Updated: Jun 23
Master of Wine (MW) is a qualification (not an academic degree) issued by The Institute of Masters of Wine in the United Kingdom. The MW qualification is generally regarded in the wine industry as one of the highest standards of professional knowledge. Join us to meet each Master of Wine in our monthly Masters of Wine interview. Susan R Lin is the head of wine expertise for online fine wine retailer Belmont Wine Exchange in the San Francisco Bay Area, serving customers worldwide. As a consultant, she curates wine collections, designs wine programs, and specializes in wine and spirits music pairings and events. A lifelong devotee of music, Susan is a classical pianist and holds a Master of Fine Arts in classical piano performance and musicology. Her joy is to create memorable experiences through wine and the performing arts.
Photo source: Susan R Lin
Susan, congratulations on your Master of Wine Diploma! How did you experience the last year? Are you glad you passed for MW?
Thank you very much for your kind wishes, Zelda! I am indeed very glad that I passed all three stages of the MW Study Programme. It has been quite a journey! When I received the good news via a phone call from the Executive Director of the Institute of Masters of Wine, I was so relieved. I am thrilled that my research paper had passed the examination and could be shared with anyone who is interested in the experience of music and wine.
My life has been extremely surreal since then, and I feel sometimes that I still don’t quite realize that I have been named a Master of Wine. I have been working on new and exciting projects since the announcement, and it has been so busy that I have hardly had the opportunity to take the time to enjoy the moment. When I stop to think about what I am working on now and the new challenges, I feel grateful and excited to have arrived at this point. The journey continues, for sure.
Your learning curve is phenomenal. Diploma in Wine & Spirits, sommelier, certified specialist of wine, French Wine Scholar, WSET Certified Educator. It seems you are a real wine junky. When did you discover the beautiful world of wine and what was your first experience with wine?
Thank you! Oddly enough as I grew up I never considered I would have a career in wine and yet, come to Bastille Day this year, I will have worked in the industry for seven years. I serve as the Head of Wine Expertise at Belmont Wine Exchange, a boutique fine wine online retailer, working with partners and customers to create a personal and positive experience. In my own consultancy, I specialize in music and wine (and spirits) experiences.
I had been studying wine on my own throughout the years. When I was working in the high-tech industry and embarking on my graduate studies in music, I also wished to focus my wine studies academically. I did this purely for my own interests. Once I began with my first WSET experience, I did not want to stop! The more I learned, the more I knew I could learn. That is how I began my ‘official’ journey.
However, wine and spirits have always fascinated me since I was very young thanks to my grandfather, who always had a beautiful bottle of Bordeaux or Napa wine or a decanter of Cognac on hand when he entertained. It was my grandfather who taught me the magic and the important role of a fine beverage in bringing people together. Wine and spirits can help create memorable and enjoyable experiences. In this way, the experience of wine and the performing arts — my first professional focus — is highly complementary.
I am a lifelong student. The world of wine is constantly changing, so I will continually seek to strengthen my knowledge and to learn new aspects of our industry. That way I can be a better contributor.
It gives me great joy to be able to share my most treasured passions with customers, colleagues, and the larger community.
Your research paper is so interesting: Influences of Classical Music on the Perception of a Brut Non-Vintage Champagne. What is your direct relationship with classical music? Do you like to share more about your research and the results?
I am glad that you find my research paper topic interesting! My goals in selecting this topic were to 1) focus on the question of whether there may be any effects of classical music on the experience of Champagne, 2) to encourage further discussion on the experience of music and wine, and 3) to satisfy my own burning wish to better understand how to measure and to quantify, in a scientific manner, the interaction between classical music and Champagne. These are two things dear to my heart, so I am thrilled that my research proposal was approved and I could pursue my research.
My earliest professional training and work centered on music and dance. Although I entered the high-tech industry after graduating from university and worked at companies such as Google, I eventually fulfilled a lifelong dream to qualify for and to earn my Master of Fine Arts in Classical Piano and Musicology. I actively play and perform. Having my piano and the ability to make music proved truly salvation during the pandemic lockdown.
If I had not committed to pursuing my interests on a deeper level, I would not be where I am now. I am very happy to now be able to bring together my two passions in life: Wine and the Performing Arts.
I will speak a little more about my research and the findings next!
Photo source: Susan R Lin
What are your view on wine and musical experiences?
They belong together, and it is a continually evolving interaction! It’s fascinating that despite all of us being different individuals, scientific studies have shown that people tend to make reliably consistent associations between certain musical elements, or parameters (e.g. pitch, tempo, articulation, timbre) and musical character (e.g. calm/exciting, or gentle/powerful) with certain sensory perceptions in wine.
My research on classical music and a Brut non-vintage Champagne corroborated many of the findings and trends in previous research, and also showed some possible new trends. One very striking finding is that the Champagne was least liked and was perceived as least effervescent, least fruity, least rich, and least complex when tasted without the music. The wine was considered unbalanced and unpleasantly acidic.
In contrast, when the wine was tasted with each of the four different pieces of classical music (each piece was chosen for contrasting combinations of musical parameters and character), all 71 participants liked the wine, and each piece brought out perceptions of different sensory characteristics in the wine.
The tasting was completely blind and no one was told what they were tasting, or how many wines they tasted. They each had five glasses containing the same wine, and the vast majority of participants thought that each glass contained a different wine! This demonstrates the effect that music (and the lack thereof) can have on the experience of tasting wine. In that sense, there is a powerful potential of music to influence the perception of wine and its enjoyment.
More specifically to the champagne, my research results showed that when the music was exciting and had musical parameters of high pitch, fast tempo, sharp timbre, and dynamic/percussive articulation, the champagne felt more exciting. There was a direct correlation, or relationship, between the perception of excitement and effervescence in the champagne. This has important implications for the presentation of champagne.
Conversely, when the music was slower, more smooth, and very powerful in character, the Champagne was perceived as rich, fruity, and complex. Further research with this musical parameter and character combination on the perception of oxidative styles or Vintage Champagne expressions could test this trend more rigorously.
For this one Brut non-vintage Champagne (Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label), participants in my study felt that the ‘exciting’ music was the best match for the wine. The wine was perceived as the most effervescent, the most fresh (good acidity), and the most excitingly vibrant.
Thus, it is possible there are ways to create wine and music experiences based on the levers of musical parameters and music character. Of course, most wine and music pairings are not created with a scientific background, and that is wonderful. Any opportunity to bring wine and music together and to encourage further interest in the experience of these two sensory modalities is a good thing, I believe.
For my consulting work, I specialize in wine and music pairing experiences. I base my selections on previous scientific studies and my own research, but it is always key to understand the audience and the desired experience. The most important thing is to create a memorable, entertaining, and hopefully thought-provoking experience.
There are many more fascinating aspects to my research findings, and I invite you to read the full paper! You can find my paper at the Institute of Masters of Wine site for Research Papers, under ‘2021 RPs’.
If you are a Wine Scholar Guild member, I recently gave a webinar on my research and you can find the video recording here.
How has your experience as an engineering program manager at Google contributed to your current job?
My main role at Google was really as a program manager, and as a people manager. This role was very cross-functional. I learned better how to manage communications with colleagues and partners from different organizations with contrasting priorities and challenges, in order to bring everyone together to make a larger project succeed. So often everyone agrees on the major outcome but disagrees on the strategies and paths needed to reach that goal. Motivating people and bringing out their best, whether they are a direct report, a peer, or a superior, is very challenging but rewarding when it works. I believe that these kinds of skills are important to life in general, no matter the industry or career path.
My work at a data-driven company like Google also helped me learn to never take statistics, data, and research findings at face value. Instead, I ask questions and try to find out: Who was behind this data or research? What were the motivations? What were the study limitations? Did the media misunderstand the findings?
This learning has contributed to my critical thinking perspectives for Stage 2 MW Theory papers and my data analysis approach for my MW research paper.
You’ve performed internationally as a Chinese classical and folk dancer? That is fantastic! Dancing, music-making, and wine. Do you have more creative indulgences?
Music and dance have always been integral to my life. They share a great similarity with wine in that they are all very physical, visceral, and can be incredibly cerebral and intellectual as well. I feel that I can experience some of life’s greatest sensations and emotions in the study and expressions unique to each of these disciplines. What’s fascinating is that it is the discipline that music, dance, and wine all demand that makes the ultimate enjoyment and transcendence all the more fulfilling and liberating. The practice and performance of each art form inform the other and makes for an incredibly enriching life.
My dance training is based on classical ballet. Chinese cultures and dances are very diverse and I have learned how to approach movement very differently thanks to the contrasting styles I have studied. Learning how to assess and taste wines on a professional level similarly demands different mental and even physical approaches depending on the style of winemaking, the grape varieties, and so on.
I also love spirits! I started a project this year called Operas & Cocktails, wherein I feature a cocktail recipe by yours truly, introduced in the context of a favorite opera and aria. You can find the introduction to Operas & Cocktails here, and all other posts can be found on my blog.
Photo source: Susan R Lin
For Belmont Wine Exchange you’ve managed and executed a very important exposition appearance, in Shanghai, China. Why was this so important?
It is well documented that interest in wine in China has been rising steadily and evolving: the middle class has grown and there is a trend of younger people, especially women, incorporating wine into their lifestyles. That said, there is still a well-entrenched focus on certain regions and styles of wine that are considered ‘pedigreed’, especially from the traditional gift-giving and entertaining context in which wine has often been presented. High-end Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Napa wines figure prominently.
Belmont Wine Exchange focuses on many of these wines, which are some of the most significantly traded wines in the world according to industry sources such as Liv-Ex, Wine Lister, and the Bordeaux Index.
Participating in the Shanghai Food and Wine Expo was a way for us to see if we could broaden our reach to more potential customers, including resellers. Belmont Wine specializes in customized, personal interaction, which is important culturally in China.
The Chinese wine market is rising. China invests a lot in the wine industry in its own country. What is, in your opinion, the role of China, in the current wine market?
This is a great and enormous topic! China is undoubtedly a force in the wine world, from both a consumption and production standpoint. Significant foreign investment in winemaking has created wines of renown on the global market, such as luxury giant LVMH with Ao Yun and Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) with Long Dai. In 2011 the Ningxia Qingxue winery in the Helan province won the top Decanter World Wine Award for Best Bordeaux Red Varietal, and other accolades for domestic wineries have followed since then. This has helped improve quality in long-established brands such as Changlong as well as encouraged further investment in the industry. There is a definite potential for wines produced in China to continue to gain in quality and exposure on the export market. China’s contribution may possibly even help bring some balance to the global grape supply in the future.
On the consumption side, increasing interest in wine and wine education is creating an exciting and rapidly evolving base of a new generation of informed enthusiasts. Consumers continued interest in imported wines even as domestic wines are increasingly embraced helps bolster wine’s importance in the global demand for alcoholic beverages, while competition from other categories such as craft spirits, canned cocktails, and hard seltzers grows.
What is the craziest wine experience you ever had?
I had read that the Romantic composer Johannes Brahms, whose works I admire and hold dearly in my heart, was a wine lover himself. He particularly liked Riesling from the Rheingau. I was scheduled to perform his Rhapsody No. 2 (Opus 79), so I went out and bought a Schloss Vollrads Rheingau Trocken. Hoping to imbue my performance with one of Brahms’ own inspirations, I opened the Riesling and took a sip before I went onstage. Normally I only drink water before performing, and I worried this might affect my playing. However, the wine was so incredibly refreshing and aromatically beautiful that I felt somehow energized yet relaxed. That was probably the most exhilarating performance I have ever given for that music!
Which Master of Wine should I interview next?
There are so many great people in the MW community, and I admire them all! Perhaps you could reach out to the other Masters of Wine who were named at the same time as me. They are a diverse group of people and I am sure they have so much to share. There is always something to be learned from one another.
Thank you for your interest in me and my work and passions! In responding to your questions, I have learned a little more about myself. These discoveries and interactions with people like you are what make life so exciting and worthwhile!
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