Forget celebrity chefs - in restaurants across the world it's sommeliers who are fast becoming the new superstars. Not so in New Zealand's establishments yet. Although a growing assemblage of clued-up young hospitality professionals, increasingly backed by international qualifications, means this could be set to change.
A sommelier is a wine waiter, there to suggest wines, train staff in wine matters and often compile the wine list.
Though this role used to fall to the manager of the establishment, more restaurants are employing a sommelier, or, more likely in NZ, at least having a specific member of staff available to answer wine questions.
"Businesses are still a little afraid to explore the role as they feel it will cost money, but it's really an addition to the front of house service," notes Cameron Douglas, New Zealand's only Master Sommelier. "But we're getting there as more restaurants recognise the role's value."
Douglas is on a mission to make the profession better appreciated in the country, and better educated.
Wine waiting wannabes can now take the internationally informed and recognised Court of Master Sommeliers qualifications taught by Douglas, which kick off next month: "Anything to move the profession forward and dispel the myth of its snobbery," he says.
"The sommelier should never give the impression they know better, but subtly recommend and educate if guests are interested," asserts Therese Herzog of Marlborough's Herzog Restaurant, one of the few establishments outside Auckland with a sommelier. "Most of our guests love to learn about a new grape varieties or how a wine is grown or made."
Thankfully the old school of snobbish sommeliers is evaporating like wine from an abandoned glass, with the profession refreshed by a new wave of young, widely travelled and open minded professionals driven by a desire to share their passion for the product rather than use their knowledge to intimidate their customers.
In the States and Australia, where the sommelier is more widely regarded as an essential part of a fine dining establishment, sommeliers are increasingly being viewed as cutting edge opinion leaders. This is something recognised by New Zealand's wine industry, which regularly flies over Aussie "somms" to keep the country's wines at the forefront of their recommendations.
"In my travels I've been so impressed at the ability of sommeliers to describe in accurate detail virtually all wines on a list from current vintage through to the aged wines, as well as provide well informed and well matched food suggestions for each," notes Villa Maria's Sir George Fistonich.
However, we lag behind other countries in embracing sommeliership. "This is a skill that is sadly lacking in New Zealand," laments Fistonich. "It's important both for our wine and tourism industries to recognise the importance of such a role, as it would drastically enhance the enjoyment of the high quality food and wine experiences that we have to offer."
Jeremy Ellis, a New Zealander who has been working as a sommelier for more than a decade agrees the time is ripe. "I believe the role of sommelier is incredibly relevant, even more so as people's wine knowledge broadens, but generalises in the same moment," he observes. "The diplomacy in communicating and guiding such people is becoming more and more important, especially in restaurants with broad wine lists."
Far from being there for the wine novice, the sommelier's services are most often harnessed by buffs who realise this professional should know their wine list inside out, as well as the dishes on the menu, putting them in a strong position to make the best combinations between the two.
"Don't be afraid to ask for a recommendation," urges Douglas. "A good sommelier will read your needs and take you on a journey in your comfort zone or outside." So if there's a wine professional in the premises, make use of their services and allow them guide you on a vinous adventure.
Seifried Nelson Gruner Veltliner 2011$21
A newcomer to our vineyards, this gruner veltliner is made by a family which shares the grape's Austrian lineage. It's a great example, with fleshy stonefruit wrapped around a core of zesty lemon and mineral salts. (Direct from the winery.)
Obsidian Weeping Sands Waiheke Montepulciano 2010 $35.20
If you're stuck on shiraz, why not try this full-bodied alternative. Made from an Italian grape, Obsidian's Waiheke montepulciano abounds with opulent, supple boysenberry fruit supported by an earthy spicy undertone and ripe tannins. (From LiquorKing, specialist wine outlets.)
Sopra Sasso Valpolicella Ripasso, Italy 2009 $27-$30
Ripasso is a style of wine that sees valpolicella enriched by being fermented on the skins left behind from the making of the region's dried grape wines. This one is smooth with rich black cherry fruit, cinnamon spice and notes of dark chocolate. (From La Barrique, The Wine Barrel, Advintage.)