14 October 2017


Long ago, before this blog’s first lines were published, I was gifted a free ticket to Taiwan.  There are few words I appreciate more than “free,” “travel,” or “tea!”  I fully expected that my first trip to Taiwan would turn out to be an amazing experience - and it was.  I met my first 2 Taiwanese tea teachers, Mr. Purple Clouds and my Tieguanyin teacher, during this first trip to Taiwan and still try to see them when I go back.  Nearly a dozen trips later, I’ve now added so many more teachers to be grateful to.  Mr. Zhan of Nine Pots Manor; My Dong Ding teachers; Mr. Li the tea scientist; The Younger and The Elder, tea distributors; Mr. Big Way, a master of tea brewing; Mr. Stillness, a tea maker who infuses his brew with heart and mindfulness, and so many others I have yet to share stories about.

But before I met any of my current teachers, there was Winnie Yu.  Winnie opened a teahouse called Celadon Fine Teas (now known as Teance) in the Bay Area about 15 years ago.  I was one of the first employees she hired and she taught me everything she could about evaluating, serving and appreciating tea.  What she did not know she found other experts for us to learn from.  She taught me how to brew from a gaiwan without the saucer so that I could maximize the feel and control (nevermind the boiling water...desensitization happens sooner or later!).  I learned the difference between a light oolong like a Baozhong and a weighty one like the Monkey Picked TGY...and came to love oolongs all over again.  Don’t brew Dragonwell too long or it can get astringent!  Don’t brew pu’er too briefly or you won’t get the depth of flavors!  She taught me how to tie the lids to the handle of teapots because they’re more functional that way (less prone to dropping and breaking the lid) and prettier, too.  That was my experience with Winnie, she was really good at getting to the heart of stuff and had a devotion towards tea that was radically different from the nonsense that so many other so-called experts liked to peddle (and still do!).  She was practical and straight-forward, but her devotion to the leaf remained.

...and she was generous, too. Not just with her time, as she patiently explained to me over and over again why and how to do things a certain way.  I can’t tell you how many times she picked up the bill for my lunch or dinner, or sent me home with samples of something to try.  The company’s signature vessel, the celadon-colored gaiwan, was used for tea service, along with matching drinking and aroma cups.  We had a gaiwan that sat in the corner of the tea service bar, out of use, after it slipped out of someone’s hand and banged against the concrete counter.  I asked Winnie if I could buy the otherwise beautiful and perfectly-usable gaiwan from her and she furrowed her brow and said, “Are you kidding?  Just take it home!”  I still have that gaiwan, it sits on the 2nd shelf of my cabinet along with other fun and meaningful pieces I’ve collected.

I ended up moving to Asia for further studies, so my time with Winnie and Celadon was not lengthy.  I kept in touch with her off and on over the years, and even got to see her again a couple of times.  She’d update me on the cool projects she was working on, like bottled tea, new retail packs to sell at local stores, web initiatives, and what other former employees that I knew were up to.  
Winnie passed away about a month ago, at the age 47.  I had no idea she was ill.  A tea friend texted me and asked if I knew of her passing. I thought the news must have been a mistake...too young!  I scoured the net and read about her death from one of the employees at the teahouse.  I didn’t know how to react.  I have an old pu’er that I thought she’d love to try, but she had a last-minute scheduling conflict that meant I would miss the opportunity to share it with her the last time I was in town.  “Eh, I’ll be back sometime, it’ll taste better as it gets older, anyway,” I thought.  

It may have been my dad’s good friend that sparked my love for tea decades ago, but it was Winnie that gifted me the foundation for understanding and furthering the art of tea.  I always meant to tell her how much I appreciated her time and nurturing.... The tea community has lost one of its great advocates.

Today’s a good day to dust off the old gaiwan.  I’ll put in a generous serving of my favorite Dong Ding and brew up two cups of my best.

Thanks Winnie.  Here's one more for the road.

Drink good tea and enrich your life.

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