Sam Neill, Kyle Maclachlan, Angelina Jolie, and James Cameron are only a few names among a long list of celebrities who own commercial wineries, wine brands or vineyards. However, Hollywood is not the only celebrity community moving towards this trend. In Asia, many Chinese celebrities have entered the world of wine as well, such as Yao Ming, Vicki Zhao and Bernice Liu who is the owner of boutique winery, Bellavizio.
Bernice Liu is a Canadian-born Chinese actress. She is the winner of the 2001 Miss Chinese International Pageant, which is a title that brought her fame in Hong Kong and started her career in the entertainment business.
Liu started Bellavizio in a twist of fate six years ago with no background in wine, but very quickly gained recognition for the wines she produced: 2010 Bellavizio Bordeaux Rouge won a Gold medal at the Women’s Wine Competition 2012 and a Bronze medal at the Decanter Asia Wine Awards 2012.
Asian Palate is thrilled to speak with Bernice Liu.
AP – Asian Palate BL – Bernice Liu
AP: Please tell us about your start in the profession of winemaking. What inspired you to start making your own wines? Who are your mentors?
BL: Winemaking to me is more of a hobby or passion, so I wouldn’t really brand it as a profession for me. Wine came into my world as a ‘beautiful mistake’, hence the name Bellavizio actually!
In 2008, my management company arranged for me to shoot four movies consecutively outside of Hong Kong, one of which was a movie called “King of Fighters”. The set took place in Vancouver, where we had to endure -15 degrees weather. That is why in the middle of the shoot, a few of us decided to take a breather and went off to Napa Valley in California, where it was warm and sunny. There we spent a day visiting boutique wineries and vineyards. Back then, I knew nothing about drinking wine. Everything was a whole new experience to me and it left such an impression that I fell in love with whole process and the idea of creating my own ‘wine story’. That is when my wine journey began.
So far, I have met quite a few interesting people in the wine community who taught me a lot about the winemaking. What was an added bonus was when I met my first wine mentor named Mike Zitzlaff, who was the Chief Winemaker and General Manager of Crushpad at the time. Stu Ake and Kian Tavakoli, my wine educator and consultant, then guided me throughout my first two years in creating what became Bellavizio’s first wines. Shortly after, they all encouraged me that if I really wanted to get serious about wine, the next step would be to go to the world’s most famous wine region, Bordeaux.
AP: How do you compare your profession in wine with your profession in acting? Which one is more challenging?
BL: It’s funny you ask me that because as much as they are very different for obvious reasons, I realized that they have some similarities in their own ways.
With acting and working in the entertainment business, you can train your talent, pick your projects may it be television, movies, or advertisements. But the end results depend on factors that you may not be able to control, such as the audience’s reaction, production delays, time of release, and so on and so forth.
With winemaking, you can calculate many factors in the process of creating a wine, but the end factor has a life of its own. Little adjustments in each of the step of the procedure can have a huge effect on the end result, sometimes surprising you in the end with a wine that possesses characteristics you never expected!
Both have their challenges in different ways, but both seem to always excite me. As an entertainer, I get excited about being able to share my talent with the audience but also get nervous about not knowing what their reaction will be, especially with live shows. Similarly, as a boutique winemaker, the excitement comes from sharing my passion with other wine lovers, but again I get nervous about not knowing how well they will receive my Bellavizio. Afterall, it’s my wine-baby!
AP: Overall, are there more advantages or disadvantages in being a celebrity while working in wine?
BL: There are both advantages and disadvantages in being a celebrity going through this wine journey.
Being in the wine community, without a lot of people knowing who I was, gave me the freedom to learn about wine and meet new friends with the same passion. Going from Napa to Bordeaux and being able to learn and experience things like everyone else, I can completely submerse myself into the whole wine and winemaking education process. I could sit in a classroom with no one staring. Even in Hong Kong, the wine community has a life of its own and that is really something I have been blessed to be apart of.
One of the main purposes for my wine hobby is to ultimately help childrens’ charities. One time, I donated a bottle of my 2010 Bellavizio Bordeaux Rouge to a charity auction and raised $250,000RMB! Being a celebrity I think helped a little. With my celebrity status, hopefully, I will be able to draw awareness to groups who are less privileged and find ways to help them.
AP: Which of your wines are you most proud of? What are your personal preferences for wines?
BL: I am quite passionate about all my wines and I think each one has its own story. It was a hobby turned passion, and I admit that it is becoming a bit of an addiction now. I have flown from Hong Kong to Bordeaux on a 13-hour flight, stayed to taste and adjust my wines for 10-hours, and then went back on the plane to Hong Kong for another 12-13 hours just to go see my wines! Each time I go I always come back with an original story, which I think you will have to sit down with me and to hear each one over a bottle.
For whites, I like traditional styled Chardonnays, with bold vanilla and butter flavors. This describes my very first Napa Chardonnay 2009 from Sonoma Coast.
For reds, Merlot-based wines have a soft spot in my heart. I tend to favor dark fruit cherry-chocolate, full-bodied, round reds, but with a bit of a backbone on the end for that aftertaste. My first red I did was from Coombesville in Napa but my Bordeaux Rouge 2010 is more complex and is quite elegant, so it’s really hard to choose between these two. Just a side note, the movie “Sideways” really gave Merlot a bad name! They don’t know what they’re missing.
AP: What do you ultimately hope to achieve with Bellavizio? Please tell us about your future plans with this business.
Bellavizio was a passion project from the beginning. I’ve been very blessed to have such a great experience, meet long-lasting friends, learn so much along the way, and enjoy every part of it so far. As much as I do hope that more and more people get to share in my Bellavizio experience, I take pride in producing a small, passionate, but top-notch wine with a limited quantity. Wine has given me another way to express myself, and I hope it continues to grow with me.
AP: What is the annual production of your wines now? Where are they available for purchase now?
BL: My winery is a boutique winery, or some like to call it artisanal, giving small production. I think that is how I would like to keep it because I can control the production quantity in terms of the year’s harvest quality. Yes, the first thought is cost per bottle which for me is quite high, but I do not want to compromise the quality of Bellavizio’s wine. Therefore, it is by choice to maintain quality over quantity for me.
Me being very selective about sharing my wines, only a few establishments in Hong Kong have it available. Bo Innovation by Alvin Leung, a Michelin 3-Star restaurant, felt Bellavizio paired quite nicely with a few of his dishes. I was honored to have him try it in the first place and jumped at the opportunity to share Bellavizio in his establishment. My wines are also available at Fridge, which is a small private restaurant where I am friends with the owner who also admires small production wines and personally chooses all the wines on the wine list of his restaurant. My Bellavizio Napa Wines can be found at Racks, a bar that I own with a few friends, including Hong Kong based model, Lisa Selesner. Each of these venues has a very different atmosphere, hence the wines that I offer to each of them also reflect that.
AP: Please share one (or more) of the most successful Asian food and wine pairings that you’ve experienced.
BL: I quite like to start a meal off with the 2010 Bellavizio Bordeaux Blanc which has a refreshing citrus taste and hints of floral to finish. This wine pairs nicely with the variety of flavors found in the cold appetizers of Chinese cuisine, such as jelly fish, pickled vegetables and boiled peanuts
A pairing that I recently experienced and really enjoyed was a sweet and sour cod fish on a bed of rice crackers, shared with a bottle of 2007 Chateau de la Tour Clos-Vougeot. That was really memorable.