If you are looking to have your eyes opened to the wonders of New Zealand wine, then Melanie Brown is the one to call. Since joining The Providores and Tapa Room in Marylebone, headed up by New Zealand fusion chef Peter Gordon, as a pastry chef in 2005, Brown has carved a unique path in wine, first as sommelier at the restaurant, and later branching out into independent retail, all the while retaining a firm footing in London’s on-trade. “After trying to be a hard-ass chef for many years, I developed an unhealthy obsession with the intricacies of NZ wine, the breadth of the industry and the people behind the wines,” she says. “So naturally, my world engineered its way to creating a platform that honoured the New Zealand wine industry.” It is Gordon, an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, that Brown credits with putting her on the path to wine, allowing her to look after the wine list and complete her WSET studies. Having worked her way up to the role of wine buyer at The Providores, Brown spread her wings in 2014 to found specialist retailer The New Zealand Cellar. A wine bar and shop at Pop Brixton followed in 2015, which is today home to one of the most comprehensive selections of premium New Zealand wine in the world, and also offers private tastings and unrivalled winemaker events. Throughout this time, Brown maintained her role as wine buyer at The Providores, curating an all-New Zealand list, with the exception of Champagne and Port. Brown’s dual role allows her to not only keep an informed eye on London’s on-trade, but gain first hand experience of life on the frontline of the independent off-trade through a Kiwi lens. This year, however, she is expanding her remit, bringing her new found love of Australian wine to the UK with the launch of The Australian Cellar, an online collection of wines that will showcase the country’s new wave. Here, she reveals how she set about building her own wine empire, the difficulties of learning to use a corkscrew, and how a bottle of Ata Rangi Craighall Chardonnay cemented her love of wine.
What or who inspired you to become a sommelier?
I began as chef at The Providores and quickly developed a love and passion of how the flavours of food and wine cohesively work to enhance dining experiences. After nearly eight years as a trained chef, I realised my passion was wine, and quickly made the transition to living and breathing it.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
Enthralling guests! It is crazy to think wine is such a scary subject. Continuing conversation and presenting wines with understanding and care has always been the very foundation of my role, and one I of the many favourite things about my job.
What’s the biggest misconception about the role of a sommelier?
The attitude that sometimes is purveyed is a very off-putting notion. If you are arrogant you are ruining that guests dining experience. It does not cost anything to be kind and thoughtful when serving wine.
What’s your go-to drink at the end of a long day?
Right now, it’s Nelson Grüner Veltliner. Crisp, juicy and so insatiable.
What’s your most embarrassing front-of-house moment?
Learning to use a cork screw. Having the confidence to use with poise required patience and practise!
What piece of advice would you give your younger self?
Reward is presented in liquid form across the globe, steeped in history and decadence and care.
What bottle sparked your love of wine?
Ata Rangi Craighall Chardonnay. It was just a life changing moment, that moment I knew I’d have to be in the wine industry, forever.
What to date has been your most memorable wine experience?
A bottle of Coche-Dury on a beach eating fish’n’chips.
Which customer habit annoys you the most?
People with no manners.
Who is your inspiration in the gastronomic world?
My ex husband! He is an amazing chef and runs a group of exceptional restaurants in London, we’re still best mates and he lets me eat there still sometimes! (It’s ROKA by the way, best Japanese ever!)
What’s your ultimate food and wine pairing?
I love the way that spice interacts with aromatics, but then I’ll love red meat and Pinot… Everything is my ultimate.
Where would your fantasy vineyard be?
Close to the sea.
If you weren’t a sommelier, what would you be doing and why?
Cooking, or gardening – the foundation that forms the basis of our lives captivates me. Food and wine excite me on every level, so if I wasn’t serving it, I’d be growing it.
Which wine (grape/style) do you find it impossible to get along with?
Wines with no balance, balance is key.
Who is the most memorable customer you’ve ever served and why?
Anthony Bourdain. But it was only a dream.
What makes you most proud to be a member of the wine trade working in London?
The quality and range of wine we are exposed to daily. There is nowhere else in the world that offers anything like London.
What’s on your wine bucket list?
Finally, what wine and paired plate would you pick from your list and why?
Peter Gordon’s infamous Laksa and Pegasus Bay Bel Canto Riesling.