Picking grapes and brains

Three of New Zealand’s top female wine experts will be sharing their knowledge at an upcoming food and wine festival in Wānaka.  Rebecca Fox discovers where their passion for wine comes from and what they are drinking - and eating.

Jane Skilton
Master of Wine and wine educator

Jane Skilton is a great believer in giving people the information to make up their own mind.

"My proudest moment was when a person from Central Otago came running up to me and said he ignored by advice and became a winemaker. I loved it, I was quite tearful, that was so lovely.

"At the end of the day you are your own person, you’ve done and you love it. I was quite proud."

That is the cornerstone of her wine education business and her own personal ethos when it comes to sharing her knowledge with wine.

"I’ve opened a window to another country Germany or Argentina. You can make your own mind up."

Skilton’s own wine journey began by accident when left to her own devices after doing her A-Levels in maths and science, her horrified mother encouraged her to get a job. She got a job in a wine shop, much to parents’ puzzlement as they did not drink wine, and discovered she really enjoyed it.

"I couldn’t think of anything else to do. There was lots to learn, it was hard work, carrying cases like that. That was 40 years ago now."

She moved to London for another wine job and "never looked back". She began studying for her WSET wine qualifications including her Master of Wine (MW) - she was the youngest female to achieve this in 1993.

"There was a bit of bloodymindedness as well. At the time there were lots and lots of men, they were all just spending time communing with each other and not getting on, there were just starting to be lots of inspiration women I looked up to."

Jane Skilton: "In Central what an explosion, it’s very collaborative. I like the energy, it’s...
Jane Skilton: "In Central what an explosion, it’s very collaborative. I like the energy, it’s something special. It’s an extraordinary evolution of one particular region." Photo: supplied

She was encouraged to "keep her head down, do her work and enjoy it" by a "brilliant" female MW mentor who believed women were the way forward for the industry.

"When I started the MW institute was predominantly male; now in the past 10 years it’s kind of been a 50-50 even spread."

When Skilton moved to New Zealand in 2000 with her Kiwi husband and was looking for something to do, she realised there was a real gap for wine education here.

"The qualifications are recognised around the world so if you train people, you go to London or American or wherever people know what you have done."

The motivator was how much she, personally, had received from her studies.

"People think you are being told what to think or do and I don’t think that is very fair. It opens your mind and then you can make your own mind up."

The move to New Zealand was a shock for her, but she learned to love Kiwis candor and honest answers, as well as the "can do" nature of the country’s wine makers.

"I found that super refreshing and the openness to talk about what is going on."

Skilton started up the New Zealand School of Wines and Spirits in the early 2000s which has become a full-time job, seeing her travel overseas to teach as well as at home. Most people she teaches are in hospitality or work for wineries even though it is not a prerequisite.

She also judges at international wine shows and is a writer for wine publications.

In the 40 years Skilton has been in the business, the industry has gone from being very "Eurocentric" to the "explosion" of interest in wine when it began to be sold in supermarkets and when people began travelling more as it became cheaper.

"The world became a much smaller place, that democratised wine purchasing. You didn’t have to go to a wine shop, didn’t have to be intimidated by someone who thought they knew better than you."

The range of wine is much greater although at the top end wine has become more expensive because of demand.

"There is only so much wine that can be made. So at the top end some of the mythical wines are now out of the reach of many people. But at the same time there is so much great wine out there you don’t have to chase after the ridiculously over-priced wines.

"A bottle of wine can take you somewhere, transport you to somewhere, you can read about it. You can take it as far as you want to."

In New Zealand there has also been a massive change. While the pioneers of New Zealand’s wine industry in the 1980s and 1990s pushed forward, today’s wine makers are even more confident in their ability and what they can produce.

"In Central what an explosion, it’s very collaborative. I like the energy, it’s something special. It’s an extraordinary evolution of one particular region."

They are also never complacent and always ready to try something new. Matt Dicey’s cask wine is an example, she says.

"He’s put really high quality wine in a box which to us sounds really weird but in Sweden 50% of all wine they buy is in a box. They [New Zealand winemakers] are constantly thinking what is new, what can we do next. That is a massive positive for New Zealand wine. I really enjoy that."

She believes the top end New Zealand wines are still underpriced. While New Zealanders might see $80 to $90 for a bottle of pinot noir is expensive, it is not really.

"It’s quite inexpensive when you look at the quality you get overseas for that money."

Skilton hopes that will be showcased in her talk at Ripe - the Wānaka Food and Wine Festival, "New Zealand verses the world", which will feature three pinot noirs and three wines from overseas.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles says a little more patience is needed over the next two weeks. Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Angela Allan
New Zealand Sommelier of the Year 2023

Angela Allen has a problem saying no to opportunities that come her way.

Hence, the decision to move to New Zealand and to enter the New Zealand Sommelier of the Year competition.

Originally from Canada, Allen has been living in New Zealand for over 10 years and has worked in the hospitality industry for many years and in many roles including front of house and in kitchens.

"I came out on a working holiday visa and just stayed. Why not?"

About seven years ago she made the decision to get more serious about her hospitality career and started to expand her knowledge about wine.

"It became a natural evolution to keep going, to keep pushing. If I’m going to work in hospitality I thought, I may as well really go for it."

Angela Allan. Photo: supplied
Angela Allan. Photo: supplied
She loved the idea of being a sommelier - a person who specialises in wine and beverage service in a restaurant - as it allowed her to meet and talk with people often on vacation or celebrating a special event.

"It’s kind of fun that way. We can help you choose a nice wine to go with, not only your budget, but with the mood, the food and with your preferences."

It also requires her to taste the wines she serves to ensure they are not spoiled or tainted.

"Taste first - you avoid the embarrassment. It is one of the worst things to serve a wine you think you know well and it turns out to be corked."

But getting the qualifications - not a requirement of the job - takes a lot of hard work, she says. They also have to know about cocktails, sake, beer, coffee, tea, mineral water - all things beverage.

"You can make it what you want. There are some great sommeliers that do not have the higher level qualifications, yet they’re just as knowledgeable and good at their job. It depends on where you want to go with it."

In 2021, she completed the Certificate in Professional Wine Knowledge at the New Zealand School of Food and Wine which included WSET Level 3 Wines and WSET Level 2 Spirits. In 2019, she gained Court of Master Sommeliers certification.

In 2022 Allen represented New Zealand at the ASI Association of Sommeliers International Training Boot Camp in Malaysia and in February 2023, was a volunteer at the ASI World Best Sommelier Competition in Paris.

Then in 2023 she entered the New Zealand Sommelier Awards, discovering just how tough it could be - one of the events included pouring a bottle of sparkling wine perfectly into nine glasses in four minutes.

"Sometimes I can push myself a little too far. I have a problem in saying no to opportunities that come my way."

As part of understanding the wine industry better and to see the process and talk with the wine makers she did a couple of harvests at Rippon in Central Otago.

"It’s a beautiful spot."

Over the years she has worked on building her knowledge at a number of restaurants including Culprit, Oyster and Chop and as head sommelier at La Fuente. Just recently she has joined the team at Josh Emmett’s Onslow, in Auckland.

"They have a great team and their wine list is a lot of fun."

Research for the job is ongoing and often sees Allan spending her free time eating and drinking at different venues.

When it comes to wine lists, Allan looks for diversity and different price points from entry level to Grand Cru level.

"I love reading wine lists. I have a file on my computer where I’ve downloaded famous restaurants’ wine lists to see where sommelier heads are at."

While wine does not last long in her house, she has a small collection particularly of sweet or fortified wines which she loves and a few reds.

"I like to be here now, wines that are ready to drink."

One of the challenges of her job can be navigating the budget issue when suggesting a wine to a customer. She advises people who have a budget just to tell them and she will take it from there.

"That conversation is best when you approach it from what they usually like to drink, what they drink at home so you understand what budget they’re working with. You read people quickly. If it’s a birthday or anniversary sometimes people like to splash out."

The most expensive wines she has served have been some Bordeauxs, she served last year in Paris.

"Some of those dinners there were some very impressive Bordeauxs and of course I had to try them all to ensure they were good quality - it was fun."

At Ripe she will be testing people’s knowledge with a quiz and blind tasting skills, something that can even test her own skills.

"My problem is with high acid, unoaked white wines, I just get them all confused like Chablis and pinot gris, they all taste the same to me."

Local winegrowers finally have the confidence to produce wines that suit the district, Candace...
Local winegrowers finally have the confidence to produce wines that suit the district, Candace Chow says. Photo: supplied

Candice Chow
wine reviewer and educator

People are drinking less, but drinking better, Candice Chow believes.

The wine reviewer from Queenstown finds people are keen to know more about the wine they drink and its provenance.

"They like a lot more detail and transparency."

Chow says rose is still a very popular wine but chardonnay is growing in popularity again.

"More producers are looking to make it [rose] a serious style, putting a lot more effort in. When they first started making it they wanted to make a refreshing pink coloured wine but now there is a lot more thought put into that."

At Ripe, Chow will talk about chardonnay, a much less known Central Otago varietal that is often over looked in favour of Pinot Noir.

"It’s a smaller portion but very popular."

Ten to 15 years ago chardonnay was popular but its popularity declined as New Zealand and the world’s love of sauvignon blanc grew.

"Now it’s turning the other way around. Wine makers love it and the consumers love it as well."

Chardonnay is a very versatile variety that enables wine makers to show different aspects of the grapes and where they came from.

"It’s quite an interesting variety to play with for a wine maker."

If you look at Burgundy where they only do pinot noir and chardonnay, the same applies to Central Otago, she says.

Chow is finding chardonnay is "growing" on her. In the past she has not been a fan as it was often heavy "buttery, oak" California-style wine.

"I drink a lot more chardonnay these days than I did 10 years ago. Central Otago doesn’t suit that style and wine makers finally understand that so it now shows much more fruit off the land. It shows the beauty of it now."

Local winegrowers finally have the confidence to produce wines that suit the district, she says.

Chow, like Allan, has always worked in restaurants, including Michelin-starred venues alongside professional sommeliers when she lived in Hong Kong. In Queenstown she has worked at Eichardt’s Private Hotel, The Rees Hotel, and Rata by Josh Emett.

In Hong Kong, it’s considered a proper profession but in New Zealand the dining landscape is different, yet people with knowledge of all wines produced here is needed, she says.

"I was always in managerial positions which ended up a wine job as well and from that I get a lot of experience. I get to visit and talk to makers and producers and get more in-depth insights.

"It all add up to me only wanting to do wine."

These days wine reviews are Chow’s main focus. In 2020 she took over Raymond Chan’s wine reviews, after his death. Last year she also launched her own review website, offering more modern and simpler reviews and is nearly finished her WSET Diploma.

She also does some staff training in hospitality and talks to interested groups.


RIPE, the Wānaka Food and Wine Festival, Glendhu Bay, Wānaka, March 23.