NZ Life & Leisure
Meet NZ’s newest wine master
THIS BLENHEIM LAWYER-TURNED-MASTER OF WINE HAS ALWAYS BEEN LURED BY THE GRAPE, FROM HAND-LABELING BOTTLES AS A CHILD TO ORGANIZING WINE TASTINGS IN HER FIRST STUDENT FLAT
FOR THE PAST FIVE years, Sophie Parker-Thomson has sat down to dinner with a notebook and pen awaiting a glass of wine poured by her husband, Matt Thomson. As he selects a wine to serve her (with no peeking from Sophie), he sets a two-minute timer.
It’s Olympic-style training, but the competition isn’t sports-related. The win here lies in the correct (blind) identification of the wine. With a sniff, sip and swirl, Sophie must deduce its origin, variety, and year of harvest. Scrawling on her notepad, she has eight minutes to form a convincing argument that the red she tasted is indeed an aged barolo, and not a brunello, for example.
Her pre-dinner training ritual came to its conclusion after five years of study in March this year when Sophie (Ngāi Te Rangi) passed her final examination to become Aotearoa’s newest master of wine. She’s the South Island’s first, joining 15 others based in the North Island.
Grapevines were the backdrop to Sophie’s childhood in Gisborne; in the late 1980s, her parents Phil and Catherine Parker were among the pioneers of the region’s grape-growing and winemaking industry. In 1990, they’d opened Smash Palace, a winery and bar in an industrial subdivision of Gisborne that quickly became a much-loved haunt. Phil had found an old Douglas DC-3 airliner in Rotorua, broke it down into parts and towed it home, where he reassembled it to form a canopy for the wine bar.
Sophie and her brothers were roped regularly into helping with the grape harvest, bottling and hand-labeling — work happily offset by being near the surf beach at Midway. In the late 1990s, the Parker family, including 14-year-old Sophie, moved to Central Otago to grow pinot noir grapes, and after a few years, began developing wine tourism venues. They opened a restaurant and wine-tasting complex in Cromwell called The Big Picture, where Sophie initially scrubbed dishes and waited tables. Then, at 16, she began hosting wine tastings. While her schoolmates babysat or worked in retail to earn their pocket money, Sophie poured glasses of pinot noir and encouraged guests to take deep whiffs. At the same time, and recognizing the heavy workload hospitality demanded of her parents, she vowed she’d never have a career in the same industry.
‘I’d set up tastings in our flat or drag my flatmates off to local tastings and into wine shops. I’d save up my student allowance to buy one good bottle of pinot, and that would be my splurge for the week’
“My family hadn’t really been to university, and I loved English and debating, so I decided to study law. They fully supported that and encouraged me to go and become the lawyer of the family.” Her relationship with alcohol while studying at the University of Otago was somewhat more sophisticated than most Dunedin first-year students. Eighteen-year-old Sophie made it her mission to educate her flatmates on the attractions of wine. “I’d set up tastings in our flat or drag them off to local tastings and into wine shops. I’d save up my student allowance to buy one good bottle of pinot, and that would be my splurge for the week.”
Her friends would scratch their heads, wondering where on earth Sophie was getting notes of passionfruit, banana, and forest floor from after one sniff of wine. “I explained that smell is the most neglected of our senses; we’re taught to read, write and listen, but not to smell. It’s a matter of training it.”
She created a wine-tasting YouTube channel to share her passion. Setting up her laptop on her flat’s dining table to film herself, she posted videos under the name ‘Lady Parker’. The name was a spin on her surname and a reference to Robert Parker, one of the world’s most influential wine critics who lives in the United States. Vlogging was an innovative channel for wine journalism. “It wasn’t high-tech, but wine communication was largely restricted to print, so I was trying to make it a bit more light-hearted and accessible.”
Boxes of wine addressed to Sophie started turning up on her doorstep, much to the delight of her flatmates. Freelance opportunities to write for wine-focused publications followed. “Why not become a master of wine?” Sophie’s mum suggested over dinner at a Dunedin restaurant one evening. Sophie knew the qualification was for those passionate about every element and aspect of wine and that it was notoriously difficult to get. She liked the idea, but her law degree needed finishing first.
She returned to Queenstown in 2011 after her admission to the bar, where the mountain air provided a welcome break. Sophie weighed up different employment options; the law on the one hand and wine on the other. As if the Greek wine god Dionysus had a hand in it himself, an email landed in Sophie’s inbox from Matt Thomson, an established consultant winemaker (KO Wine Consultants) in Blenheim.
He had read her freelance articles online and suggested she drive up to Marlborough to spend a wine-making season getting more hands-on experience with the technical side of wine. Sophie didn’t need much persuasion. Blenheim’s endless rows of fruitladen vines beckoned her with green arms.
The pair quickly found they had plenty in common. Matt (her now-husband) was equally as obsessive about wine, even in his early teens. After watching his parents blind-taste wines at a dinner party, he began reading books on the subject, collecting cases, and stashing them under his bed at 16 (an illegal activity for someone of his age). He later broke the news to his surprised family — all lawyers — that he wanted to become a winemaker. Matt graduated with a masters in biochemistry (specializing in yeasts as he knew yeasts were key in winemaking), and knocked on winery doors throughout Marlborough before landing his first gig, running a bottling line for a company called Vintech.
Sophie’s first Marlborough vintage was a good one, with a bigger yield than usual and a long growing season. It was stimulating work, and it felt almost like a homecoming. A wine label, Blank Canvas, followed two years later, with Matt and Sophie producing small-batch wines from single vineyards. The couple lists their growers like a close extended family; among them are a former policeman who happily traded handcuffs for pruning shears, a grower with a Cambridge University PhD in soil science and a former air traffic controller.
The idea of the master of wine qualification floated in the back of Sophie’s mind. “I was always daunted by it and filled with self-doubt. I knew how hard it was and how few had passed. But I went for it, and I was lucky to have great support around me.” She completed a two-year Wines and Spirits Education Trust diploma in 2014, and after this (and the birth of daughter Isabella), she cracked into the master of wine programme.
Sophie flew to Australia at least 10 times in five years for the qualification’s yearly tasting and theory exams, which she says are far more intense than law. Tasting and identifying 36 wines is done over three consecutive mornings — one exam included a Hungarian cabernet franc and Uruguayan tannat — followed by a three-hour written exam each day.
Sophie paced up and down her hallway the evening of the much-anticipated phone call from London from Adrian Garforth, the executive director of the Institute of Masters of Wine. The phone rang while her family waited on tenterhooks in the lounge. Champagne was chilling in the fridge for either celebration or commiseration, Sophie says.
Balancing study with motherhood, the consultancy and a wine label was difficult. “I did feel guilty having to lock myself away in the office to study, but I want to be a good role model for Isabella [now six], and I feel like I’ve done that. I remember the day I received the phone call from London saying I’d passed, she said: ‘Mum, you’re finally a wine master!’ That was great because she’d seen how hard I’d worked for it. I’m sure she’s thought at times: ‘What does mummy do all day other than taste wine and think about it?’”
The blind-tasting ritual before dinner continues. “Matt and I still serve each other a wine every night; we’re pretty hardcore. You have to do it to keep your palate sharp, and now I have the qualification people love to test me.” Thankfully, it’s in the name of fun these days, and a written exam doesn’t follow.