Joelle Thomson

Words on wine

Category: How to serve wine

Raise a toast to the first women winners – sommeliers

Two women won titles in Auckland this week in a field that has traditionally been a male domain – the Sommelier of the Year and Junior Sommelier of the Year competition, held in Auckland on Sunday 20 August.

The Sommelier of the Year Awards 2017… left to right: Master Sommelier Cameron Douglas, Karen Fistonich of Villa Maria, Sommelier of the Year Stephanie Guth, committee member Michael Darby and NZSFW founder and director, Celia Hay.

The annual competition was held at the New Zealand School of Food & Wine by school founder Celia Hay, in collaboration with Master Sommelier Cameron Douglas. It’s open to entrants from throughout the country and has seen New Zealand winners travel to visit Champagne Louis Roederer in France and junior winners  visit Central Otago, hosted by Andy and Misha Wilkinson, owners of Misha’s Vineyard.

Stephanie Guth, who won Sommelier of the Year 2017 said she was humbled to win the top prize but also by the process itself, which included tasting six wines, all with their identities concealed. The competition put entrants through their paces in other ways too. They had to open champagne for the judges and an audience, pouring champagne into eight glasses while answering questions about different beverages.

“Blind tasting is always a very humbling experience,” says Guth, who works as the sommelier and runs the beverage programme at The French Café in Auckland. Guth was born and bred in Canada. She trained first as a chef and five years ago made the transition to the front of house. She is part of the global growth in women pursing this career path. As is Amelia French, winner of the Junior Sommelier of the Year competition, held on the same night. French works at the George Hotel in Christchurch.

Young wine talent shines

His name is Dion Wai, he works in Auckland’s newest restaurant precinct and this month he won the NZ Sommelier of the Year award – a return trip to Paris, hosted visit to Champagne Louis Roederer and the kudos of the award, which was designed to champion professional wine service in New Zealand.

The New Zealand Sommelier of the Year Awards are now in their third year and run at the New Zealand School of Food and Wine (NZSFW) in Auckland.

It’s good to see these awards make a comeback to New Zealand after a long gap between drinks. I judged the country’s annual wine service competition in the late 1990s in Auckland, held under different ownership and management and was sorry to see that competition bite the dust. It would be helpful to New Zealand’s hospitality scene to see the talent at the top trickle down into the mindset of staff waiting tables at this country’s cafes and bars, no matter how humble or how community oriented the venue.

Even a country as close as Australia has undoubtedly got its service sorted to a far higher level than New Zealand, in terms of speed, efficiency, general courtesy and humour.

It’s great when waiting staff are informed, able to serve drinks elegantly and know how to open a bottle of wine with confidence, regardless of its closure – screw capped bottles can be opened with every bit of care and attention as cork-sealed bottles. But what really rocks in wine and food service, for me, is eye contact, a menu and a little positive attention; it’s about the customer rather than the chef, the mixologist or the barista.

What makes service good for you?


Fast facts: NZ Sommelier of the Year Competition

“The calibre of people entering under 30 years was extremely high this year and the competition included four women, which reflects the growing interest amongst women in pursuing careers in professional wine service,” says Celia Hay, chair of the New Zealand Sommeliers and Wine Professionals Association (and founder/director of the NZSFW).

Wai works full time at Baduzzi for restaurateur Michael Dearth who also owns The Grove restaurant. He is also currently finishing his degree in hospitality management at AUT and is a student in the Court of Master Sommeliers certification programme.

The annual competition also includes a junior sommelier award, sponsored by Misha’s Vineyard in Otago. The awards are held under direction from Master Sommelier Cameron Douglas.


© 2020 Joelle Thomson

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑