edited by Sue Courtney
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© Sue Courtney
29 May 2001
If you think Kingsley Wood seems just like an ordinary short guy, just wait till the Liquorland Wine Options. He's the one on the stage with the microphone. He's definitely the tallest guy in the room.
Wine Options is New Zealand's most popular wine identification guessing game and this June sees the start of the 19th year of competition. And every year since its conception Kingsley Wood has been right in the midst of proceedings as organiser and usually as quizmaster. He estimates that since the game started over 12000 wine lovers have played. That's just numbers for the official game. There have been plenty of spin offs, such as the social club options, options for wine clubs, the Corbans Wine Game and others. The game has been adopted by the Aussies and more recently, by wine lovers in Singapore.
I asked Kingsley how Wine Options came about and he recollects back to the days when he was Manager of the Dunedin's hugely popular Wilson Neill-owned Carnarvon Station Hotel. In 1981 they formed the Cellarmasters Wine Club. Soon a club was operating from every Wilson Neill liquor store. It rapidly became the largest single wine club in New Zealand.
Some of the Wilson Neill staff had played a wine guessing game at St Hallet in Australia. They had a lot of fun. So Kingsley had a bit of a play with the Dunedin Cellarmasters in 1982. "I'm sure we made lots of tragic mistakes". He recalls asking if a wine was made from Muller-Thurgau, Riesling Sylvaner or Chenin Blanc - (spot the synonyms). "As it was the wine was actually Corbans Montel Sauterne and who knows what went into it - probably a lot of water? "
When Kingsley left the Carnarvon Station in late 1982 to move to Christchurch and the role of Wilson Neill South Island Regional Manager, he took the Cellarmasters Wine Club to heart. He started doing an enormous number of tastings and loved it. Informality was the key.
With Dr Henry Connor he developed the 'Wilson Neill Wine Options', which was nothing like the game played at St Hallet. They decided to run the competition with 4 white wines and 4 red wines, with 5 questions of 3 options on each. "How we even managed to get the mix right the very first time I'll never know". Held at the Chamber of Commerce Building on a freezing cold night, 35 teams took part. It was a great success.
The competition spread to other South Island centres in 1984 culminating with a South Island final in Dunedin. This provided Kingsley with an amazing lesson on event management. "We arrived to set up and found the room was a cabaret venue. The only lights were ceiling spots. So we said, how do we run options without any lights? So we shot out and bought all these candles. Great for atmosphere but little else."
In 1985 Wilson Neill Wine Options went nationwide and Auckland had a taste of the event. It took place at the Museum on another freezing day. There were people who took part that day who only ever took part once - noted winemakers and commentators who didn't do as well as they hoped. But others were not deterred and some of the old hands are still playing today.
One of the questions asked on the final wine of the National final in 1985 was "Is this 1979 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, 1979 Chateau Lafite or 1979 Chateau Latour?". Kingsley remembers Joe Babich turning to him and saying "How often do you taste these sort of wines because I can't say I have practiced on them very often".
The biggest year was 1991. There had been 15 regional heats and the Auckland heat alone, held in the Downtown Convention Centre, had 101 teams supported by 350 spectators and 60 staff. They went through a pallet of wine. It was also the year of the panty-hose episode. The 1975 Cooks Vintage Port - perhaps the most awarded wine ever in NZ show history - turned out to be full of sediment. Kingsley had someone race across the road to the shopping mall to buy several packets of panty hose so they could filter it as was poured it into jugs for serving.
That year the final was held in Auckland for the first time. There were 60 qualifying teams as far north as Whangarei and as far south as Invercargill. "It was simply too big" says Kingsley. Yet the game was to get bigger with up to 68 teams in the finals in later years.
In the Auckland heat in 1992, another 100 teams competed. Perhaps one thing Kingsley later regretted was serving his entire allocation of 1986 Grange for the final wine. The contestants and spectators enjoyed it though.
One thing that has changed since the beginning of Wine Options is the abolishment of the individual answers on the first two questions. Nowadays all the answers are team questions, which makes it more user friendly and leads to lively debate among team members. "We just could not work out how to stop the teams cheating and in hindsight the 'no talking' rule was not a lot of fun so we got rid of it".
Kingsley gets a real buzz out of running the Wine Options and gets the most satisfaction when there are a number of teams that have high scores at the end. "If the scores are high I know I have selected good distinctive straightforward classy wines and prepared questions to match. If the scores are low I get really annoyed with myself. I get grumpy even if I have one wine that doesn't show well, whether it is a regional competition or a National Final".
He just 'loves' the repartee. He finds that people identify themselves as characters very early in the competition. It is clear that about half the teams are there just for the enjoyment of the day. They dress up and are out to have fun while the other half think they have some chance of winning. But no team is really safe from the verbal punishment and embarrassment that Kingsley can dish out. "They will have a go at me, I will have a go at them. It just loosens up the whole crowd. It creates an atmosphere".
When winemakers enter the competition, their presence may influence the questions that are asked, even though the wine may not ultimately be one of their own. Kingsley enjoys seeing them sweat. And the winemakers know they are going to get picked on. Kingsley especially loves it when he does put a winemaker's wine in, and the winemaker doesn't pick it. The recollection of this episode might go on for months.
Kingsley prides himself on very few mistakes over the years although he recalls the time he mistakenly gave out the answer before he had asked the question. "It was actually fortuitous as it was a serious crowd. So the genuine mistake loosened things up and it ended up being a fun day".
How does Kingsley feel when somebody tries to have him on? He admits that he gets a buzz, but he knows he is on safe ground as he does so much preparation beforehand.
However he can get stressed at times. Often he will disappear off stage, often to check the label on the back of a bottle. He has only ever been caught out once by giving a wrong option but covered himself by saying "Has everyone picked the blind mistake". He had already given the region of origin as Hawkes Bay and then one of the final options asked if it was a notable Gisborne-grown wine.
He doesn't care what the audience does so long as his staff is on the ball and the scores are recorded accurately. The worst occasion at an Options was the National final in Wellington in 1994. There was an Allan Scott Riesling that was badly corked and it had been divided amongst several jugs. The scores on this wine were eliminated from the final result.
Whatever happens, the show must go on. After the Queenstown heat last year, snow closed the airport. So he braved driving for 7 and a half hours through blizzard conditions to get to Christchurch, arriving with just 15 minutes to spare, much to the relief of the competitors.
Does Kingsley play Wine Options himself? Well, not in New Zealand although he has competed in the Australasian Final when it has been held in Australia. Twice his team has come second. Maybe next time they will win the coveted title.
Although Kingsley no longer works for New Zealand Liquor or the parent company DB Group, the company that bought the Wilson Neill liquor operations in 1989, he still organises and runs the competition, now known as the Liquorland Wine Options.
He also organises The Top 100 Liquorland International Wine Competition and is totally convinced that wine shows have a place in the whole wine scene. "Only true reviews are made from wines tasted blind, which are in sense a competition" he says.
He considers The Top 100 the most marvelous competition as it allows entry of any wine available in New Zealand no matter the country of origin.
Although Kingsley created the concept of The Top 100 competition, he did not create the name. The Liquorland marketing team under the direction of Stephen Pye dreamed that up while Kingsley was on one on his many overseas trips. It was signed, sealed and delivered by the time he returned. Kingsley, however, has had to suffer the consequences of the name being so close to the Top 100 in Sydney.
Working with a big wine company for 20 years did give Kingsley plenty of opportunity to travel. With Wilson Neill he had a dozen trips to Australia, a major trip to Germany and France and even visited a vineyard in Japan. Then after the Liquorland takeover he had three trips to VinExpo in Bordeaux as well as a trip to VinItaly. Plus countless more trips to Australia.
Kingsley left the world of corporate wine in 1999 to open his fine wine store, First Glass Wine and Spirits. Does he regret it?
"No", he emphatically says. "There comes a time when you want to get back working with people face to face and I just love working with people".
And so he works with people, hosting his weekly wine tastings, the wines all served blind of course.
Little could Kingsley realise, when as a young lad he left school to work as a bank teller, that wine would be his destiny!
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