Arlene’s family was poor, but they were not homeless. And although their house was old and the family income small, their faith was strong and their values were intact. They believed in God, in education and in sticking together as a family.
Arlene excelled in school, and the parish priest of Tondo recognized her potential. Through him, Arlene got a high school scholarship at Holy Child Catholic School where this priest was a director. When she passed the admissions test at the University of the Philippines, the same priest was able to arrange free board and lodging at a mansion previously owned by popular actress Nora Aunor. The house had been converted by the new owner to a dormitory for girls -- mostly from wealthy families. This was the setting where Arlene may have channeled the talented actress who was born to a poor family but became rich because of her successful movie career.
Because she didn’t get a full scholarship for UP, Arlene worked while earning her degree in communications research. Her income helped defray other expenses beyond her board and lodging. But more important, the job gave her the confidence to mix with the other boarders. When the girls went out to dine, dance and drink, the amicable Arlene went with them. There were regular drinking sprees, but Arlene claims she was disciplined and didn’t abuse her freedom.
Soon she was dating like most teenagers did. One guy won her heart; he was a student at another university, but after they both graduated he immigrated to Canada with his family. A long-distance relationship was unbearable, so she left her marketing job and followed him to Canada on his invitation. She found out that her boyfriend didn’t tell his parents about her arrival, so they were surprised and were not happy. Arlene felt unwelcome. She was not the Susan Roces type of woman but rather more like Nora Aunor; she ran away, and then it was her boyfriend’s turn to follow her. Life was hard in Canada initially, but this Tondo girl was not one to give up quickly. The couple decided to elope and get married and vowed to do their best to make the most out of what Canada had to offer.
They were both risk takers, skilled, determined and hardworking. They fit into the entrepreneurial class. They established a business using their network in the Philippines. Arlene worked for a training and review school as administrator when she was a student, and her husband was a physiotherapy student, so the business involved training healthcare workers. Also, when Arlene ran away, the first Canadians she met were Filipino caregivers and healthcare workers. They housed her, fed her and brought her to their sidelines (extra jobs and network marketing). They were impressed with her impeccable English and conversational skills. Then one day, one of her new friends who was working for a wealthy family told her that a friend of her employer asked her to help him look for a live-in couple to manage his home and serve as companion to his wife. The prospect was very inviting -- they could live together rent-free -- even though it was not the job they wanted. They would do their best and give dignity to the work. They went for an interview and were offered the job immediately.
The wife fell in love with Arlene because she was a good conversationalist and could talk about many subjects. Arlene helped her with dinner parties -- setting the table, serving wine and liquors. She sometimes went with her to cultural and art events. They went to wineries and participated in wine tastings. She was a keen observer and a quick learner. And a mixer too.
Arlene got to love her job. She and her husband had an excellent relationship with their employers. And they were paid well above the average rate. They invested their savings in their business and it grew horizontally into related businesses -- from a caregiving school to healthcare/homecare agency to seller of health accessories. Her husband managed the business after the male employer died. The wife moved to a condo and they continued to lovingly care for her.
After her employer died, Arlene and her husband thought of a business for her. Arlene didn’t want just any business. While working as a companion, Arlene developed a love for wine, not so much drinking it but pouring it and talking about the story each bottle conveyed to her -- the land where the grapes grew, the variety of the grape and how it lent itself to the character of the wine, the art of turning the grapes into wine that play with the senses and mimic the flavors of things other than itself. After much thought, she chose the world of wine. It would allow her to travel and work at the same time.
She enrolled in the sommelier course at George Brown College, dreaming of establishing her wine empire in the Philippines. She was the only Asian in the program at the time. Her palate was different from her classmates. When they declared that the wine tasted citrusy, she thought of the sourness of kalamansi (Philippine citrus). When they said it had the aroma of pears, she thought of the Asian pear. She had not tasted non-tropical fruits before, so after class she went to nearby St. Lawrence Market to smell the fruits and taste them. But she never apologized for her Filipino palate. Her tasting notes were different from the others; the teachers didn’t take that against her. In fact, they thought she was the best because her palate was well-developed.
After George Brown, Arlene applied to study in Italy in the region that has the most number of grape varietals. She was certified by an international body after passing a series of exams, the first FIlipino (and a woman at that) to have the certification. She is now one of 30 certified Italian wine ambassadors. She represents Vin Italia and is one of the panelists of Collizioni, the annual festival of Italian wines. She has already received the invitation from Ian Di Agate, her mentor, to be part of the exclusive panel of more than 60 wine experts/wine tasters at Collezioni 2017 in Barolo this July.
In Canada, Arlene has been named Wine Ambassador of Prince Edward Island wineries. Today she is known as the first female Filipino certified sommelier. To say that the distinction is unique is not an exaggeration.
“Enjoying wine is not part of the Filipino culture. We have a palate that was not developed with wine, especially during the time when wine was matched with food. But now it is easier because one can drink wine alone, casually,” she notes.
Their investment in education, travel, time, certification and membership in associations has paid off too. “I do regular blind tasting. My husband prepares the blind tests for me at home. Good wines have good expressions. They can express themselves to you.”
There are wines in the Philippines but they are made with other fruits like the bignay (bugnay). ‘Technically, it is not wine because it is not made from grapes, Arlene says. “But yes, we can grow grapes in a tropical country. There are thousands of grape varieties so there can be a variety for every microclimate.”
Arlene has mulled the potential for a big wine market in the Philippines. She has consulted people from different levels of government about regulations. “The market is very loose. There has to be a spark plug. I have had initial discussions with hotels, upscale restaurants and wine distributors about how to ready their clients for more serious wine service. This will involve investing in staff training,” she reports.
Apparently there are many stories of loyal caregivers being included in the wills of their employers. So, given Arlene’s non-traditional eventual career, her investment in education and travel, and her current lifestyle, did she inherit a fortune from her late employers?
Arlene attributes their successes to “chance meetings and good encounters,” but she is being humble.
“We didn’t inherit money but we were left with valuable contacts, business advice, experiences and a window to their world,” she replies.
How else could they have had the privilege of selling their health accessories at the Pan-Am Games, or of pouring wine for celebrities at the Toronto International Film Festival but through these helpful contacts and references?
One of her current challenges is marketing wine to millennials, who are apparently a difficult market to break into. “We can’t sell using the traditional format of food matching. It is no longer tied to food, meaning you can drink a glass of wine over conversation. So now we are trying the story approach, more focused on the story of the wine -- where the grapes were grown, what variety, the winemaker. Wine is romanticized and tied with travel and tourism. We encourage the young people to visit the wine regions, the wineries and attend wine tasting lessons. We also sell the experience, the sensory pleasures involved in drinking wine.”
Maripi Leynes is a dual citizen of Canada and the Philippines and currently resides in Toronto, a city that she loves. She spent her first 100 days as a retiree in the Philippines (the honeymoon stage) and is yet to decide on the next thousand days.
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