Kiwi wine taster Yvonne Lorkin stole headlines in May when she insured her taste buds for $1m – making her, she believes, the first Kiwi to do so.
“Actually,” the 42-year-old says, “it’s my whole olfactory system that’s insured. It’s all interlinked. If something happened to my ability to smell, and to interpret those smells and tastes – for instance, if I was in an accident or had to have surgery of some sort – that would be my livelihood, and everything I’ve worked for for 20 years, compromised.”
Yvonne, a former radio announcer and TV host who undertook something of a seachange in the late 1990s to work in wine, is now Chief Tasting Officer at WineFriend. She’s also a shareholder in the wine delivery operation she started with business partner and CEO Debbie Sutton late last year.
Her job is to taste and select wines for customers based on their preferences, introducing them to varieties or blends along the way that they might not have previously tried.
“There aren’t many of us, either here in New Zealand or the world, who do what I do,” she says. “There are maybe a dozen of us here in New Zealand. I don’t actually know what I’d do if I lost my senses of taste and smell. I’d have to start all over again, WineFriend would have to find someone to replace me. It would be tricky – and expensive."
Not to mention the fact that her family – husband Greg (43), and children Stella (16) and Jake (14) – are reliant on her income, to a degree.
Greg – a health and safety executive – met Yvonne at intermediate school in Hastings and the pair became friends. He was, Yvonne fondly recalls, the “strapping lad from the provinces” who fell for the “rock ‘n’ roll girl” who returned to Hawke’s Bay after a stint in Auckland working for Festival Records, bFM, and music TV channels MTV and Max TV.
It was the summer of 1998 – “an electric, volcanic vintage in Hawke’s Bay. You couldn’t live here and not pick up on the energy. There was this huge buzz that coincided with lots of wineries opening cellar doors and offering food. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to do something with wine – but I need to get qualified.’”
She’d been interested in wine, she says, her whole life.
“I’d order chardonnay as a young adult while all my friends were drinking beer.
“I knew I didn’t want to be a winemaker as someone had told me there was a lot of chemistry and maths involved, which I was rubbish at. But I knew I was good at marketing and publicity, so I put ‘wine marketing’ into Netscape Navigator, and found the Diploma of Wine Marketing at the University of Adelaide.”
After a year of remote study and falling in love with Greg, Yvonne says she found herself “accidentally pregnant”.
She recalls how she’d just put Greg on a plane to begin his two-year OE when she did the test. It came up positive, so she popped it in an envelope "and posted it to a castle in Scotland where I knew Greg was going to be. Of course, he said, ‘Right, I’m going to come home.’ But I said ‘no’ – I had things to do as did he. So he stayed for a while to do the running of the bulls and the beer fest before he came back for Stella’s birth.”
The remainder of her diploma was done, she says, while working in a wine shop. Jake came along two years later and, although it wasn’t always easy, Yvonne knew she was on the right path.
Now she balances her family life in Hastings with wine columns for several publications, wine judging, tasting duties at WineFriend, and presenting and producing TV show Thirsty Work. When she’s not working, she loves being home with her husband and kids.
“Greg was what I needed when we met and he’s what I need now,” says Yvonne. “He’s my best friend.”
Yvonne is also immensely proud of Stella and Jake.
“Both my children are very clever,” she says, “but the thing that I love the most is that they’re kind. They’re good human beings.”
Sometimes, they even lend a helping hand. “I’ve said to them, ‘Can you just sniff this wine for me and tell me what you smell?’ And they’ve been brutally honest – ‘Petrol’. ‘Dirt’.”
Whether or not they’ve inherited her well-honed senses remains to be seen.
“I think they do have good noses and palates, but they certainly don’t see my job as glamorous. They know it’s very specialised – but to them, Mum’s just Mum!”
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