Irishwoman in New Zealand: ‘This country has given me the life I dreamed of’
Working Abroad Q&A: Mary-Therese Blair, originally from Co Wicklow, now lives in Auckland and works as a wine writer
Mary-Therese Blair on her balcony in Auckland, New Zealand with the Sky Tower in the distance and a glass of wine in the foreground.
Each week Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas, and as it is Food Month we are heading in the direction of libations and victuals. This week, Mary-Therese Blair, who is originally from Blessington, Co Wicklow but now lives in Auckland, New Zealand talks about life as a wine writer or as she prefers to say, "a wine adventuress".
When did you leave Ireland and why?
I left Ireland in 2007 for no reason other than I was looking for one more big adventure. I had lived in London and Sydney, and New Zealand was my next stop before I went to Canada, because I was following the working holiday visa deadlines. I arrived in New Zealand and initially settled in Christchurch in the South Island, but it quickly became apparent to me that Auckland was where I was meant to be. New Zealand has given me the life I've always dreamed of.
Did you study in Ireland?
I studied music management in Ballyfermot Senior College. Back then I wanted to be in the music industry and I worked for a few years with Ministry Of Sound in Ireland and also EMI. The music industry wasn’t really what I dreamed so I got into fundraising for not-for-profits. I started my career at the incredible Barretstown Children's Charity. I loved that work and continued it here in New Zealand until I moved into the world of wine a couple of years ago.
Tell us about your work in New Zealand.
It doesn’t surprise me that New Zealand is the place I found my passion for wine. I had always been a fan (and an imbiber), but coming to this little country at the end of the world and seeing what they can grow here - it is remarkable. I know the rest of the world mostly knows us for our Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, but the Chardonnay grown here is some of the best in the world. Aromatics to swoon over and Syrah that makes the hair on your neck stand on end. It feels like anything is possible in wine here.
Do the Irish fit in well in New Zealand?
The Irish fit well everywhere, but more so in New Zealand than anywhere else I’ve ever been. The Irish are so beloved here and I still get complimented weekly on my accent. The Kiwis are an irreverent, fun, and kind people who, much like the Irish, if they say “come and stay in my house when you visit NZ,” they mean it. Here we also have the big brother/little sister friendly rivalry with Australia that we enjoy at home with England. The Kiwis are intensely proud of being from Aoteroa (the Maori name for New Zealand) and love nothing more than to win at sport. We have a great deal in common.
What are the costs like compared to Ireland?
New Zealand, and particularly Auckland, is not a cheap place to live. The average house price in Auckland is over a million dollars. It's nuts. The thing that I notice the most is the cost of food. We have exceptionally good quality food here and are an agricultural country, but we pay more than export prices for produce and I feel that’s not good enough. It shouldn’t be hard for people to eat good nutritious food.
What made you love wine?
New Zealand made me love wine. I had my most significant “ah ha” moment here with a bottle of 2008 Wild Earth Central Otago Pinot Noir. It was this moment when I finally understood the true quality of a good wine. The complexity of flavour, the structure and the texture. Gone forever were my days of buying $12 dollar wine from the supermarket.
Are you an oenophile?
Yes and no. I love and appreciate wine, but I never want to be described as an oenophile as I want to make wine more accessible and I am passionately opposed to the alienating winespeak that is so common in the industry. Starting with words like oenophile. Wine is to be enjoyed, it’s fun and social. Let’s stop confusing people and talking down to them, shall we?
What wine do you recommend from New Zealand?
Too hard. It would be impossible to pick just one. There’s no question we are known for our Sauvignon Blanc and our Central Otago Pinot Noir, but I would love people to know New Zealand is capable of so much more. Chardonnay from Auckland (Waiheke or Kumeu) is legendary. Pinot Noir from Martinborough is beyond compare and aromatics such as Riesling or Gewurztraminer from pretty much anywhere in the South Island are stunning.
What cocktail would be good to try?
My favourite cocktail has always been a margarita in a short glass, on the rocks with just a little “ice” (salt) on the rim. Tequila has a bad reputation as so many people have used cheap tequila for shots. Good quality tequila is remarkable.
Would you come back to work in Ireland? What are the opportunities like for your chosen career?
I recently got married and my husband Kim works in the media. He’s Australian, and we have always agreed that should the right opportunity come along for either of us overseas that we would take it because great opportunities are rare. Obviously with Ireland being located right beside mainland Europe - the place where modern winemaking began - there could be countless opportunities. If the right opportunity was back home I would definitely take it, but I don’t see myself ever moving permanently back home. For both of us, New Zealand is home. The ideal situation for me would be to have the opportunity to write about New Zealand wine for an Irish publication. That would be a dream come true.
What advice would you give to someone interested in going there?
Come! This country is so remarkable in so many ways and has a landscape that is the envy of the world. The landscape in Lord of the Rings is not CGI, New Zealand actually looks like that. The North Island is full of beautiful sights and culture, but the South Island is an other-worldly paradise.
Are there any other Irish people in your circles?
No, I know very few. When I lived in Australia I only had Irish, Scottish and English friends, and I felt it robbed me of the true cultural experience of living in that country. When I arrived in New Zealand I made an effort to get to know more Kiwis and not to go to Irish bars. Back then I thought I was only staying a year, so I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. Now I have European friends, but the majority of my friends are New Zealanders.
Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?
I don’t miss things, I miss people - family and friends, and the Irish sense of humour. Nowhere else in the world is like Ireland for the craic. Oh and Penneys ... gosh I miss Penneys.
You have a blog called Mermaid Mary, how is that going?
After many years of simply talking about it and taking no action, I did everything in the same year. That’s so true to my character, when I decide - it is on. I did WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) level one, two and three back to back while building my blog site and searching for an outlet who would take on a complete unknown. At the same time a new show was launching on (the now defunct) talk station called RadioLIVE. They wanted someone to come on the show weekly and talk about wine. I pitched myself and got the gig. No one was more surprised than me. When the station shut down a new station MagicTalk emerged and I was fortunate enough to become one of their contributors. Next year it will be my second anniversary of broadcasting about wine to the nation every week and I’m pretty proud of the fact that I’ve never missed a week, even when I was in France and Italy for wine work getting up at 4am to talk wine over the phone. I’m so grateful to Wendyl Nissen, the original host who hired me. I now write for Cuisine Magazine and also New Zealand House and Garden, two big print titles here, and I am a regular contributor on a morning TV show. I update my blog with some of the shows that I record as well as events and other exciting things happening in the wine world.
If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email firstname.lastname@example.org with a little information about you and what you do.