It was on a visit to northeast China that wine-lover Sookyung Henriet decided to start a new life.
Invited to curate French wine at a local importer event, the Korean-French foreign policy researcher had an oenological epiphany: “Why aren’t I doing this in South Korea?” she wondered.
Henriet packed up and moved to South Korea at the end of 2017 to launch wine subscription service Soo de vie — “Soo” is homophonous with the Sino-Korean word for water, creating an international pun on the French liquor eau de vie (“water of life”).
Henriet says her mission is to help South Koreans to connect with wine by providing accessible introductions. “I think there’s huge lack of understanding about wine in South Korea,” she told Korea Exposé. “South Koreans tend to go to the department store and buy whatever is cheapest. My wine tasting events are all about stories — about grapes and wine-makers — but told in everyday language.”
One of Henriet’s stories tells of a Korean man from Yeongdong who was enlisted in the Japanese Imperial Army during the colonial period (1910-1945) and assigned to man a prisoner of war camp. There, he met Spanish inmates who told him about wine, inspiring him with their stories. Later, he returned to South Korea and planted his own vines back in Yeongdong. Henriet then serves wine from the same vineyard, managed by the grandson of the founder.
Soo de vie is unique in that it specializes in pairing Korean food with wines.
For now, Soo de vie is a membership-based service. For 200,000 won ($188), the startup provides three salons (events) over three or four months pairing Korean dishes with wines from regions in France, Chile and even Yeongdong, one of the birthplaces of Korean wine.
Paired Korean foods include sundae (Korean blood sausage), jokbal (pigs’ trotters) and Korean-European fusion dishes. At the end of each event, Henriet gives participants a bottle of the wine featured during the event.
Henriet has now held 11 events, attended by around 150 people. Her ultimate goal is to launch a new subscription service delivering boxes of Korean food with a matching bottle of wine.
Soo de vie’s new delivery service faces one major hurdle: Henriet initially planned to send only wines, as her customers already had easy access to Korean food. But she now has to send food as well because South Korean law prohibits the online sale of non-traditional alcoholic beverages except when accompanied by food.
To further complicate matters, the National Tax Service specifies that food accompanying online liquor sales must be “cooked by the vending company itself” — a packet of peanuts will not suffice. This limits the types of food Henriet can pair with her wines — it must be something that stays hot and fresh throughout the delivery process. “This is my biggest barrier right now,” she said, sounding frustrated.
In response to queries from culturally confused Korea Exposé staff, Henriet offered the following pairings:
Jajangmyeon (Sino-Korean noodles in black bean sauce)
- “A full-bodied red, maybe 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, Argentinian Malbec or a southern French wine with low acidity: probably a Rhône wine, 50 percent Syrah and 50 percent something else.”
Sundubu (spicy tofu stew)
- “Temperature is important here: If it’s boiling hot, it’ll numb your tongue. But if it’s the right temperature, I’d recommend a Chardonnay.”
Photos by Juwon Park for Korea Exposé.