Filipino Sommeliers and the Western Bias in Wine Tasting

Left to right: Miguel de Leon, Jhonel Faelnar and Anthony Cailan / Photo by Caroline Hatchett
Left to right: Miguel de Leon, Jhonel Faelnar and Anthony Cailan / Photo by Caroline Hatchett

Like many Filipinos, Jhonel Faelnar, Miguel de Leon and Anthony Cailan share a common introduction to wine. Years apart but dressed in the same styled short-sleeved barong Tagalog and black dress pants, Faelnar and de Leon marched down an aisle, dipped wafers into wine and partook in their first holy communion. The American-born Cailan wore a white button-up with a clip-on tie, and he sipped straight from the chalice.

It was an important initiation for the three future sommeliers. “Wine was kept to the church,” says de Leon, who spent his early years in Caloocan, a city outside Manila, before he moved to California at age 11 and relocated to New York City in 2007. “That moment was a big deal.”

The three now run their own wine programs in New York City—Faelnar at Atoboy and Atomix; de Leon at Pinch Chinese; Cailan at The Usual. We talked to the three sommeliers about how the flavors of the Philippines saturate the way they taste and experience wine—and how they share that with their guests.

“The Court of Master Sommeliers is an organization I respect… But ultimately, it’s about what we do tableside and the experience we give to paying guests—[certification] pin or not.” —Jhonel Faelnar, Atoboy and Atomix

Addressing the Western Bias in Wine

As with any non-Westerners studying wine, Faelnar, de Leon and Cailan’s culinary reference points were born continents away from Eurocentric wine culture. They had jackfruit, fish sauce and hibiscus seared into their memories from a young age, but no honeysuckle, pear or blueberry. There was rarely wine in their childhood homes. Adults drank beer, Johnny Walker, Cutty Sark and, on more spirited nights, lambanog, a Filipino coconut moonshine. Kids drank water.

As an 18-year-old at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Cailan was terrified by wine class.

“I thought it was super snooty, and it made me feel really small,” says Cailan. “My frames of reference weren’t as big as other people’s. Honestly, it freaked me out a little bit. I thought, ‘This is supposed to smell like wet rocks and moss? Huh? It smells like hay? What? Am I an idiot? This smells like alcohol.’ ”

Alcohol is central to celebrations in the Philippines, but it’s an afterthought on weeknights and always secondary to food. Faelnar grew up in Quezon City, another suburb of Manila, before he moved to Japan for a year and a half, then left for the United States in 2013.

His family employed a cook who made traditional Filipino meals three times a day. After church on Sunday and at family gatherings, stews like dinuguan and laing (a coconut milk-taro leaf dish) filled the table.

Dinuguan, a savory Filipino stew / Getty
Dinuguan, a savory Filipino stew / Getty

De Leon’s grandmother was part Chinese, which meant pancit (noodles) or dim sum on Sundays. A cook took care of weekday meals of caldereta (stew often made with goat meat), adobo and other classics. Merienda, or snack time, meant Boy Bawang (garlic corn nuts) and salt and vinegar wheat crunchies for Cailan, and adobo- or butter-flavored Nagaraya cracker nuts for de Leon.

Without knowing it, they had been nurtured and inspired by a culture that valued food and hospitality. This helped fuel early explorations into wine.

“When I was starting out studying wine, the first thing I picked up on were different fruits. I grew up with a guava tree in my backyard, and notes of guava, guava skin and underripe guava always come to me first.” —Jhonel Faelnar

“Digging your nose into wine, it’s very instinctual,” says Faelnar. “It’s the most primal thing. When I was starting out studying wine, the first thing I picked up on were different fruits. I grew up with a guava tree in my backyard, and notes of guava, guava skin and underripe guava always come to me first.”

But they all had fundamental differences from their more traditionally Eurocentric counterparts in how they approached and described wine.

Typical merienda, a light meal in the Philippines usually taken in the afternoon / Getty
Typical merienda, a light meal in the Philippines usually taken in the afternoon / Getty

The Filipino Wine Palate

“Gooseberry, I still can’t get that note,” says de Leon, who started as a receptionist at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. De Leon worked through the back and front of house before he embarked on a career in wine.

He and Faelnar addressed their palate differences at farmers markets and grocery stores. They’d buy local fruits and inhale the aromas of unfamiliar herbs.

“A lot of wine culture is couched in a Western philosophy, but I never considered myself behind,” says de Leon.

“[We] have a very particular point of view that we want to share with diners. They’re already there for the food, but the bonus is you have a brown guy that’s like, ‘Let me show you something you never would have thought of drinking.’ My face is my pin.” —Miguel de Leon, Pinch Chinese

Eventually, De Leon and Faelnar found mentors. For de Leon, it was Jonathan Waters, the wine director of Chez Panisse, who helped him navigate the tasting process. Faelner learned under Roger Dagorn MS, currently with The River Café in Brooklyn, New York, and Scott Carney MS, dean of wine studies at the International Culinary Center.

Cailan, a first-generation American, split his childhood between Pico Rivera and Pasadena, California. Growing up, he ate a fair amount of can-opener cuisine, with Vienna sausages, cream of mushroom soup and Spam in regular rotation.

“My parents grew up with post-World War II food,” says Cailan. “There was always fried eggs and crispy Spam at breakfast. Bacon was too expensive.”

Counterclockwise from top left: soursop, pomelo, cacao, saba bananas, kalamansi limes / Getty
Counterclockwise from top left: soursop, pomelo, cacao, saba bananas, kalamansi limes / Getty

Cailan eventually learned to draw out aromas and flavors in wine, and he found mentors in Domaine LA founder Jill Bernheimer, who introduced him to natural wine, and Bestia wine director Ryan Ibsen, who taught Cailan how to be fearless with his pairings.

“I was never a big book learner, and when I fell in love, I dived in,” he says. “Food and wine made sense to me.”

Still, Cailan was scarred by those early wine classes and forever turned off from formal learning. That includes the Court of Master Sommeliers, which he feels is too Eurocentric to fully embrace immigrant voices like his.

“The Court of Master Sommeliers is an organization I respect,” says Faelnar, an Advanced Sommelier who’s working toward a Master’s certification. “I was mentored by some really amazing role models who encouraged me to pursue the program. It’s how I push myself. But ultimately, it’s about what we do tableside and the experience we give to paying guests—[certification] pin or not.”

De Leon falls somewhere in the middle. He has certifications, but doesn’t wear them on his lapel.

“I think in right context, pins are great,” he says. “In three-star Michelin restaurants, pins are de rigueur. You need someone to guide you through a page of esoteric wines or vintages. But in the spheres and restaurants we’re operating in, we have a very particular point of view that we want to share with diners. They’re already there for the food, but the bonus is you have a brown guy that’s like, ‘Let me show you something you never would have thought of drinking.’

“My face is my pin.”

Finding the American Dream through Wine

How to Taste Wine Like a Filipino

At Atomix, where Faelnar spends most of his nights, the tasting menu costs $205, and many guests opt for wine pairings. The service is professional yet casual, and when he describes wines to guests, flavors from home are the first thing he reaches for.

“You have to be comfortable with who you are and where you’re from, and New York is a great place for that,” he says. “No one wants a stuffy somm anymore who uses highfalutin language.

“With Chenin Blanc from South Africa, I always get dried mango in that glass. I grew up with dried mangos. I tell [my guests] that, and so begins a connection with the person in front of you.”

“We got Robitussin for everything. If my foot hurt, my mom gave me Robitussin.” —Anthony Cailan, The Usual

Open just over a year, The Usual excels at updated, amped-up American classics: burgers, fried chicken and biscuits. The chef is a familiar face to Cailan: his big brother, Alvin.

Upon The Usual’s launch, its first droves of diners weren’t big wine drinkers. Cailan, however, has converted regulars from vodka and Bourbon to Gamay, Loire Valley whites and new-school California wines.

“Now, if I reach for something and tell a table it smells like lychees and tastes amazing, they just go for it,” says Cailan.

It’s joy he’s selling and sharing—with complete confidence in his palate and personal narrative as a Spam- and sisig-fed Filipino sommelier in America.

We cracked open some bottles and asked Faelner, de Leon and Cailan to give us their unabashedly Filipino tasting notes.

Ensaymada, a famous soft buttery bun in the Philippines, and not your usual wine tasting note / Getty
Ensaymada, a famous soft buttery bun in the Philippines, and not your usual wine tasting note / Getty

Northern California Merlot

In standard tasting notes, a Merlot from Northern California may have a brambly nose and ripe cherries on the palate. De Leon tastes champoy, a salted plum candy. Faelnar was smacked with the aroma of Milo, an imported malt energy drink, along with a mild bitter melon exhale. Cailan doesn’t taste much Filipino, other than perhaps Robitussin.

“We got Robitussin for everything,” says Cailan. “If my foot hurt, my mom gave me Robitussin.”

Loire Valley Chenin Blanc

Vintage Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley is described typically with notes of marmalade, apricots, beeswax and hazelnuts. Cailan is “punched in the nose by jackfruit” and reminded of turon, a dessert with banana, jackfruit and brown sugar rolled in lumpia wrappers, fried and caramelized. De Leon gets bananas Foster, peanut brittle and tamarind seed. Faelner tastes brûléed pineapple, grilled melon, candied banana and sweet (not sour) tamarind.

Catalan Xarel-lo

A Catalan Xarel-lo, says de Leon, might be reminiscent of Meyer lemon curd, vanilla and brioche in the Western canon. Cailan likens its bread-like qualities to sandwiches made with pan de sal rolls—essentially a Filipino Parker House roll. Faelnar gets “ensaymada vibes,” which refers to a brioche-based pastry with cheese and sugar.

Published on July 19, 2019
Topics: Wine Culture


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