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Keith Stewart - Sommelier & Wine Professional

Keith Stewart first started working as a trainee sommelier in 1970. During his lifetime he wrote over 14 books, countless articles including 20 years as a wine columnist at the New Zealand Listener and was a commentator on our world if wine from many perspectives. It is certainly Keith's written words that will remain his legacy.

For me, Keith book  Chancers and Visionaries, a history of wine in New Zealand, published in 2010, is one of the iconic narratives on how New Zealand's hospitality and wine sector has evolved. In the forward, Keith notes 'This is a book I have been writing all my adult life' and he goes on to explain a history of New Zealand hospitality that these days is often forgotten.

During his university studies, 'I went job hunting and found employment as a trainee sommelier at an Auckland restaurant. That was in 1970, and jobs in licensed restaurants were rare, as there were no more that a dozen such establishments in a city just beginning to rediscover its sense of fun after a century of wowserism. Not only was I fortunate to find such a job, I also found a boss whose especially infectious enthusiasm for wine matched his knowledge of it.

'So I discovered that Champagne was made by crusty old French jokers in deep chalk cellars, who turned their precious bottles regularly and by hand. Just why they were doing this I did not quite grasp for a few more years, but I was quickly impressed with this wine and decided that Champagne was what I was born to drink. Those were the days when Champagne was cheaper and Auckland waiters were paid an extortionate amount of money, so a case of Lanson or some similar Grand Marque was soon a standard occupant of the space under the kitchen table in my various flats around the city...

'...One day it dawned on me that New Zealand had a perfect mix of temperate climate, loose soils and land lovers, all of which are essential components for successful winegrowing. So I headed out West - where the people were wild and there was local wine to be drunk in tin sheds that went by the romantic title of 'cellar door' - to begin an exploration of New Zealand wine'.

Keith 'enrolled' in his OE and travelled to Europe, with his wife, to continue this exploration. Returning to New Zealand a few years later, he gained work as a wine rep for Cooks (NZ) Wine Company selling to restaurants and wine merchants.  He learnt about Baco22A and Chateau Chelsea (sugar) and how to negotiate through New Zealand's maze of liquor law regulations.

'There were retailers who could only sell New Zealand wine, wholesalers who could sell anything so long as you purchased a minimum of 9 litres...There were BYO restaurants that could serve but not sell wine, and fully licensed restaurants, taverns, hotels, pubs, bottle shops, trusts, chartered clubs, cabaret licenses...hospitals, pharmacies, churches all governed by their own segment of the Sale of Liquor Act. Wine sales reps needed to be bush lawyers as much as wine experts and diplomats...'

In Chancers and Visionaries, Keith's research considers James Busby, who planted grape vines at, what we know today is, the Te Tiriti (Treaty) House in Waitangi during the late 1830s. Keith then traverse the liquor laws and industry, tryrant and collaborators, inspiration from new immigrants, connoisseurs and festivals.

'While neither parent nor midwife, I have been at the birth of this exciting movement'. Thank you, Keith providing a record of this remarkable period in New Zealand history.

Celia Hay

Keith Stewart passed away on June 6 2021.

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