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All in the Family

Tina Lai and Lillian Lai Discuss New Zealand Wine and Maori Winemakers


Tina, Lillian and mom

Q & A  with Lillian Lai, Wine Consultant and Sister of The Global Gourmet

There are two camps in my family among our four sisters, the fashion camp and the gourmet camp. The fashion camp tells everyone what to wear and the gourmet camp tells everyone what to eat and drink, making a tidy split of lifestyle resources. My sister and I belong to the gourmet camp, her specialty is wine and mine is food. My oldest sister, Lillian Lai is a Fine Wine Sales Manager for the House of Burgundy in New York City, an exciting city to experience the “in vino veritas” lifestyle. Since we are close in age, and have both lived in many countries and traveled extensively, we have always been drawn to culture and learning about other people. Our approach to our professions have a very common line, bringing people together through the enjoyment of Food and Wine.

This month, to highlight the theme of sisterhood I am profiling my sister Lillian in a Q&A who also has a wonderful story to share about Maori winemakers from New Zealand.

Q1. Tina: How did you get involved in the wine business?

A1 Lillian: My foray into wine happened by luck- in my definition of luck ( chance meeting preparedness). After 5 years of working for a non profit organization promoting International Educational Exchanges, I realized I had outgrown my job.   While at CIEE, I was very blessed to have traveled to many exotic locations and the work was personally rewarding, not to mention the people and international setting.  Ultimately, it became a job like any other job in New York-stressful and demanding.  I remember thinking, “Here I am, sending 400 Americans on projects overseas, organizing 20 domestic programs for over 200 international students and administrating a special program for underrepresented students, all without leaving my office on the 14th floor of 42nd St!”   As I left the office at midnight for the second consecutive week, I decided it was time for change and handed in my resignation. 

Q2 Tina: What made you get involved in wines?

A2 Lillian: For me, travel has always been the panacea, so the next six months after quitting my job, were spent traveling and enjoying New York as bon vivant-- until the savings ran out.  Sooner or later, I had to decide on my next career move.  One day, having dinner with my brother in law at home, we chatted about his work in the wine business.  He suggested that I pursue a career in the industry. At first, I wondered whether I had the qualifications to make such a dramatic move.  Over, the course of the meal and bottles of 1er cru Burgundies we sniffed and sipped, I realized that I had a strong connection with wine as a lifestyle.

I enjoyed eating out, had extensive knowledge of geography and was passionate about learning about wines. Despite my lack of formal knowledge, I had the organizational and communications skills required for wine sales and marketing.   I set out to become a wine ambassador, in the same manner as I had done for so many years recruiting and convincing people to volunteer on projects overseas. Within weeks of that conversation, I landed an entry position working as a sales representative with a fine wine distributor. Subsequently, over the next year I had the opportunity to travel more than ever,  participating in winery tours in France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and New Zealand.

Q3 Tina: What are some of your most memorable wine travel experiences?
A3 Lillian: New Zealand was by far my most memorable trip- an experience, I thought only possible through my course work in Anthropology during university days!  It was on that trip that I understood that wine was not only a product of the land, but culture itself. 

While in New Zealand, our group focused on the South Islands, specifically, Nelson, Marlborough and Cantebury.  In Marlborough, we visited a very special winery-- Tohu Wines, an indigenous wine company, with vineyards in Marlborough and Ginsborne. As part of our visit, we learned about Maori culture and participated in traditional ceremonies.

On our last day in Aoteroa (New Zealand), literally the Land of Long Clouds, our hosts organized a traditional feast to bid us farewell.  It was held outdoors, at a traditional meeting house, on top of a hill.  We were welcomed onto this sacred site with a strict formal protocol. As visitors, we were not to enter the site straight away. The tapu (power) visitors bring is different to that of the marae (meeting house) they are visiting. We waited until a high-pitched wailing call coming from woman is heard- a sign for us to enter.  And, as we passed the gates onto marae, we lowered our heads to pay respects to the ancestors.  Then, there were speeches of welcome and ceremonial chants. At the end of the welcome speeches, we shook hands and pressed noses or hongi.  What I thought would be a small party, turned out to be a gathering of about 200 people, who were all part of 3 Maori tribes—there’s no such thing as a small Maori family gathering!

The feast that ensued was an abundant gift from the land.  It included, steamed foods such as fish and sweet potatoes prepared in underground ovens (hagi), a variety of seafood and fresh water crawfish and matched perfectly to aromatic, fresh Sauvignon Blancs and Earthy Pinot Noirs.  The ceremony concluded with a traditional song and dance performance and more speeches.  I learned that public speaking is one of the most important arts in the Maori tradition.

It was a special, one of a kind, experience, which captured the spirit of Maori’s spiritual connection to the land and the connection of wine production with history, culture and land.  I believe it was my boss who put it best that afternoon, when he asked me gazing the valley floor from the hilltop vineyards; “This is much better than selling paper clips, isn’t it, Lillian?”  At that moment, I knew, that wine would be a big part of my life for years to come...

Q4 Tina:  Can you give us some statistics on how much of wine production is from New Zealand and how many brands come from this country?

A4 Lilian: In New Zealand , 22,616 hectares of viniculture fields are planted, there are some 530 wineries producing 133.2liters, 57% of which are exported. RESOURCE:

Q5 Tina:  Can you tell us what distinguishes NZ wines from European or American counterparts? RESOURCE:

A5 Lillian:

Every wine region is special- a combination of soil, climate and water. NZ has temperate, maritime climate, strong influence on the country's predominantly coastal vineyards. The vines are warmed by strong, clear sunlight during the day and cooled at night by sea breezes. The long, slow ripening period helps to retain the vibrant/tropical/pure varietal flavours that make New Zealand wine distinctive.

NZ Sauvignon Blanc is rated throughout the world as the definitive benchmark style for this varietal, marked by pronounced aromas of tropical fruit (kiwi, gooseberry, grapefruit), with a medium body and citrus, crisp finish. NZ Sauvignon Blanc  is the most popular varietal in the U.S. with a price range of 12-40 USD.

NZ Chardonnay, most underrated because there too many Chardonnays from other regions of the world.  Generally pleasant, not over oaked, with flavors of white peach and citrus, pure full flavored finish. The #1 varietal in NZ. with a price range of 14-45 USD.

Pinot Noir, most popular varietal, best from Central Otago, very high quality and small production; often follows  the French Burgundy style.  Intense aromas of black cherries and stewed plums with a hint of raspberry. This wine is lightly oaked and has a lightly peppery finish.  Perfect w/ NZ land.  Not cheap with a price range of 25-60 USD.

Other varietals to try include: Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and don’t forget dessert wine, Late Harvest Riesling being the best!

Q6 Tina : Can you come up with a perfect food and wine pairing with an NZ white and a NZ?

A6 Lillian: The above mentioned renowned NZ Sauvignon blanc with its fruity and crisp palate pairs perfectly with seafood, steam fish, spicy Southeast Asian dishes. But is also excellent for sipping alone!

Q7 Tina: What are your trend forecasts for the American market consuming wines from NZ?

A7 Lillian: NZ is known in the US for Sauvignon Blanc and will be this way for a long time.

Q9 Tina: Are there any names to look out for in NZ wines that are available in U.S. market?

A9 Lillian: Tohu Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, Cable Station, Oyster Bay, Cairnbrae SB and Riesling (next to Cloudy Bay, the most overrated, expensive SB), Highfield Estate, Peregrine PN, Pegasus Bay Riesling, Mt. Difficulty.

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