Queena Wong is rapidly becoming one of the most influential people in wine you’ve never heard of. Recently nominated as one Code’s Top 100 Most Influential Women in Hospitality 2022, Queena is all about bringing connectivity to the wine trade, dedicating her time to opening doors in the industry. The founder of Curious Vines, she’s a die-hard champion of women in wine.
What sparked your love of wine?
When I first came to the UK, I didn’t know anything about wine really. Back then Aussie wines were terrible, oak chips were added to them, they were overly extracted and really not my thing. I came over here and I just didn’t get European wine – it was very different. Then I went for a lunch at The Capital Restaurant, just behind Harrods, and one of the sommeliers there broke the ice in terms of wine service approachability. The sommelier was Australian – which helped because we’re all a bit cheeky. He had a broken arm and he was there with his black penguin suit. I knew nothing about wine service then and he put his arm behind his back to pour the champagne, which is of course all part of very formal wine service, and I remember as a really naive 26-year-old laughing at him and saying ‘I can still see your broken arm’. How stupid am I? He laughed and said ‘oh, this is gonna be a really fun service’. I don’t remember what we had for lunch, but the point was it made it fun.
I then bumped into him a couple of years later at a tasting when I was working in the City. He told me he was moving to work for a merchant, coming off the floor. I think it’s a typical story, hospitality is hard physically and has family-unfriendly hours. Until then, I was very happy picking up my Sancerre from Sainsburys. But he told me my palate deserved better. He used to get me to come early and go through 1-2-1 what it is that I could taste and smell – before the tastings he did with his clientele. It was the hand-holding I needed to get over all the confidence issues of ‘oh I can’t smell this; I can’t taste that’. And coming from a sommelier background he was used to talking to clients at the table, used to always saying the right thing.
It was such a gentle, brotherly [sort of instruction] and without it I wouldn’t be where I am today. It gave me the confidence to progress my understanding of what it is to buy fine wine, why we buy better wine, why we spend more on wine. My disposable income goes into wine now! I guess that’s why I have such an affinity to hospitality because that was my route in.
You have an increasingly high profile, both as a collector and as a facilitator in the trade in general. How do you leverage this to drive change?
I have on purpose raised my profile which isn’t hugely comfortable for me as I’m quite low key, so the award [Code’s Top 100 Most Influential Women in Hospitality 2022] was a real shock for me. I tried to raise my profile publicly within the trade because I felt that I wanted to tell people: ‘women can do wine’. There’s the [B2C] side, the on-trade side, but also the consumer side of things. I think there’s less focus on that – is it a problem? Maybe not, the wine still sells. It’s something for the trade to decide if it wants to address.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. Curious Vines was originally built as an effort I made to try and tackle that consumer space. I did that for three or four years and then Covid stopped it. That allowed me to reassess how successful it was regarding what my objective was and what the result was – they weren’t matching. I had a couple of women I’d converted into buying cases of wine, but at the end of the day I was putting in a lot of effort and energy and not getting much back. It’s a sphere that needs more effort than just these one-off tastings.
Do you still run Curious Vines sessions? How did you adjust your events for Covid?
For Curious Vines I worked in conjunction with half a dozen merchants. The idea was to help women develop relationships with these merchants. So, the idea was that the merchant would give me someone to co-present with and supply the wines. I really didn’t want to develop a sales arm, that’s not my strong point. My strong point is people – inspiring and nurturing them. Co-presentation made the events more fluid because it shows people wine is a conversation, it’s a sharing thing. [The events] stopped when Covid hit. I did some things on Zoom right at the beginning, in the first two to three weeks of lockdown. I got my Curious Vines database and send out an invite for people to join and bring a bottle so we could share what we’re drinking. Again, it was a way to get people to learn to be more confident to talk about their wine. It takes practice to do that.
When I realised that the restaurant community and on-trade community were all at home getting depressed, I decided I needed to shift focus. So, I called some of my sommelier mates, all high-level MS’s and we put together some content. I took out a £15 zoom, they talked about stuff and I moderated and we just put it out on social media. I reckon for the industry I was one of the first to get going, because I’m a one-woman band with her mates.
It was amazing the response. Because it was a Zoom rather than a webinar people could sit there and see each other and message each other. At the time merchants hadn’t got their head around how to do virtual events. I wasn’t providing bottles, I was just telling people where to source the wines – again, I was stepping back from logistics. I think I did five or six events which were open for anyone to register, raised a bit of money for the Drinks Trust and Hospitality Action. My last event was June, just at the point that 67 Pall Mall had started their first set of webinars. So, I stepped out because I wasn’t needed anymore.
Because I’m a one-woman band I’m quite agile, and I’m quite good at coming up with what needs to be done. I come in as the ‘Fairy Wine Godmother’, identify the problem and temporarily fix it until the industry catches up.
You run boot camps for women who are doing the MW. Why do you think they’re important? What is your blueprint for this approach?
The very first bootcamp was the result of Covid. If you do not work for a merchant or have access to bottles, the way people were previously getting access [to the volume of wines needed to train for the blind tasting exam] was going to trade tastings. That was how they were getting their palate tuned in. During Covid there were obviously no tastings, so I had one lady come to me and ask if I could help because she knew I was ‘pro-girl’. So, I told her that if she brought me a dozen women who were sitting the MW exam, I would make something happen.
That night I started messaging women, including Sarah Abbott, who I knew could help, who were supportive of other women. I asked if they could help me deliver on my promise because I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Lenka Sedlackova MW had a couple of papers she’d done before and she sent them to me with information on the sorts of wines I’d need for those questions. I then contacted my merchant friends – the gals network. I asked for any donations which fit the grid. 70% of the wines were donated, and I funded the other 30% because it was the right thing to do.
I got everyone to come to my house, (it met regulations as a professional gathering). We had people around the table. I invigilated the two papers; we had the line ups and the technical sheets. Then Sarah and Lenka came after they’d done their two papers in the afternoon to talk them through it. It meant [the MW candidates] were effectively tutoured about how to answer the questions, what they needed to do to get the marks.
My view is a qualification only take you so far. To then be successful in your industry, in your business, you need contacts. I brought some of my sommelier network in and some other women who are supportive and effectively up and coming talent, and we did a networking event on the same day as that MW practice day. It was a full, exhausting day.
We repeated it this year – except I managed to get all the wines sponsored, and we had a different MW, Natasha Hughes, step in. We had the Harpers ‘30 Under 30’ announced just before this evening, so I went after the young talent, using my connections to get people on that list to the networking event. Qualifications are good, they open doors, women need it (they think they need it). I’ll support them on that journey but then once you have your qualification there’s so much more to actually becoming successful. My view is, let’s [get women to] fill their own black books.
How do you show women how to build their networks?
Some people ask ‘why are you giving away your black book’, because to many people your address book is your asset. But if I don’t how else will I make change. And my view is that if you want to make change you need to be open with it. If I want to support new talent and they come to me of course I’ll pass on who they need to speak to. So that in their 40 or 50-year career in the industry they’ll grow their own black book, be successful and do for others what I’ve done for them. It’s creating a community, creating a family. There is a focus on some of the qualifications – but the change is far bigger than that. You can get your MW but it’s not going to change your life as far as what you do. You don’t get paid any more. It opens some doors, sure, but the real key is connecting. The MWs are connected within themselves but they’re not connected anywhere else.
The network I have are all self-selecting to be part of what I’m doing. I send out a newsletter weekly – I encourage people to tell me if they’ve produced something. Have they written something, do they have an event going, have they done a podcast? In this way we get to know more names, find out who’s doing what, and hear about interesting concepts. During the transport strikes, [for example], we had women worried no one would show up to their events so we put it up and got people there. It’s a space where I’m trying to teach the ethos of supporting each other, and I’m also encouraging women to promote themselves.
Women have to contact me to join the newsletter rather than having a little form you have to fill in online – because [by making that connection] it’s already more purposeful. I do regular gatherings of the network, the last one was 70 people. When I’m in that room, everyone’s sharing a bottle, it’s an icebreaker. My job is also to meet the new people who’ve come in, to find out a bit about them, and to suss out if there’s anyone in the room it would be useful for them to meet. I do that especially for the women who are standing back and struggling to network.
If you’re the Fairy Godmother of Wine – what’s next on your list to fix?
I’m already doing lots of other things. The MW bootcamp is the thing that people attach to because it’s measurable – people understand it. The gatherings I do aren’t measurable but they’re just as beneficial. It’s teaching women soft skills – how to network, how to promote themselves, teaching them confidence.
I recently did some preparation work for the UK Sommelier of the Year awards. Four of my coached women got through to finals – the highest number ever. That’s already a tangible difference.