Having an increasing influence on what wines the New Zealand public and restaurants, in particular, are stocking up with is Queenstown wine reviewer and sommelier Candice Chow. In a ‘wine chat’ with PHILIP CHANDLER, she explains how she got into the industry,
and what constitutes a good drop
Since being made redundant as a restaurant group beverage manager in 2019, Candice Chow’s made every post a winner.
From posting influential wine reviews, hosting wine tastings and offering wine list consultations, she’s become a major player in New Zealand’s wine industry.
Then, just last month, Cuisine magazine selected her amongst the country’s top-50 ‘‘most influential and inspiring’’ women in food and drink.
Not too bad for someone who grew up in the Asian metropolis of Hong Kong, originally spoke another language, Cantonese, and initially worked in a male-dominated industry.
Now 41, Chow started in Hong Kong’s restaurant industry when she was 18 ‘‘just so I can have really good food’’, she says.
Spotted as a fast learner, she was promoted into bar work and also graduated from restaurants into five-star hotels, partially because her English was ‘‘quite good’’, having picked it up in part by listening to boy bands.
One of the few female ‘captains’, or senior waiters, in Hong Kong, her last two postings were at the InterContinental hotel and at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel.
In 2007, however, she decided to take a working holiday in Australia.
Beyond the long hours and stress — ‘‘you can’t make mistakes’’ — she’d also had a cold she couldn’t shake off for about two months.
‘‘Because you’re not dead, you can’t really stop working.’’
In Aussie, she spent two years picking and packing produce in various states.
There she also met her now-husband, an Englishman, Gary, who she now has a 10-year-old son with.
Not ready to head home, she travelled to NZ with him.
She recalls the bus stopping on the Crown Range, taking in the view and thinking, ‘‘this looks pretty cool, I think that’s the place we can stay for a while’’.
Chow worked in high-end establishments Eichardt’s Private Hotel, The Rees, then Rātā, where, after three years, she became beverage manager for its nationwide restaurant group, then helmed by celeb chef Josh Emett.
In early ’19, she was the only NZer amongst 18 sommeliers to attend an NZ Winemakers ‘Sommit’ in Hawke’s Bay.
Six months later, the Rātā group made her redundant — this newspaper’s heading was ‘Sommelier spat out’.
Wanting to stick with wine, and not seeing any other job prospects, ‘‘I started thinking, ‘maybe I’ll just do my own thing’’’.
She started ‘Candice Wine Chat’, naming it after an educational tasting session she’d run every Friday afternoon at Rātā for staff.
Her big break came that December after visiting Martinborough.
She’d heard influential Kiwi wine reviewer Raymond Chan, who’d written 10,000-plus reviews, had died, and was saying it was a shame his website, which she’d used as a valuable reference, hadn’t been updated.
To her surprise, a winemaker said, ‘maybe you can do it’.
After meeting Chan’s partner, she was given her blessing to carry on his legacy by writing reviews on his website.
Chow says she reviews about 1000 wines a year, though tastes even more.
She’ll start tastings between 9 and 10am, spitting out the wine as she goes — ‘‘I only really drink when I start cooking dinner’’.
What she loves so much about wine, she says, is ‘‘it’s a very enjoyable drink, and it tells a place, it tells a time, and it tells the inputs of a
The best wines tell a story ‘‘without the winemaker telling you what they did’’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she rates Central Otago pinot noir very highly.
‘‘I think people just do not know how good it is — actually, in a world sense, our wines are very good and consistent.’’
One of her favourite local tipples is Valli wine, which she gets a hands-on experience of each year when she volunteers to help pick their grapes.
Though rated one of NZ’s best wine reviewers, Chow says she’s ‘‘still quite small-scale, but I’m hoping to scale up’’.
She feels she’s in a very privileged position, influencing so many people on what they should taste or buy.
‘‘Literally, you explain to people, ‘I get paid to drink wine’ — that’s an amazing job.’’