Women in Wine: A Chat With Cynthia Sin-Yi Cheng On Champagne

I often write about Italian women in the wine industry but I decided to begin writing about other women who work in the business as well. My first interview was with May Matta Aliah, a wine educator, graphic designer and Armagnac Ambassador. Today, I am going to write about a chat I had with Cynthia Sin-Yi Cheng who grew up in Taipei in a Shanghainese family. Cynthia, as most people in the wine business know, is a Champagne expert. Together with her sister she has created the successful online magazine, Findyourcraving.com.

Cynthia told me that she came to be well versed in Champagne in a round about way. An Art History Major at Smith included a junior year abroad in France where she caught the French bug and has been hooked for 20 years. She went on to get her Masters degree in French. She went to work in her field of art and design world at Sotheby’s. After writing the biography of a Chinese artist, Cynthia took a break from that world and began to work at the now-defunct shop Vintage in Soho. Vintage sold only New York wines. I loved Vintage and was very sad when it closed down. Her wine career was launched.

Today, Cynthia buys Champagne for private clients, holds tastings and educational seminars. She also writes articles and has recently launched her Champagne newsletter cynetvin.com in order to help people look at Champagne in a new way, she said over a drink at Mayahuel, a great Mexican place she likes. Cynthia is very plugged in to the New York bar scene and told me she that in addition to Champagne, she loves Tequila and Martinis.

Champagne has just passed through a terrible dip in its sales on account of the recession as well as the availability of cheaper alternatives. Despite enlarging the area where Champagne can be made, the picture is not that rosy.

“The marketing of Champagne is really stale,” Cynthia said. “I am totally against price cutting and the mixed messaging that is going on in some places. This is a luxury brand and it should be image conscious and it is expensive.’

Cynthia was not impressed with the plans for expansion nor particularly worried. ‘The process is slow and it won’t make a tremendous difference.” She did think that new European Union regulations regarding what constitutes Extra Brut were significant though. It is now 0-6 grams of residual sugar but will soon be 0-9 grams of residual sugar. “That’s a huge difference and is a very big range.”

Cynthia was also blase about grower champagnes. “I wish people would speak about something new,” she noted, “Something more exciting such as the trend to do single varietal Champagnes made from only Pinot Meunier. People thought it was a workhorse and that it doesn’t age well but they were wrong.” She also said she thought it was interesting that people are using blends of ancient Champagne grapes to make still wines. She mentioned grapes such as Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier and Arbane. I had never heard of either one.

Another trend she sees is younger growers looking to make wines using biodynamic principles and experimenting. “There are also some still wines coming out of Champagne now,” she added.

Cynthia goes back and forth between Asia and Europe when she is not in the States. She said that she can sometimes source Champagnes in Asia for clients that she can’t find here in the States. “Sometimes the production is so limited it just goes to either the East Coast or the West Coast,” Cynthia said. “Pricing on the West Coast can be better because it is closer to Asia. The big brands are very successful in China.”

Discussing food pairings with Champagne, Cynthia said that she even likes Steak Tartare with say a Blancs de Blancs. She also likes to drink her Champagne in a white wine glass and not in a flute. “Flutes are only for social occasions. If you think about it, Champagne has to be made from a really good base wine. In order to get the aromas, you need a bigger glass,” Cynthia added.

“Restaurants are really improving their Champagne selections as well,” she said, mentioning Gramercy Tavern and Vinegar Hill in Dumbo in particular.

Cynthia and I have chatted many times in the past about how to organize all of your ideas, many which come to you in the middle of the night. During our last chat, she told me about the importance of the 15 minute block of time. I have been following her suggestions that 15 minutes can indeed be a long time and that you don’t necessarily need an hour to do everything if you are very focused. Thanks Cynthia.

I think I will have a glass of Champagne this Easter in her honor.

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