A near death experience five years ago put Connal Finlay on a trajectory that he himself never imagined.
At the time he was a graduate from Rangitoto College who’d applied to six universities never expecting to get into many of the courses, let alone all of them.
After the incident which he admits “put it all into perspective” and facing the daunting prospect of which university to choose and what to do with his life, he took a bit of a break.
Life gravitated to the kitchen and there he began experimenting. “I’ve always been in the kitchen — there are not many photos of me as a child but the ones that do exist show me making scones,” he says.
Connal’s curiosity, focus and palette led to him developing the perfect gluten-free flour mix especially for his mum who had a slight gluten intolerance so that she could enjoy his baked treats with the rest of the family.
That led to attending short courses in Wellington at Le Cordon Bleu New Zealand. But with no student loan capability, Connal couldn’t progress his cuisine studies. The tutors asked if he’d “ever been in the wine game” as they were impressed with his “taste profile” he recalls.
So one door closed and another one opened — this time into the wide world of wine. Incredulously, Connal at that stage had never even tasted a glass of wine.
Trusting his tutors’ hunch he signed up to the NZ School of Food & Wine’s three-month WSET course swiftly followed by the two-year full-time course overseen by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in London, an international governing qualification body in wines, spirits and sake.
At graduation to a standing ovation and to his complete surprise, Connal was formally recognised at 21 as the youngest ever graduate and certified wine expert in the near 50-year history of WSET, the largest wine course provider in the world with 5,000 students completing qualifications.
Fast forward to today and he is a man on a mission wearing many hats while educating the masses “to take away the pompous thing” he says that so many have about wine. Wine knowledge by many consumers in New Zealand is “minimal” in Connal’s opinion.
“The places where many people buy wine — mainly supermarkets and liquor stores — everything is done by varietal,” he says. “There are only six varietals that most people know which is sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot gris, syrah, cab sauvignon, and merlot, which is limiting.”
He points out that there are “thousands of grape varietals out there in production around the world and there are hundreds and hundreds of regions globally that produce wine — they just don’t have them represented here”.
So these days you’ll find Connal championing international varietals the most.
He’s also an NZ School of Food & Wine tutor, owner of The Cellar Store NZ, an online portal for wine education and retailer of the largest inventory of international wines in the country, and the brains behind the first World of Wine Festival ever held in New Zealand.
The inaugural event featuring master classes and vertical tastings by Mas de Daumas Gassac once described as ‘Château Lafite of the Languedoc’ will be held at AUT campus 12-13 May, showcasing 152 international wines from 14 countries — none selected from New Zealand on purpose.
Supported by Riedel, best known for its glassware designed to enhance different types of wines, every $60 ticket sold entitles the bearer to a complimentary piece of Austrian stemware and unlimited tastings.
Expect a blunt, pragmatic reply from the recognised wine expert when discussing wine value, quality, interpreting tasting notes and the kudos of award stickers.
Connal says tasting notes are “not always indicative of what’s in the bottle so don’t worry too much about them”. The same with stickers “as they are not the best way to buy wine” he advises.
“One of the key descriptors on tasting notes for the Marlborough sauvignon blanc is ‘gooseberry’. When was the last time you had a gooseberry — have you ever had one? Most people have no idea what they taste like.”
Stickers are not always a representation of best quality given the bigger brand wine companies have the budget to enter whereas smaller producers cannot do that — “so they’re naturally disadvantaged so don’t get a gold sticker” he says.
“They’ll probably be more expensive with a $10 difference between a $20 and $30 bottle of wine because they’re a smaller winery despite the fact that they’re better.”
“Talk to an expert, experiment and taste,” is his advice, as you never know what will tickle your fancy.
For more information and tickets to the World of Wine Festival go to: theworldofwinefestival.nz
Words: Sarah Sparks