Olivier Gilles graduated with a master’s degree in international trade of wine and spirits from a prestigious university in France. He was set to go elsewhere after he graduated but saw a growing wine market in Asia. So with more than 20 years of experience in the wine industry, he opened the first wine tasting class in Cambodia, the Vionolive Wine School. Eileen McCormick caught up with him recently.
GT2: Is this a career you wanted since you were a child?
Gilles: I was born and raised in a restaurant and hotel and I did what most of us do as kids. You think you want to do something else when you grow big. I could not see myself following in my parent’s footsteps. I tried something else but in the end I discovered that the wine industry is what I know and like. So I started my career late.
GT2: What has been your experience with the wine industry in Cambodia?
Gilles: I was the boss to the Wine Warehouse on St 240 for seven years. I stopped last May because I knew I wanted to start a wine school. I started this venture thinking about what the country needs and how I could bring my experience to fill that need. What I aim to make sure in whatever I do is that It is interesting and valuable. I have been in this business for 20 years and I can tell you no one is doing what I am doing right now in Cambodia.
GT2: Sommelier, what exactly does that term mean?
Gilles: Sommelier is not the term for a wine master. It is the guy or girl who at a restaurant tells you what wine would go well with your meal. He or she is the person on the floor telling you try this and that was my job for 20 years.
GT2: How is your wine class different from other wine tasting classes?
Gilles: So what I offer is an introduction to taste. I’m going to give you the techniques and methods to be able to taste the wine properly. And this is only the first level. In total I offer three different levels. After three times, two hours each, you will have the good basics to be able to taste wine to appreciate it.
GT2: What type of students do you get? Do you do one-on-one trainings?
Gilles: The one-on-ones are more for private customers. This training that we are having today, which you are here to cover, has a different group of people who are working in the industry. Normally if someone is looking for something more intense or training to run their business that’s a different sort of training. What I am offering today is not that.
Today is all about understanding your senses and how to use them to pay attention to details we tend to miss, with so much going on in our environment. That’s the main point. It’s just like eating and not paying attention to your food. Everything goes on so fast that we lose sight of things and forget what’s in front of us.
GT2: Can you tell me a little bit about your class?
Gilles: Every month, there will be a master class for different types of wine. And then different courses for each kind of wine. We will also offer introductory classes on wine tasting. Classes for all these different things are at different levels. I need to do few classes to be able to offer the second one and so forth. It’s all a progression. My classes are all small, the maximum is 12 people. So when I have 12 people in one class, it doesn’t mean all 12 will come back for the next level. So that means I would need to have several separate classes for one level before moving on to the next – just to get the numbers.
GT2: What do you mean by paying attention to your surroundings and environment?
Gilles: Think about what you ate recently and can you tell me what it tastes like. So I ask my students to explain it. What does it taste like? It seems easy enough but you would be surprised how difficult it can be because people don’t pay attention. So today, the exercise will not focus on wine. It will instead be actually on water in drinking bottles. I know it’s disappointing, right?
GT2: What can I expect later on with this water bottle exercise?
Gilles: There are nine different bottles of water to taste once the class starts. I will explain that to you in more detail and don’t want to divulge too much. Each person is given the chance to smell each of the water bottles and taste it too. And you’ll get responses like ‘that’s sweet, that’s salty, that’s bitter and that’s sour’. I also place one bottle of water in neutral. This is a good introductory exercise to wine appreciation and developing the sense of smell.
GT2: What benefits will there be for Cambodians if they get certified in wine tasting?
Gilles: First, tourism is exploding in this country. There’s a four or five-star hotel opening every week almost. And there’re lots of schools in the country teaching kids hospitality and catering, business, cooking, waitering, housekeeping and front desk management. But there’s nothing related to wine. There is a famous Malaysian chef who’s coming here and he’s looking for somebody. But there’s no one in Cambodia who can work on his floor. There’re kids who like wine and might have some general knowledge but they are not sommeliers. They may tell people they are to get hired. But when you apply for jobs at 5-star dining places, they will know for certain whether you’re a sommelier or not.
GT2: Do you have a favourite wine?
Gilles: Every wine is good. People often ask questions like this: ‘What is your favourite one?’ I really don’t know and it depends on what I am eating. Also, I need to know who’s with me at the table, what’s my mood and what’s the weather outside? You will not drink the same wine or request the same one when these situations vary. And these very factors impact how food and wine can taste.