BANGKOK -- Three years ago, Kodchakarn Panpotong had never touched alcohol. She has yet to visit a winery. Despite long experience in the restaurant trade, she hardly seemed a promising choice to recommend wines at Eat Me, a mainstay of Bangkok's fine dining scene.
But in a rags-to-riesling story typical of Thailand, this transgender waitress is one of many unlikely candidates to have been certified as a level 2 sommelier, or wine steward, by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, an instructional and testing organization for the wine and spirits industry. "My palate and knowledge expands every day," said Kodchakarn. "I'm sure now this is the path for my future."
Any fan of Thai cuisine knows about som tam, a spicy green papaya salad. But "somm" -- short for sommelier -- is becoming an almost equally well-known term in Thailand's epicurean lexicon, amid a surge of interest in wine qualifications triggered -- or at least assisted -- by a Netflix documentary called "Somm" that followed the obsessive preparations of U.S. aspirants to the title of Master Sommelier.
YouTube videos have also proved a popular means of tutelage for aspiring experts, who can sit four levels of diplomas offered by the WSET, as well as the prestigious titles Master of Wine, examined by the same organization, or Master Sommelier, examined by the Court of Master Sommeliers. Both examining organizations are based in the U.K. but conduct courses and examinations worldwide.
A decade ago, nearly all wine stewards in prestigious Thai restaurants were foreigners. Exact figures are not easy to find because multiple organizations compete to test and certify candidates, but more than 100 people have applied to take part in the next annual Thailand's Best Sommelier Competition in June, compared with just 18 a decade ago.
At least two dozen Thai sommeliers have risen to top positions at leading establishments, including the Anantara hotel group and the Bangkok Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Pakpoom Towatcharakun, who works at the Shangri-La Hotel in the northern city of Chiang Mai, placed third in the Sixth Southeast Asia Sommelier Competition in 2017 -- the highest position yet achieved by a Thai contestant. Pakpoom has just entered a competition in the 2019 Best Sommelier in the World contest, organized by the Paris-based Association de la Sommellerie Internationale, in Antwerp, Belgium, from March 10.
This profession has totally changed my life," said Pakpoom. "You have to keep working, expanding your knowledge, when too many just want to stay in their comfort zone. But now I get to travel, I'm respected and have confidence."
Banyat Chinpinyokul, head of the Mandarin's team and the main sommelier at the Michelin-starred Le Normandie restaurant, began as a barista making coffee, but said he was given the opportunity to learn about wine when foreign colleagues saw that he liked to read history, presumably including viniculture. Life as a sommelier, he said, involves "spending two hours studying before work every day" and "extra time afterward tasting."
Sommelier Dirake-rit Kotchawong, who manages Bangkok's high-end Riedel Wine Bar & Cellar, one of numerous such establishments to spring up recently, studied wine after attending college in New York. "I still have to tell my family that I am a wine taster, and I can only hope that in my lifetime they will understand," he said. "But I am really trying to do something for the whole country."
Joe Sriwarin, longtime head of the Thailand Sommelier Association, and a former publisher of Thailand Wine Today magazine, said sommeliers need to understand that their role can make or break a restaurant. "I always tell applicants to look in the kitchen. They'll see 15 people working there. But as a sommelier, you are only one. And on a slow night, when not much food is sold, the wine you recommend can support the whole place."
In China and Japan, where thousands are studying for wine industry titles and certification, each step on the qualifications ladder is tied to salary increases. But the path to rewards in the Thai food and beverage industry is unclear and unregulated -- with a whole litany of obstacles along the way.
First and foremost is proficiency in English, said Sriwarin. "A sommelier above all is a communicator. He can't be shy or stumble over terminology regarding nose, hints of strawberry or oak." As a result, he said, "There are still many foreigners who can get a job here based solely on image, a suave French accent [when speaking English]. But few of them are real experts."
The other major concern cited by many is Thailand's tariff on imported wines, which is among the highest in the world at up to 400%. Despite campaigns to promote tourism through Thai restaurants with Michelin stars, the tariff was raised in 2017 -- without much warning -- resulting in a six-month halt in imports while the industry adjusted.
The official justification is that this is a "sin tax" that furthers Thailand's Buddhist values, but cheap rice wines and Southeast Asian whiskeys are plentiful. Many posit that the government is influenced by the country's large beer companies, which also find ways around a general ban on advertising alcohol. The high cost of wines limits the number of wine drinkers, even though an expanding middle-class is showing more interest.
"The tax also limits choice," said Spanish importer Jordan Cortes, pointing out that "a few years back, 90% of the Prosecco was all one brand." Most big spenders tend to stick with strong, full-bodied French Bordeaux wines produced by well-known brands, or Australian reds from Penfold's, which makes Australia's most expensive wines. French wines held 35% of the Thai market in 2017, with Australia taking 30%. No other country had more than a single digit percentage.
"There's a lot of education to be done, and it's the sommeliers' job to get people to think out of the box," said Banyat. While there's been some movement toward lighter burgundy wines, he said, "a lot of the upper-tier still want to show their spending power with prestige brands."
Many sommeliers have been pleased to see the appearance of more adventurous palates among a new generation steeped in overseas travel and the internet. "It's hoped they can find new ways to express their interest," said Pira Laohacharoensombat, who recommends wine at hotels in Chiang Mai and Pai, also in northern Thailand. He added that Wine Connection restaurants, which sell less expensive wines, has helped many consumers to feel "less intimidated."
Others argue that Thais are hamstrung by a spicy diet that numbs them to subtle distinctions like those found among wines. "In the beginning, I stopped eating som tam or nahm prik (chili paste) for three months so I could taste the complexities," said Pira. But Sriwarin dismissed the argument that only powerful spirits or beers can meet the challenge of Thai food. "There are over 1,000 grape varietals, don't you think we can find at least a dozen that pair well with our cuisine?"
He also accused the larger importers of doing little to spread wine knowledge, adding: "This is still a country where they can get rid of old stock of their 'dead' wines, because buyers don't know enough about how various vintages age."
For Riedel Wine Bar's Dirake-rit, the biggest challenge is running a wine bar without a fixed wine list -- and curating the bar's "Best 40 wines-by-the-glass" list. "Taking into account costing, pricing, quality, and style of winemaking, I need to interpret complicated wine profiles into an understandable term for my clientele... good recommendations can only come from a skillful sommelier," he said.
Thais attempting to go beyond working as wine waiters also face a further impediment. Only a few employers offer support for training and travel, so candidates from low-wage backgrounds may not be able to afford the entry fees for examinations or the airfare to Hong Kong, the nearest venue for most testing.
Many still view the sommelier as "a specialized waiter, not even a maitre d'," said Pairach Intaput, president of the Association of Thai Sommelier launched three decades ago with French government support. Pairach is helping 60 newcomers find employment by developing their sensitivity to glin, or aroma. Pakpoom added: "People still have to learn that sommelier is not just a title, it's a profession."
It might take "another 50 years" for Thailand to reach full wine-appreciation status, Sriwarin said. In the meantime, the person uncorking your bottle could be a rank beginner, a cynical price-pusher or a high-aptitude aspirant from almost any background.
"But lifestyles are changing," he said. "When you go to the doctor, he'll tell you to stop drinking hard liquor but recommend red wine for the heart. So we must groom our own Thai boys and girls to help do the job."