If you love wine and you live in Singapore, you’ll have heard of Lisa Perrotti-Brown, the girl from rural USA who as a struggling young playwright, stumbled into a job as the manager of a London wine bar, and found an all-new calling. In 2008, the same year she moved to the Lion City, she achieved her Master of Wine qualification, and joined the ranks of the world’s foremost wine experts. With so few Masters of Wines (MW) globally (today there are just 370 of these rare vinous geeks), and only a handful across Asia, she was the respected MW-about-town leading masterclasses and reviewing for the crème de la crème of publications.
Back in the US since 2015 — where she set up an office for Robert Parker Wine Advocate in California’s famed Napa wine region — she made her debut this year as Robert Parker Wine Advocate’s new Bordeaux Reviewer; the first female to do so since 1978. Titled Something for Everyone, the 2015 report celebrates the best Bordeaux vintage since 2010 with three stellar 100-point wines and 40 great value bargains.
With 2018 marking her first decade as an MW, we asked her about being female in an old boys club.
Located in Saint-Emilion, Chateau Cheval Blanc’s 2015 vintage is one of three wines rated 100-points.
You’ve been in the wine trade for nearly 30 decades. Was, or is, there a gender bias?
I’ve been working in the wine industry for more than 27 years: 13 years in the UK, four years in Tokyo, eight years in Singapore and now I am living back in the USA (where I grew up and studied). During that time, I have worked in the on and off-trades, in restaurant, retail, wholesale, marketing, purchasing, education and publishing businesses, and for nine different companies. In all that time and in all my positions, I have never worked for a woman.
When I first began working in the wine trade, I was immediately struck by how prevalent cronyism was. In the UK wine trade in the early 1990s, it seemed like so many of the top jobs were passed from one good old boy to another. Women were mainly secretaries, assistants and service staff. In those days it was still OK for employers to ask women in a job interview if they planned to have children, and I have been asked that on several occasions. I even worked for one company that insisted their female staff wear only skirts or dresses. This said, I have been very fortunate in my career path, because almost all of the companies for whom I have worked have treated women fairly and with respect. I’ve heard some horrific #metoo stories from female friends in the industry, so I cannot complain.
Do gender stereotypes and prejudices still persist?
Nowadays, I think most of the wine world is edging towards gender equality. This is mainly thanks to a great core of tenacious, outspoken and very clever women who work tirelessly within all facets of our industry to demonstrate, again and again, our value. At the end of the day, this is what it all boils down to: Making yourself valuable, regardless of gender. As the Editor-in-Chief of Robert Parker Wine Advocate, I am responsible for hiring and managing our Reviewers as well as our US editorial, marketing and support teams. Across those teams, we are exactly 50/50 percent female/male, although I can assure you that is purely coincidental as I really do not consider gender when I am hiring. Within our reviewer team, there are 7 men and just 2 women, Monica Larner and myself. When I seek out new reviewers – and I am constantly talent scouting – I never think, “We need a man/woman for this role.” It is essential for us to get the most talented and experienced taster for the region(s) of coverage in order to maintain our position at the pinnacle of wine criticism. But I will say this: As I continue seeking-out fresh wine tasting talent across the globe, more and more frequently, more and more women are getting my attention.
You recently made your debut as Robert Parker Wine Advocate’s Bordeaux Reviewer. That’s a lot of people entrusting their taste buds and investments to you. Do you feel the pressure?
There is a certain amount of pressure that comes with the job, but the pressure mainly comes from a sense of duty to accurately taste and describe each and every wine for the ultimate benefit of our readers. When you are tasting hundreds of wines and you have a limited amount of time, keeping your head in the game and maintaining absolute focus is key. This requires an enormous amount of energy, so I try to keep well rested and do not attend dinners or socialise over the tasting period in Bordeaux, which is usually 10-15 days at a time, several times per year.
In your experience, are women better tasters than men? Some research do point to that.
Potentially, but not necessarily. Tasting wine for reviews can be considered a two-part process. The first part is linked to natural ability: Your ability to detect aroma and flavor compounds using your nose and tongue. In this regard, each individual is totally unique. We all have different noses with varying olfactory receptors, sensitivities to particular aromas and aroma detection thresholds. And we all have different tongues, which is where women can have an advantage, because they tend to have more taste buds. I hasten to add, most of what we detect in a wine is done so by smell rather than taste, so this is in fact a minor advantage. The second part of the process is equally important to natural ability when assessing a wine’s quality: Memory recall. This is the ability to compare a wine that is being tasted to a mental library of many, many, many other wines of its peer group. For this, the taster must have accrued a significant mental wine library by tasting thousands of wines, usually over a period of many years. So ultimately, experience plays a huge role here, and this is of course gender-blind.
How do you train this photographic memory that’s required to taste, remember and place every wine you’ve ever tried?
It is a little like learning a foreign language. Wine critics are constantly translating aromas and flavours into descriptors, which ultimately come together to tell a unique story. For me, remembering wines is like remembering thousands and thousands of stories, some similar, others very different, but all are unique. “Training” my memory doesn’t really come into it, because I am fascinated by great wines like others are fascinated by books, paintings, movies or songs, and therefore cannot help but remember them.
As an MW, you’ve proven yourself an expert in pretty much every wine region and style. What is it about Bordeaux wine that speaks to you on a personal level?
The greatest wines of Bordeaux are bottled history – a vinous account of a time, place and person (who made it) that is truer than any written or spoken account can possibly be.
Robert Parker is perhaps the most-known wine critic in the world, but he’s not short of critics himself. What have you learnt from him?
I’ve learned so much from working with Robert Parker, I could probably write a book on this alone! The most important things I learned from him have made me a better person: Integrity, duty, loyalty and humility.