Joelle Thomson

Wine writer and award winning wine author

What I am drinking, reading and savouring each week


Woman in wine, Celia Hay

Cecilia Hay is the Founder of the New Zealand School of Food & Wine

Celia Hay is the founder of the New Zealand School of Food & Wine, which she courageously relocated to Auckland after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. This unexpected shake put paid to both the building and the business she ran from it in the South Island’s biggest city, so she bravely put her three children and a bunch of banana boxes full of their personal possessions in the car and headed for the hills – the Bombay Hills.

She has since forged a reputation as a food and wine educator extraordinaire (and I have been in her employ – there’s my disclaimer), running courses that enable school leavers to find a professional path forward and those in mid or later life to find a new lease of passion in their lives.

This is her story.

  • This is the sixth interview on this website based on the famous Proust questionnaire, which originated in 1886 – find out more here.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

A career? A family? For me, they are so intertwined. As a young woman, I wanted to take every advantage offered to women; a university education; a diverse professional career; financial independence as well as, but at the same time, becoming a mother.

I like to say that I have four children and September is always an auspicious month for me. My three children are born within four days of each other and my fourth child… perhaps the eldest of the bunch, is my business or multiple businesses. Oliver was two weeks old when Hay’s Restaurant opened in Christchurch in 1994.

I have been a serial small-business entrepreneur and learnt this from my parents and grandparents, who fell into food and wine.

A defining moment for me was when my parents, as the Mayor and Mayoress of Christchurch hosted Sir Denis and Lady Blundell, the Governor General of New Zealand at our home. For the occasion, there were caterers and Blue Nun Liebfraumilch from Germany and somehow I was designated to be the server. Sir Denis pointed out the correct way to pour the wines (over the right shoulder) and how to serve the meal and then clear the plates. My mother, who was teetotal, always insisted the wine was poured into her glass even though she never drank a sip. This got me started to find out more.

I have always been fascinated by French culture, haute cuisine, fine wines and the sensibility of taste.

Every day, I share my knowledge with others and this is very humbling and at the same time enormously exciting and satisfying.

I am proud to be a teacher.

What is your current state of mind?

I am a pragmatist and always looking with a focus on the best outcomes for the future.

Do you have a most treasured wine?

I am a wine lover who tastes broadly and am curious to experience new wines from diverse regions. I am a generalist in my tastes.

Where is your favourite wine region?

The dynamism of this region, along with the entrepreneurial zeal that led to its establishment and diversity is exceptional. We are very fortunate to have this leadership and ambition for innovation for wine in New Zealand.

When and where are you at your happiest?

I take solace in nature.

Even now that I live in Auckland, while still owning our farm in Pigeon Bay, I cannot wait to get out in the fresh air. I have my own morning exercise route around the Hobson Bay Walkway. Every day is different; the tidal sands, the dramatic clouds looking out to Rangitoto and Waiheke, the fresh sea breezes, the tuis and native trees.  At 7am this is so invigorating.

What do you most dislike in wine?

Oxidation is a tragedy of so many good wines especially those served by the glass without sufficient care.

What is your greatest fear?

Nothing in particular.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Dining at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in 2019 or Eleven Madison Park in 2017. Outstanding hospitality experiences requiring deep pockets.

What is your greatest regret?

Nothing specific.

As an optimist, I never regret but look to the future…

What talent would you most like to have?

I am content with the talents I have and continue to work to build and enhance these.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

In our Canterbury world, we have had many challenges over the last two decades. Certainly the earthquakes, starting in September 2010, undermined the region’s confidence but the terror attack of 2019 happened when I was at the ASI Best Sommelier competition in Belgium. I was texted in the middle of the night and watched this unfold. It was terrible and profoundly emotional for me. Our collective and conscious grief.

What is the trait that you most deplore in yourself?

As an optimist and pragmatist, I don’t indulge in feeling sorry for myself.

What do you most value in your friends?

Fun, shared stories and evolving relationships over decades. Pretty special.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?


If you were to die and come back as a person or thing what do you think it would be?

Hard to say…