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Tipples

Ex-chef marries his love for food and wine at PengWine

After working 14 years as a chef across the United States, in hotels, fine-dining restaurants and even a home in the remote Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Chris Milliken decided to hang up his apron to make wines.

The 43-year-old American was tired of "cooking all day and all night" and found working in the kitchen less satisfying.

"I like remaining married and saw my chef friends getting divorced because they were working long hours. But I still wanted to find a way to express my culinary creativity."

So he decided to go into wine-making. In 2000, he and his wife, who worked in human resources for a mining firm, relocated to Melbourne, Australia, when she was posted there for work.

He signed up for a sommelier course there. His passion for wine grew and he worked as a cellar hand at Domaine Chandon winery in Yarra Valley for 11/2 years, tasting the grapes in the vineyard and learning about the fermentation process.

Today, the Ohio native is the chief executive and co-founder of PengWine, a 12-year-old boutique Chilean wine label that focuses on wines blended with about nine grape varietals grown in Maipo Valley in Chile.


Chris Milliken. PHOTO: PENGWINE

He started the label with Mr Max Eyzaguirre, 55, a Chilean information technology professional whom he met through friends in Chile, when he lived there for four years.

PengWine is an accidental amalgamation of the words penguins and wine that Mr Eyzaguirre's 13-year-old daughter came up with. Each of the label's eight wines is named after penguins native to South America, such as Humboldt and Rockhopper.

With his culinary background, Milliken relishes the excitement of experimenting with complex wine blends. Drawing parallels between cooking and wine-making, he says: "Like coming up with a dish, there is an element of unpredictability in designing new palate sensations from mixing wines selected from hundreds of wine barrels."

Last month , PengWine launched the 2013 vintages of the Gala wine (Cabernet Franc blended with Malbec) and Pagos (Chardonnay blended with Sauvignon Blanc).

For the Gala, he says the Cabernet Franc injects a muskiness and floral aroma to the Malbec. For the Pagos, the acidity of Chardonnay pairs with the zing and zest of Sauvignon Blanc.

PengWine produces about 300,000 bottles of wines annually. They are served in restaurants here, including Esquina and Coriander Leaf. Bottles can be bought directly from the company's website (www.pengwine.com). Prices start at $32.50 for a 750ml bottle of Pagos (2010).

Milliken says: "Instead of staying in the kitchen, I now get to hang out with customers, find out what they think about the product and witness the awakening of their senses when they're trying new wines."

He is happy to oblige when people ask him to cook a course or two at his wine-tasting events. Marrying his love for food and wine, he strives to make his wine blends "balanced" and "food- friendly".

For example, when blending wines that contain Cabernet Sauvignon, which has "overpowering vegetable notes", he mixes in Cabernet Franc to inject more fruitiness. He also keeps wines in barrels for a longer time to let the acidity mellow.

"We keep playing with many ratios of wine blends until we find the right balance to create wines."

With his wine production line in Chile, it is surprising that he is based in Singapore. He spends half a year here and the rest visiting other South-east Asian countries and the US. He also goes to Chile two to three times a year to oversee the wine-blending process.

The father of two daughters aged 11 and nine relocated here in 2008 because he wants to use Singapore as a springboard to launch his wines into Asia.

With counterfeit wines on the rise in the region, he has tied up with AuthenticateIT, an anticounterfeiting app that allow users to authenticate products, from milk to apparel. Users can authenticate PengWine bottles by scanning a data matrix code on labels.

The app also gives users a wealth of information, from grape varietal details to videos of the winery. It is available for free download on the Apple and Google Play app stores.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 17, 2016, with the headline 'Ex-chef who marries love for food and wine'. Print Edition | Subscribe