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Washington State University
Dividend - Fall 2023 Graduate Education

Food & Wine Phenomenon:
Demi Deng Breaks Traditional Expectations

By Eric Hollenbeck
Recent doctoral graduate Demi Deng is exploring ways to use virtual reality to increase brand awareness for the Washington wine industry.
Photo by WSU Photos Services

Demi Deng is on a mission to bridge the gap between academia and the wine and beverage industry. Through her industry, educational, and cultural experiences, Deng sees a need for academic institutions to better prepare students for real-world experiences and hopes to infuse her unique perspective into the classroom.

Deng earned her doctorate from the WSU School of Hospitality Business Management this past summer and is a newly minted assistant professor at Auburn University. She feels she has in-depth understanding of what wine and beverage students need to succeed and where they are lacking in skills and experience.

Her passion for food and wine began when she was a university ambassador during her undergraduate years, where she met a University of California, Davis, professor who encouraged her to explore wine appreciation and knowledge.

“I remember he brought a bottle of Meritage from Washington state, and I thought that was interesting. I wondered why a professor from California, a place known for its wine, was drinking this wine from another state,” Deng says.

The professor offered a tasting of the wine, and Deng provided some tasting feedback, although she admits she was quite inexperienced with wine tasting. He told her she had a good palate and encouraged her to continue to study wine.

“After that, I landed in New Zealand, a rising wine country renowned for Marlborough sauvignon blanc and Central Otago pinot noir, to pursue my master’s degree,” she says.

Deng credits her experience in New Zealand and her mentor, Cameron Douglas, the country’s first and only master sommelier, for her success in the industry.

She feels her background and culture offer a different point of view, allowing her the freedom to break traditional food-and-wine pairing rules and provide leadership to her students.

“Introducing Asian and fusion styles to traditional Western pairings could lead to interesting and unexpected results,” Deng says.

Despite her many successes, she says she has faced challenges as an Asian woman in the industry. However, she has managed to overcome these biases by virtue of her strong character and her capacity to impart new knowledge to others.

“I try and overlook a lot of what people talk about. I strive to teach others about food-and-wine pairings while offering suggestions from my own perspective,” Deng says. “So, I’ve had to ignore the biases I’ve encountered as a woman and Asian manager, and it takes a longer time and more effort to succeed.”

Setting her sights on the top

Deng is also passionate about the wine industry and is a member of various wine associations, including the American Wine Society. She earned a scholarship from the SommFoundation supporting her master sommelier studies. The master sommelier certification is recognized worldwide and considered the highest achievement in the wine industry.

The process can take many years of dedicated study, practice, and experience. Exams are known for being extremely challenging, and only a small percentage of candidates pass them.

“My passion for wine and my desire to educate others about its culture drive me to pursue my goal of becoming a master sommelier,” Deng says. “It signifies not only a deep knowledge and understanding of wine but also exceptional skills in wine tasting, service, and business management.”

Boosting Washington wines through VR

In addition to her many academic accomplishments, Deng received the Carson College’s Outstanding Doctoral Student Research Award for her exceptional talent and performance. During her doctoral program, Deng published several research papers in top-tier hospitality journals.

Deng’s current research revolves around the hospitality industry’s current trends, including how social media marketing and technological advancements impact the industry. One of the unique aspects of her research is exploring increasing brand awareness for the Washington wine industry using virtual reality (VR).

Deng is investigating why the reputation of California wines exceeds that of Washington wines, even though Washington wines are of excellent quality. She’s working on a USDA/WSU-funded research project that aims to significantly increase consumer recognition of Washington state as an inspiring wine region and producer of competitive wine brands. Using VR, data will be collected to develop marketing strategies benefiting the Washington wine industry.

“Washington is becoming more of a tourism-driven state, but it’s not really known as ‘wine country’ for people outside of the Pacific Northwest,” Deng says. “But there are so many exceptional wines made here, and we [WSU] are just trying to help develop ways to elevate their reputation.”