vinegar. As soon as I picked up the phone call and knew I passed, I started to drink Pol Roger.

Q: What did you do to celebrate passing MW exam?

GZ: WeChat video call with my family, eating and drinking quite a lot with friends. Also, I pre-ordered Final Fantasy VII Remake as a gift to myself. When the game is released next March, I can play it and continue the celebration.

Q: When did you start preparing MW exam?

GZ: As soon as I got accepted in the programme in 2016.

Q: How long did it take you to prepare and eventually pass the MW exam?

GZ: In total 3 years. I didn’t re-take any exam nor revise the final research paper. I did not study extremely hard every day for the Stage 1 exam, because I was focusing on completing my Master of Science in Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis. Luckily, I passed the Stage 1 examinations. During Stage 2, I was doing tasting and theory training every single day as if I was preparing for 高考 the Chinese college entrance exams again. I couldn’t believe that I eventually passed the Stage 2 examinations on the first attempt. For Stage 3, it was relatively a bit easier since it’s a research paper format, because I was writing lab reports or research paper almost every week when I was studying at UC Davis.

Q: What was the most challenging part of taking the MW exam?

GZ: Making sacrifice. You need to sacrifice a lot of opportunities to do interesting things. For example, during the Stage 2 studies, I was working at the HALL winery on the tasting room sales and hospitality side. During Saturdays and Sundays, you can sell a lot more wines as compared to weekdays and get higher commission. However, I had to take the Sundays off and to join the Napa tasting group formed by my fellow MW candidates. Every Sunday, we gather together and perform intense tasting trainings in the format of 12 wines mock exam in the morning and 12 wines with a theme in the afternoon. Apparently, the sacrifices we made paid off.

Q: Now as an MW, can you share your plans in terms of career development? What can we expect from you in the coming months?

GZ: I will continue to teach wine courses (mainly WSET) in China and in the US. I am also a WSET online classroom tutor for WSET Diploma candidates worldwide. Other than that, I will try to establish academic related work. I gained some confidence in the academic field with the great guidance from my professors at UC Davis. Earlier this year, I published a review paper as the second author on wine pigments ‘A quarter century of wine pigment discovery’ with Dr. Andrew Waterhouse. For my MW research paper, I consulted the gurus of Sensory Science such as Dr. Hildegarde Heymann, Dr. Jiaming Wang and Wenyu Kang. With their help, I completed the paper ‘The impact of acidity adjustments on the sensory perception of a Californian Chardonnay’ and gained more confidence on technical aspects of wines. In the coming months, people may not see any outcome, but I will reach out to research institutes in China and in other countries on the academic projects that I could probably participate in. Research takes time but it’s all about helping the wine industry to deal with challenges in the future.

Q: You made history by becoming the first Chinese national to obtain the MW title. How does it feel?

GZ: Proud, happy and excited of course. On the other hand, I started to feel some good pressure on what I should contribute in the future. I felt super proud about all the teachings I have done in China and in the US in the past 9 years. Now I feel very excited about the potential academic work (as described in the answers to question 8) in the future.

Q: What’s your interest outside of wine?

GZ: Japanese anime, PC games, video games, swimming, and of course food.

Q: What makes you happy?

GZ: Tons of things. I would be super happy if I achieve something that takes time which is just like ageing a premium wine with patience: for example, the MW journey. I also started to learn Python. I believe that I would be happy during the long journey of Python learning with all the little improvement I may achieve every day.

Q: Can you share what’s the best advice you got since taking on MW studies?

GZ: Always keep in mind that the MW title is not just about showing how much knowledge and skills you have. It’s about “promoting excellence, interaction and learning across all sectors of the global wine community.” (quote from the Institute of Masters of Wine). If you look at all the questions in the exam and the purpose of the research paper, they are focusing on why there is such a thing in the wine world and how do we solve a problem or improve the wine trade. A more specific example would be in the tasting exam, they may ask you “Do not spend time thinking about the wine’s specific origin”, because the more relevant aspects of the wine could be the quality and commercial potential rather than the origin. If you happen to guess the identity, you may show your own excellent tasting experience, but it doesn’t help with the positioning of the wine in the trade. If you take the MW journey with the MW missions in mind, you are on the right track.

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