New Zealand's Best Young Sommelier of the Year
In an increasingly competitive and oversupplied wine marketplace there is probably more need now, than ever before, for some help when it comes to finding the wine that will explode on our palate. In recent years we have been inundated with smartphone apps that seem to be offering us a solution. And while some are better than others, we're left wondering whether these virtual solutions could ever stack up against real-time/real-human recommendations.
Sommeliers are professional wine stewards who specialise in fine wine and are experts when it comes to pairing wines with both your palate and with food. While Sommeliers have become a relatively rare find in restaurants (especially in New World regions), since the release of the documentary SOMM, the spotlight on these industry enigmas is shining big and bright. The documentary (trailer at the end of interview) illuminates the mysterious world of Sommeliers and gives an insight into the most prestigious, exclusive and secretive organisations, The Court of Master Sommeliers. If you haven’t seen it yet—we recommend you do!
We sat down with New Zealand’s Young Sommelier of the year, Oliver Carr, to discuss the role of Sommeliers now, as well as the importance of having a wine mentor and some of his ideas about the state of the wine industry.
WF: Ollie, thanks again for sharing your time with us. If I’ve done my research right, you’ve just graduated from Lincoln University with a post-graduate diploma in Viticulture and Oenology and now you’re working in the vineyard at Peregrine (Central Otago). How did you catch the wine bug?
OC: I was attracted to hospitality as a high school job, a large part because my dad was a restauranteur. While studying in Wellington I realised that I liked the sound of a hospitality career more than many of my other options. The energy in a busy restaurant is addictive. Wine started as a related hobby, and quickly showed itself to be a valuable skill.
In September of this year Ollie took out the title Junior Sommelier of the Year at The New Zealand Sommelier of the Year Awards. The prestigious awards were directed by Master Sommelier, Cameron Douglas, and New Zealand’s School of Food and Wine director, Celia Hay.
WF: Ollie, why don’t we see more Sommeliers in restaurants in New Zealand?
OC: We don’t have sommeliers in our restaurants because the margins are too tight to employ someone solely in that sort of role. However, there are a lot of people that know a lot about wine in positions such as Maître d, head waiter or restaurant manager. Given the right training and mentoring they could step up to an international standard. NZ doesn’t have a sommelier association but many other countries do. It might simply be because other countries have a more advanced wine culture.
WF: Would the standard of sommeliers improve if we had an association?
OC: I think so. The really good thing about associations is that it gives you a good source of mentors-- because that’s the most important part of [learning about] wine. It’s so difficult to know what to taste to get better at tasting. And it’s so difficult to afford. If you’re a young person thinking you want to learn more about Bordeaux, you’re already stuffed. You probably can’t afford any first or second growths because they’re very expensive.
WF: Sommeliers are some of the most dedicated and wine obsessed people. Do you think Somm’s have a bad rap for being snobby and intimidating?
OC: Absolutely. And that’s because in the ‘old world’ a lot of them are I think. We are fortunate in NZ that we don’t have a ‘stuffy’ wine culture and people in our industry are very down to earth.
WF: Can you give us an insight into the Somm world? What is your role?
OC: Mark Protheroe, national committee member of the Australian Sommelier Association, said the role of a somm is to distil the interests of three groups of people. There’s the owners of the bar or restaurant, the customer and the winery. At all times you’re trying to take their interests and have them intersect at a certain sales moment. And what that made me think is that the reason being a somm is so cool is because all three of those people love you. The restaurant loves you for giving really good service to the customer, making them have a good time and making sure you’re upselling so you’re bringing in good revenue. The customer loves you because you’re giving them really good service, giving them something that matches their palate better for good value. And the winery loves you because you’re selling their product.
WF: It sounds like a win win!
OC: It is! You’ve always got people calling you saying “let’s meet up, I’ve got something to show you”. There are heaps of perks. Wineries want you to come to their place and have a look around and do some barrel tasting. It’s an unnerving system for wineries and distributers, who see sommeliers as ‘gate-keepers’ to the wine list.
WF: Do you think having the chance to connect with a winery makes you want to sell their product more?
OC: Yeah! But you never want to sell a wine for any reason more than the fact that a customer is going to like it. That’s your number one every time. You don’t care about prices, or where it’s from, or whether they winemaker is your friend. You’ve just got to be true to the customer’s interests. Certainly the better you know vineyards, the better you can tell their story. And sometimes the person is actually more interested in buying the wine because of the story than the taste.
WF: There are so many factors to consider when matching a wine to a person. Much more than just, “hey try this”.
OC: Yeah definitely. Some people like a risk though, so you can offer them any interesting wines. Sometimes they like that they dislike the wine because it’s interesting.
WF: How on earth do you get inside someone’s head enough to figure out what they could potentially love?
OC: Sometimes you can just tell by the way they act or by the way they dress. I also judge it by the way they interact with the restaurant and the menu. Someone who says, “just a lager” is quite different to someone who says, “Do you have any interesting sherries?” And so you’re going to approach those people from different angles. When you start chatting you get an idea about what previous wines they’ve enjoyed or places they’ve been. Most people love wine from a region they’ve already been to. It sounds really bizarre…
WF: But I guess they have that connection?
OC: That’s exactly it. If they’ve told me they’d just been to Central Otago and enjoyed a Maude wine, I can turn around and say, “Hey look, I have this Rippon wine that’s also from Wanaka, I think you’ll really enjoy it.”
WF: Do sommeliers receive any additional personal benefits?
OC: Not usually. They’re generally the maître d' who roster staff, fix customer issues, negotiate with the kitchen, in addition to just talking about wine. The wine is kind of a personal interest on top of that. It’s a bit of a labour of love.
WF: You took out the title for the best young sommelier in NZ. What training have you had that makes you so damn good?
OC: I haven’t had any formal training, but I was lucky that I had a really good mentor while I was working as a waiter at Shed 5.
WF: Who was your mentor?
OC: A restauranteur and sommelier named Steven Morris. He was my manager at the time and saw that I was really interested in wine and asked if I would like to sit in on some of his tastings. Every week he had 3 to 5 reps bringing us wines to try from their portfolio. Suddenly I had gone from tasting 2 wines a week to up to 20-30 wines a week. Your palate explodes in terms of how it interacts with wines and how you can find distinctions. It’s definitely about tasting as many wines as you can.
WF: What was the format for these tastings?
OC: I got to taste along with the winemakers. They would tell me how they made their wine and how they think it is meant to taste. Steve was also there giving the restaurant’s perspective and saying things like, “well this is the price point where it sits at, so this is how much it will be on our wine list. And comparing this wine with other wines at a similar price- I think this offers this.”
WF: How does price point impact on what a restaurant ends up listing on their menu?
OC: If we’ve got a particular style of chardonnay and say it’s going to be $12 a glass, then another similarly priced chardonnay has to be a different style. There’s no point having two similar wines at the same price, right? As a Somm, you can’t think about a wine without thinking about the price. And you can’t think about a wine without thinking about who to sell it to. It doesn’t matter how cool, or interesting or quirky it is. There are a bunch of wines I wouldn’t list because they were too quirky or just didn’t go with any of our food. No matter how much I loved it. So that was a key learning moment for me.
WF: Speaking of price because it is such an important part to wine consumption, what do you think of our pricing system in NZ?
OC: Okay, well most restaurants in NZ are looking at 65-70% margin on a lower end wine and maybe down to 50% margin on a higher end wine. You get much better value as you move up the chain. It’s also a way to incentivise people to try better wine. You have to have that sliding scale of costing or otherwise you end up with wine you can’t sell. There is a lot to consider. I think it’s important to know that there are a lot of hands that the wine goes through before it gets to the customer and every single one of those people needs to cover costs. And none of them are making much.
Everyone is working really hard and no one is making lots of money. It’s a really tough industry. When you look at a wine list and think, “I know that wine’s only worth $18 in the supermarket and you’re trying to sell it to me for $50.” Well actually, the restaurant is really only trying to pay their wages and are probably not making a lot of money. I don’t know many owners that drive Ferrari’s.
WF: Coming from a customer point of view, I can admit to thinking that before. That’s a big issue!
OC: You really need to find a way to create that value and a sommelier can do that. They can give you a complete impression of all the wines compared to just reading a list. They can tell you will go well with your food and ensure that what you choose you’ll love. You can get so much value from a sommelier.
WF: We’ve touched on distribution a little; what are your thoughts about the proliferation of online wine sales? [Wineries selling more wine directly to the consumer]
OC: If you think about that winery gets from a distributor vs what they get from the RRP direct from online, it’s completely different. Wineries are making three-times more online that what they are making from a supermarket sale. If you want to support a winery, buy their wine from them directly. It’s very good for them.
I think we need to remember that there are some really good wines that are well below the price they would be if they were from Europe. The quality for value we get here is amazing.
WF: I think about New Zealand exports a lot actually. I think about how special it is to share our sense of place, through wine, with other people all over the globe. Do you think we have more value overseas because it is more unique or more special to drink NZ wine?
OC: I think we’re always going to struggle in Europe because there’s just so much interesting wine there already. To them we often just fall into the category of ‘New World’. I think there’s more potential for us in the States. I don’t get much exposure to European people coming to explore our wine regions and then going home to buy the wine in their own countries. I think they do relate to our sense of place, but I think that our biggest market potential is in the States and China. Because they seem to come and enjoy the wine and continue to buy the wine when they get back home. I’ve got limited experience in that area.
WF: What do you think about seeing more international imports in restaurants? Does that compromise our support for great New Zealand wines? Personally, I would love to taste more international wines just to see how we differ, but then I don’t want to see a NZ wine dropped off a menu for that sake alone.
OC: How about buy NZ wine online and drink it at home. Then when you got to a restaurant ask the sommelier what’s interesting. Most NZ restaurants aren’t listing interesting international wines. Most international wines are run of the mill stuff. So you’ll see entry level Côtes du Rhône a lot. It’s affordable and safe. But there are so many more interesting wines from that region. It would be so good for the consumer if we could put more interesting wines on the menu, but people don’t want to take risks.
WF: I guess that’s understandable given the price of some of those wines. Price is such a big one, eh? I’m embarrassed to admit that sometimes I’ll get a case of analysis paralysis and end up buying a wine that I’ve had before just because I know I’ll enjoy it. How do you think we can encourage people to take risks?
OC: Introducing wine preservation systems can help to reduce restaurant overheads and then you can offer more wines by the glass.
WF: Is this the way of the future, you think?
OC: I would like so. The more you waste the more you have to charge for the same thing. That’s why fine dining restaurants are so expensive.
WF: Wastage is one side of the wine industry I would love to learn more about.
OC: I think most are pretty resourceful with their by-products. Producers can use the dregs for bulk wine. It would be nice to see more people turn their pomace into grappa. There are some small producers doing it.
WF: Looking into the future now, what do you see happening within our industry?
OC: In general I think people are wanting organically produced food and wine. I think the problem organic wines have had in the last ten years is that you have to pay more for them. A small population are happy paying that amount more, but for most of there’s not much utility in paying extra. Producers might soon see the long-term benefits and cost savings from producing wines organically. I think it’ll be nice to see people going to the supermarket or restaurant and out of two $40 bottles picking the organic wine simply because it’s organic.
WF: I think the move toward organics and more environmentally friendly wine production is one of the most exciting developments within the industry.
OC: The tough thing is going to be converting the companies who make 90% of New Zealand’s wine. Some are doing it slowly, but I think they’ll only do it when there is a better incentive to do it.
WF: Like market demand?
OC: Exactly. And we’re lucky that even the biggest wine companies are majority owned by families or individuals so they don’t need the consensus of a bunch of shareholders to decide to switch over to organics. Because that would be a nightmare and we probably wouldn’t see change because it wouldn’t stake up in their profit initially.
WF: If money wasn’t such a big deal, do you think organics can lead to better tasting wines?
OC: We need to have a way more open customer base before we can really sell organic or natural wines. I mean the best thing about these kinds of wines is that producers will generally only produce a couple hundred cases of wine. Maybe less. With natural wines you’re going to have massive bottle variation, even in the short term. For example after six months you might find some solids settling out and some might be really cloudy. This variation means that you don’t really know what you’re buying. Some people think that variation is awesome. What you end up with is a wine that costs a bit more because it’s made by hand and boutique. Wineries also need customers that are okay with not knowing what they’re going to get. If I’m going out for dinner with mum and dad’s friends, I’m not going to take a natural bottle of wine because they’re not likely to like something that is really…
OC: Yeah! I mean it could be sulphitey, leesy, it might not have fermented all the way through. It might be sparkling. For us, that might be really exciting and interesting. But a lot of people won’t think so. So once the market understands the concepts of natural and organic wines-- like wines from one producer will not be same year after year—then it will be okay to sell those wines in restaurants. I hope that the market will explode for those kinds of wines.
WF: I hope so too!
OC: I think what I like most those wines is that they’re not following a recipe.
WF: I feel like there’s a dichotomy between conventional and alternative that exists because people are a little apprehensive to try these risky wines.
OC: And again, I hate to say it, but it ends up coming back to price. Natural wine, and interesting biodynamic wines are really bourgeois. You have to A. need to be able to afford them, but B. you have to have been able to afford them for the last few years so that your palate becomes attuned to them. If you don’t have the income or don’t drink it enough then you might never truly learn to love that kind of wine because you have to build up to it. So yeah, while it’s nice to talk about it, it’s really only a small part of the market and only applies to a small group of people
WF: But I think the people are there. That’s what I love about wine: there’s a kind of wine that suits everyone.
OC: Definitely! There’s a massive spectrum.
WF: So, Olli, what are your thoughts on the future of the wine industry from a Sommerlier’s perspective?
OC: I think we have to stay on top of the developments that are happening in different countries. I think as young people in the industry we need to find places on the value chain that we can invest or be part of. I mean I love working in the vineyard at the moment, but if I was there ten years from now, there’s no way I’d be anywhere closer to buying my own house. So that’s pretty important.
I think we’re still waiting to see what comes from China. I think we should have a few back up plans just in case. I was talking to Nautilus earlier this year and Katy Prescott was very excited about the American market. Hopefully that market ends up being a big thing for us. No matter which of those markets we go into our production is really small relative to their potential capacity to purchase. We could have 1% more Chinese people drink our wines and suddenly we wouldn’t be able to fill the demand. The population is that big! I think that’s going to play a big role in costing for the future. New Zealanders could potentially see a rise in local wine prices just because there is such a good market for it overseas.
WF: Which is scary…
OC: It might just mean we have to spend $25 for a good bottle instead of $15 for average stuff, because all the average stuff goes overseas and sells for $20, so why would they keep it here? For New Zealand sommeliers, I think at some point we should definitely set up a sommelier’s association. I would really like to start up a Central Otago chapter while I’m down here so that we can see what kind of structure works. We will need non-members (following international models) in order to get numbers up and ensure we can get along interesting wines. And have other people understand what we’re doing. I think that would be a good way to trial a structure and see whether we could take it to a national scale. Some of the restaurant managers in Queenstown really know their stuff. And we’re in a region where a lot of people are involved in the wine industry and also know their stuff really well. We could definitely have some interesting conversations.
WF: That’s super exciting Ollie. It’s awesome that you’re forming a path within the industry that is relatively untrodden. I think it will create a bunch of opportunities for others too. Thank you for your time!
*most people pronounce sommelier like “Somb – ‘L’ – ‘E’ – Aye” but let it run together. Or, So (“sock”) Mel (Gibson) “E” (“bee”) Yay