May 31, 2011

A wine story

(Romy Sia, managing director of Wine Story, inside the store’s clear-glass cellar showcasing special wines in various sizes aside from the regular size such as imperial - biggest size in 6 liters, jeroboam - 5 liters, double magnum - 3 liters, and magnum - 1.5 liters. Photos courtesy of Wine Story)

THERE’S nothing more relaxing after a long day than opening a bottle of wine and drinking it with friends. We sip, we eat great food, and laugh over the most nonsensical things. Then we all go home with a really good buzz and a smile on our faces.

But when the wine is off, somehow the get-together misses that special spark. And it isn’t such a perfect night after all. (Same is true when we get mediocre food or encounter inefficient service in a restaurant.)

Fortunately, buying wines at Wine Story eliminates most of the trial-and-error experienced when making purchases at ordinary wine stores with sales clerks who don’t even know the difference between a Shiraz and Syrah. (Actually, there is none. They are the same grape, but is known as Syrah in Europe, South America and the US, and Shiraz among the newer wine producers like South Africa and Australia.)

The first time I entered the wine store at the Shangri-La Mall, the extent of its French wines took my breath away—all excellent, top-of-the-line choices from Bordeaux. I was also met by a very knowledgeable sommelier named Carlo, who walked me through the store, as my eyes grew wider and wider at each bottle’s price tag. (There were a few reasonably priced New World wines, as well.)

Romy Sia, co-owner of this splendid wine store with childhood friend and business partner Christian Tan, is unapologetic about the expensive prices of their wine bottles. “They say, ‘Romy, it’s cheaper on the Internet.’ Then go ahead and buy there. But when is it going to arrive? You want a good bottle of wine, give me your credit card, you’ll have it tonight.” Romy and Christian are also partners at Healthy Options, the country’s first store chain for healthy-food alternatives and food supplements. It was a venture they started as an offshoot of Romy’s son’s food allergies. Another company is Bow & Wow, which caters to the needs of pet owners.

(Customers can buy a card for P1,000 that entitles them to taste the wines which are dispensed via the enomatic machines.)

Romy’s parents are textile retailers who still live in Quiapo to this day. “We were not really well-off. I used to take the jeep going to school. But my parents were able to send all of us—I’m the eldest of five siblings—to college. We had a textile store on the ground floor, and we lived upstairs. So when I was young, I saw how hard my parents worked, wala silang vacation. Walang holidays. So I promised myself never to be in retail.” The irony cracked me up. Of course, the difference is, he has a more privileged clientele, and all his store brands serve the upscale market.

After graduating with a commerce degree from the University of Santo Tomas in 1981, Romy worked in Divisoria selling Lyna, the skin-whitening product. Then he worked for HSBC, but moved to the UK after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino. “I thought I’d get a job at HSBC there. But when I got there, it was recession, so I applied to other companies. I was in the finance department of all the companies I worked for.” After eight years, he got homesick and came home in 1992, with his gorgeous British wife Janet, and their two young children.

He put up Healthy Options as a “sideline” while working in finance with the Lopez Group of Companies. But when the brand had become a major retailer and was already expanding, he resigned from his job in 1997. It is now in its 16th year.

Interestingly enough, Romy didn’t become enamored with wines until he read the book The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Benjamin Wallace about three years ago. The mystery novel takes the reader into the twist and turns of the modern wine counterfeiting world, and pits scam artists with scientists who have their own tools to be able to detect a bottle of wine’s real age.

“I was hooked!” Romy says excitedly of the book. He then read more reference materials to complement his visits to wine stores in the UK, where he has been bringing his daughter for her studies. “That’s where I saw wine in real life. I’d eat at fine-dining restaurants and got exposed to more wines, and kept on reading.”

And to think, Romy grew up drinking the German wine brand Blue Nun, like many of us in the late ’70s and ’80s. We had a good laugh about it, because I, too, remember downing the white wine from that dark brown bottle with the graphic of a smiling nun in her blue-and-white habit carrying her basket of grapes.

“But if you mention that [Blue Nun] to wine connoisseurs, they will laugh at you,” he says, chuckling. I don’t doubt it. Now that we’ve been exposed to the more sophisticated whites and reds, I can’t even bring myself to drink a Blue Nun again. It remains just a sweet memory, a quaint accompaniment to my old gang’s hours of waxing poetic over many a great lover. Or were they idiot boyfriends?

(Wine Story offers both Old World wines as well as reasonably priced New World wines. Photo copyright Stella Arnaldo)

Like the rest of Asia, Filipinos are partial to red-wine varieties, says Romy, “which is actually wrong since our food, especially Filipino food, goes better with white wine. Although a wine expert also says, ‘Food and wine, as they taught us in school, is not as important as mood and wine.’ Ano ba ang mood mo [when you’re eating a dish]? If [red wine] works for you, fine.”

He then tells me his own experiments with wine and Filipino food. Dishes that go well with white wine, for example, are Lapid’s freshly popped chicharon (hold the vinegar, though), itlog na maalat with chopped tomatoes, leche flan and ginataang saging. Kare-kare, he says, will go well with Pinot Noir. “[My friends and I] play. There are things that work, there are things that don’t—like boiled eggs are difficult to pair with wine. But red wine is perfect with dark chocolates!” he enthuses. And what goes with Blue Nun? “Leche flan!” Romy says. Hysterical.

He stresses that at Wine Story, even if a customer asks his sommeliers what would go well with, say, chicken adobo, they will be able to give options. “All of them drink wine, and can explain to a customer exactly how a particular wine tastes. I think people would not spend P10,000 to P15,000 upward on a bottle of wine, if they don’t know what they’re drinking. So my first criteria with regard to my staff, aside from being a college graduate, is they must drink wine. I spend a lot of money in training them, taking them abroad to learn about wine, and, personally, I open an expensive bottle of wine and share it with them! So ’pag tanungin mo, ‘Nakatikim ka na ba ng [Chateau] Margaux,’ they can all look you in the eye and say, ‘Yes, ma’am!’”

He calls wine a celebratory drink, something to be shared with family and friends. “You know that the same exact bottle of wine tastes better if you have the right company? If you drink it on your own, it’s not as good maybe. And when you drink wine, you’re always happy! You drink liquor when you’re depressed and you want to forget, like beer, but wine is celebratory. You enjoy it with a good dinner, some company, and you don’t get drunk! Maybe just tipsy.” Romy adds that one must drink two glasses of water for every glass of wine “otherwise matutuyuan ka. Wrinkles ang mangyayari sa ’yo!” (Remember that, ladies.)

He extols the medicinal virtues of wine, stressing that drinking it regularly has eased his migraines. “My family, we’re all prone to migraines. ’Di ako umaalis ng bahay dati na walang banig ng Biogesic. But I don’t get as many headaches na since I started drinking wine.” Of course, red wine has also been said to be helpful in holding heart diseases at bay.

(Wine Story is located along the ground floor frontage of Shangri-La Plaza Mall in Mandaluyong City. A branch has opened at the Serendra, The Fort, Taguig City)

He notes that wine lovers are usually very generous. “It’s hard to drink a bottle of wine by yourself, so wine lovers usually encourage their spouses to drink wine, or encourage their friends.” And while doing this interview, Romy did just that—he opened a bottle of Chilean red, shared it with me and his energetic publicist Macy Pineda, while we snacked on dark chocolates. Mmmm.

Romy has just opened a second Wine Story at the Serendra at the Bonifacio Global City. Aside from a walk-in cellar, there are more chairs, with tables for those who just want to chill and sip their wines. It also has a kitchen where chefs could be invited to cook for private dinners and parties to be held there.

And while I may not have enough disposable income like most of Romy’s customers to afford his wines all the time, the hedonist in me can’t help but wholeheartedly agree with his statement that “life is too short to drink cheap wine.” So, cheers!

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the BusinessMirror. This piece was originally published on May 13, 2011.)

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