In good spirits

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From nursing and caring for babies, 50-year-old Ivy Cheong is today a successful entrepreneur.

From nursing and caring for babies, 50-year-old Ivy Cheong is today a successful entrepreneur.

By Palau Shavin

The shop tucked away in the commercial area of Taman Danau Desa, Kuala Lumpur has a decidedly Hispanic name, but Cantina Cellars is among many of the home grown wine shops that have sprung up in the past decade in the Klang Valley. It already has a loyal group of patrons who enjoy the personalised touch of the proprietors, Ivy Cheong and Kelvin Lai.

Walk in and you are greeted with a row of shelves on your right extending deep within, and a shorter bar cum counter on your left. Behind the bar is more shelves, many housing varieties of beer and hard liquor. There’s a cosy seating area after the bar, where patrons can sit down for a chat with friends over a bottle or two. It’s also where the fortnightly wine tasting takes place.

Fifty-seven year-old Cheong is, surprisingly, the person who pushed to open the shop. Surprising because she is fairly new to the world of wines and spirits, having spent the bulk of her career working in a nursery, caring for babies.

Coming from a large family living (she was fifth of seven children) in the small town of Kuala Kubu Baru, Cheong was forced to leave school when she was in Form Three to help out her parents who were rubber tappers. She worked a few odd jobs before a friend asked her to apply for a nursing aide position with Assunta Hospital in Kuala Lumpur (pic – photo credit: Assunta Hospital).

“I was 15 years old when I moved to KL to take up the job. I rented a room with my sister, and I ended up working there for 17 years. My starting pay was RM195 a month, and I sent home RM100. My job involved mixing the baby formulas and making sure the babies were fed and taken care of. I was comfortable in the role as it felt like being in a large, extended family,” she says.

So how did Cheong end up moving from caring for 100 to 200 babies a month to selling spirits?

It was, she said, due to a friend in the sales department who encouraged her to become a hospital representative for baby products. Cheong put her knowledge of baby needs to good use and became a top promoter before switching companies. Eventually, the company she was working for shut down its operations here, and Cheong found herself out of a job.

What followed was two years of being a housewife. With two girls and a boy, she found herself with time to spare, and travelled a bit.

“But I found it boring so I took up part-time work as a promoter, first with Dumex, and then with a supermarket selling wines in 2008.

It was a good introduction to the world of wine and spirits and, in five years, Cheong, who had never imbibed before, learnt to appreciate the finer things about the wine market.

Pooling their resources

It was also how she met her future shop partner, Kelvin Lai, who was a storehouse of knowledge about alcoholic beverages, having a Level 3 Advanced Certificate from UK wine and spirit education trust.

Lai (pic) is unapologetic about his love for wine and spirits, saying: “I like alcohol, always have. It was my hobby.”

He worked in a wine shop for three years, building up contacts with suppliers and distributors, before Cheong convinced him to pool resources and start their own shop.

Together with a third, silent partner, Lai and Cheong put in RM100,000 each to start Cantina Cellars, betting on the continuing popularity of wines to drives sales.

At present, they have more than 800 labels in stock, and Lai says they keep three bottles for each one, except for promotion items, which are stocked up.

Their unique selling point, according to Cheong and Lai, is that “We provide more wine knowledge compared to other wine shops.”

“In the past decades, wines have gotten very popular with the middle class, thanks to its variety and lower alcohol content. And as a rule, Malaysians prefer reds to white,” says Lai.

The popularity of the fermented grape drink has resulted in a proliferation of wine shops, as well as wine warehouses and direct online wine sales. Supermarkets too, are bringing in a better variety of wines, with prices ranging from as low as RM30 to several hundred ringgit a bottle.

Where wedding receptions would previously only offer beer or hard liquor to guests, nowadays, it is normal to offer red and white wines as well, especially as more women have begun to enjoy a glass or two together with their meals.

Due to the various varieties of wines on offer, they are quite happily paired with meals, though Cheong says you don’t really have to follow the old “white wine with fish and red with meat” rule.

Her advice is simple: try a few different wines to find the type you like (wine tastings are a good place to try). Beginners should go for the lighter, sweeter varieties, such as Moscato or Merlot, before moving to the more complex and full bodied wines.

Cantina Cellars is located at 5-0-8 Jalan 3/109F, Danau Business Centre, Taman Danau Desa, Off Old Klang Road, 58100 Kuala Lumpur while their phone number is +603-7971 1859.

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