Meet a sommelier: Larissa Muller, Palate Restaurant

by | Oct 18, 2022 | Opinion

In the second of our Front of House series Denise Irvine meets Larissa Muller, Palate Restaurant, Hamilton

I’m a certified sommelier and the front-of-house manager at Palate Restaurant. I recently became a part-owner, and I work closely with owner-chef Mat McLean, who started Palate 17 years ago.  I’m from Brazil, in the south, and I grew up around good wine and food. I remember tasting my first wine on New Year’s Eve; I was 12 years old and my Nana gave me a glass of champagne. I came to New Zealand in 2005 for a visit, when I was about 20, to take a break from university where I’d studied fashion design, advertising and psychology and wanted to rethink my direction. I chose New Zealand because it was the setting for the Lord of the Rings movies. I was a fan of the books when I was younger.

What happened next?

I decided to stay in New Zealand for a bit longer, so I needed a work visa and got a housekeeping job in a hotel in Queenstown. I got really bored and moved into food and beverage. I did a food and beverage management course, this was quite a big thing because Portuguese is my first language and I had to study really hard in my second language. I was running the hotel bar within six months; one of our suppliers was a sommelier and that was where I first became interested in being a sommelier. I later worked in Paihia and then came to Palate in 2013 after the front-of-house position was advertised and I had a three-hour phone conversation/interview with Mat.  When I saw the standard of the wine and food matching that he was doing, I thought, “I really need to up my game”.

What do you love about hospitality?

It’s the people. It’s almost like a play that you’re doing, a piece of theatre, you are entertaining people. I like to please people, give them a good time. We do that at Palate. This job is great when it’s busy and organised, and people arrive on time and everything flows.

What’s an OMG dining experience that you have seen?

It was an engagement that went wrong. The man had set everything up in advance with us. We saw the proposal at the table, the ring was exchanged, and then the woman went to the bathroom and we delivered the two glasses of champagne as planned. We saw the man waiting at the table with the champagne . . .  and the woman never came back from the bathroom. He asked us to check on her but she had gone, slipped out the through the staff door. We had to tell him. It was an OMG moment. We see all sorts of things here.

How do you become a sommelier?

A sommelier is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, typically working in restaurants that specialise in excellent wine service and wine and food matching. I’m studying through two international programmes, Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) which is run through the New Zealand School of Food and Wine in Auckland, and also the Court of Master Sommeliers. I am certificated with WSET, having completed the Level 2 qualification and working on Level 3. I have an exam for this in December, and then there is a diploma programme after that. The WSET studies are a mix of online work and face-to-face lectures.  The Court of Master Sommeliers is a guided studies programme that encourages quality standards for beverage service in hotels and restaurants.


How important is a fine palate and a sense of smell for a sommelier?

What I’ve learned is that everyone has these senses; you just need to train your brain to use them well. For example, I always sniff fruit and vegetables when I’m buying them, picking up the aromas and freshness. This started probably started when I came to New Zealand because I didn’t know the names of some produce and I could figure things out from the smell. I take it much more seriously because of my job. Working with Mat has been a big influence, too, because he has such a precise palate and wide knowledge of flavours and aromas.

How do you choose Palate’s wine?

We look for wine that is made with the same attention that we put into our food. Wine is really about geography, history, geology and culture. It’s about how the grapes are treated and who looks after them. New Zealand is small enough that we get to know many of the wine-makers, so we know how they do things, and we are fortunate that they like coming to us with their wine. This all helps in our decisions. Mat basically leaves the cellar choices to me but if he finds something he likes he passes it on. I just buy it, I trust his palate. Mat and I both have strong personalities but we respect each other and nowadays I see Mat as family.

What’s in the cellar at present?

Post-Covid, in uncertain times, we reduced our main wine list from about eight pages to three (whites, reds, dessert and fortified), and dispensed with a cellar list of extra-special wines. We’ve got an excellent selection, from New Zealand and all parts of the world.

A good find?

I’m loving a Bordeaux merlot-cab franc blend, Chateau de Chambrun Lalande de Pomerol (2018). It is very complex and plummy, a stunning wine. Also Blank Canvas Element Syrah (2018), from Hawke’s Bay. I describe this to customers as a bold New Zealand syrah with great tannins structure, oak integration, and lifting pepper characters. But there is always something new. Like the award-winning pinot gris from Vilagrad Winery, right here in the Waikato. It is super-textured and beautiful. And Matt Connell from Matt Connell Wines in Central Otago recently brought in a stunning pinot noir. It is so fragrant and beautiful.

Your personal go-to?

Riesling, I’ve always liked riesling. It has such a character. It can be made in many different styles but it always retains its beautiful flavours and aromas. It ages beautifully, it honeys out and it can become a bit funky with petrol aromas. I really like the German rieslings which have wonderful acidity. I have a tattoo of riesling grape leaves and I refer to myself as having a riesling personality: sassy, sweet, depending on the environment can be bone dry, and ages wonderfully!

My ambition is to . . . finish my sommelier qualifications, and I’d love to be a tutor in wine studies at a later stage. I’m really happy to have found my path, the work is very rewarding.

By Denise Irvine


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Denise Irvine

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