Gus Zhu has a strong academic background; he has a degree in Horticultural Science and an Msc in Viticulture and Enology. Last year, at the age of just 31, Gus Zhu became the first Chinese national to successfully complete the Master of Wine programme. He was accepted into the MW programme in 2016 (two years after achieving his WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines) and, impressively, passed the exams for all three stages at the first attempt and in just three years.
Gus divides his time between the US and China and specialises in wine education, English-to-Chinese translation of wine-related materials, and chemistry and sensory science relating to the colour of red wine. Here Gus tells us about his passion for wine and wine education, his WSET experience and the differences between teaching in China and the US.
What sparked your love affair with wine?
My passion for wine was ignited by my mentors: Professor Huiqin Ma from China Agricultural University, whose wine appreciation classes I thoroughly enjoyed during my college years; Fongyee Walker MW and Edward Ragg MW, my colleagues at Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting as wine became a more and more indispensable part of my life; and finally, all the professors at UC Davis who elevated my love affair with wine science to another level.
What inspired you to go into wine education and what major changes have you seen in wine education in China since you started teaching at Dragon Phoenix in Beijing a decade ago?
Once someone discovers their passion for wine, it’s unstoppable. I enjoy every moment I spend teaching because my students are so passionate and dedicated. Sharing my knowledge and enjoyment of wines is the best thing about teaching.
When I joined Dragon Phoenix in 2010, we were happy if eight people signed up for a WSET Level 2 Award in Wines course. Today, there is a long, long waiting list for studying the WSET Diploma with Dragon Phoenix. It is quite unbelievable.
What do you think are the key differences between teaching wine in China and the US?
When I started to teach part-time in the US, there was a huge influence from the movie “SOMM”. Along with the restaurant and tipping culture in America, people tend to think wine education is more about being a sommelier.
In China, we take a more academic approach when teaching and learning about wine, whereas in the US people focus more on the storytelling, marketing and hospitality. Recently, I’ve found students in both countries have started to evaluate each type of wine qualification carefully to figure out what kind of wine education they really need. More and more people understand what to expect in the class and what they can do after achieving the qualifications.
The wine market in Mainland China is very different to that in the US - where you’re from influences the wines you become most familiar with. For example, students in China always know a lot about Australian wines, but they may have very little understanding of Californian wines. In the US, students may not be familiar with Australian wines at all, but many of them know so much about Californian wines.
Pronouncing wine terms correctly can be a big challenge for some Chinese-speaking students. Do you have any advice about this?
There are videos published by WSET with pronunciations of many wine terms. Many online dictionaries also provide audio pronunciations.
How important do you think formal education is for succeeding in the industry?
WSET offers a comprehensive understanding of the world of wines but working in the wine industry does require additional specialised skills and experience. In other words, qualifications such as those from WSET provide an important foundation for becoming an industry professional.
I use the knowledge gained through WSET courses almost every day as a tutor for the WSET Online Classroom, teaching and giving feedback to global Diploma candidates.
I enjoy every moment I spend teaching because my students are so passionate and dedicated. Sharing my knowledge and enjoyment of wines is the best thing about teaching.
From WSET student to WSET Certified Educator, what has your WSET experience been like to date?
It has been an amazing journey in discovering my potential. When I was hesitating about signing up for the WSET Diploma back in 2012, both Fongyee Walker MW and the WSET International Development Director Jude Mullins asked me to give it a try. I didn’t quite trust my own abilities to pass the Diploma back then, but I trusted Fongyee and Jude. People like them helped me realise that nothing is impossible.
Do you have any tips for younger Chinese wine enthusiasts who aspire to follow in your footsteps?
If you are interested in a career in wine education, be truly passionate about wine and use critical thinking, but don’t feel you have to follow my footsteps. Everyone is different. Enjoy the wines you like and enjoy what you do!
If you are interested in learning more about wine, why not take a WSET course online or in the classroom. To find a course provider near you click here.