If there is anyone who knows how to survive and excel as a woman working in a man's world, Sarah Limacher does. The 24-year-old Wellingtonian has relied on a combination of charm, sense of humour but most importantly talent to become one of the most highly regarded sommeliers in Australia.
Sarah has already achieved what many sommeliers spend a lifetime working towards, including 3 'Goblets' in the 2011 Gourmet Traveller Wine List of the Year Awards and awarded Best New Wine List by Gourmet Traveller in 2009, she has also recently sat and passed her sommelier exams. "Awards and recognition are great, but for me it's ultimately about the people who come through the door and giving them great wine and a good time. "
Sarah has just landed a new role in Sydney as group sommelier for the Keystone Hospitality Group, a consortium that owns some of the city's top bars and restaurants. She will be overseeing the wine lists for a number of their properties, including the hip waterfront hangout The Loft and Bungalow 8 as well as their more wine focused bars The Winery by Gazebo and Manly Wine.
I catch up with her at the Surry Hills establishment, The Winery by Gazebo a quirkily outfitted bar including an Elvis Room and one of the best outdoor drinking areas I have ever come across. Its also a sommeliers dream with an enomatic wine system allowing her to offer more than 50 wines by the glass, from the 200 she has on the list. They also offer pitchers of wine based cocktails, including a white wine sangria, made of chardonnay, cointreau, martini bianco, mint, lychee and lemon.
Sarah is already putting her mark on the wine list, and is promising to sneak plenty of New Zealand's' best on there, "there's not many New Zealand wines on the list, but I'll be pushing them for sure. My old boss always used to joke when I was working it was New Zealand wine day!"
Sarah is one of seemingly hundreds if not thousands of kiwis making their mark on the city's hospitality industry "there is an abundance of great kiwis here, and everyone seems to take a shine to them. We are more low key, more chilled out, we don't have that 'wank' factor," she laughs.
A career in hospitality was as good as pre determined for Sarah. She grew up in restaurant kitchens; her parents owned one of Wellington's first dining establishments, the Roxburgh Bistro and then went to Boulot Bistro and Bar. She ducked out briefly to study at the Institute of Sport, but Sarah says the industry was always been 'in her blood'.
The transition from waiting tables to determining the wine lists of some of Australia's top restaurants began when she first moved to Sydney in 2006, at just 19 "I worked in a restaurant that had an amazing wine list, I suddenly had this massive exposure to the wine scene, there was a lot of opportunity to get stuck into tastings and to learn more about it."
Her big break came when she landed the role of head sommelier at Berowra Waters Inn, one of the country's top restaurants accessible only by boat or seaplane.
The awards started flooding in for her and her wine list, all the while, her knowledge of wines and what it takes to put together a good wine list was becoming widely regarded. Deciding she needed to visit some of the world's great wine regions, she took off for three month around Europe, "it reignited my passion for it and when I got back I decided I wanted to step it up and sit my sommelier exams, to be sitting in a room with people who had that much knowledge was really exciting."
Sarah's acknowledges in her job, in that industry, she is an oddity- a young female in a professional dominated by men. But she says the point of difference works to her advantage. "As a young woman it can be quite intimidating, I go to tastings and often I am the only girl in the room. It is definitely a male dominated industry, but the perception of an old guy in a three piece suit and an English accent serving wine, that is changing."
What Sarah may lack in years, she more than makes up for in knowledge and an acute understanding of what people want from a wine and a sommelier.
"It's all about being really approachable. I don't want people to be afraid to ask questions, it's about being on everyone's level," says Sarah. And she insists people shouldn't be intimidated when it comes to ordering wine" you have to bring it down to earth, I mean what is wine about? It's about good friends and good times, sitting around a table and enjoying it."
She is unashamedly brash and outspoken and says she wants to take the 'snob' factor out of her lists and the bars she is overseeing, "If people want to drink a $25 bottle of wine that's fine and they should get same attention as someone drinking a $200 or $2000 bottle of wine, they are all here for the same reason."
Wine is big business in Sydney, with some bars and restaurants staking their reputation on having the best list in the city. Sarah says she is already seeing some key trends emerging, "the wine scene is getting really exciting because people starting to step out of just drink Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and trying a Verdjo from Spain, a Marsanne or a Grüner Veltliner from Austria, people are drinking much more exotic wines."
She also says people are becoming more aware of exactly what is in their glass," everyone is interested in biodynamic, organic and natural wine making techniques are really important, people want to know where things coming from and how made."
And Sarah's tips on the best places in Sydney to sit down with a chilled glass, "Apertif in Kings Cross has an unbelievable sommelier, Love, Tilly, Devine is new on the scene and has a great list and you cant go past the Rockpool Bar and Grill."
Belinda Henley flew to Sydney courtesy of Air New Zealand.