“Wine First” is a new show on Create TV combining food and wine in a way that showcases the wine and its producers. Through the eyes of the two hosts, sommelier Liora Levi and foodie Yolanda Año, the show tours wine regions and wineries and asks chefs to cook dishes inspired by those wines. Season One took us to Germany, Austria, and Norway. KLCS Public Media talks to co-host Liora Levi, who is joined briefly by Executive Producer Morten Ottesen. They talk about filming the next season here in America this past summer, how he came up with the show, buying wine in Norway, and what she cooks when she isn’t jet-setting the world as a sommelier.
I’m just curious, have you guys seen the Northern Lights?
Liora: No, it’s not really where we are. I’ve seen it and I’m sure Morten’s seen it when he’s been traveling up North. In Oslo, we don’t see it very often; it happens.
Morten: In the next few weeks, in fact, it’s going to be Northern Lights over Norway.
I loved watching the recent Create marathon of “Wine First,” it was fun to watch each show flow into the other. What’s the aim of your show, the idea for it?
Morten: It started when I was down in the cellar and I noticed that I had some wine and it was time to drink them. So I then started the opposite way, I took the wine, opened the wine and smelled the wine and thought, “Ok what should I eat?” I find that very interesting to find something nice to eat to the wine. So normally you choose your food and then you pick your wine. I thought this could be really a fun show, to find very skilled hosts and then try to get some local chef to cook with local ingredients and try to match up wine. That was the start of Wine First; it was basically an idea I had at my home. Wine is very interesting and it would be fun then to pick the wines first and then bring out the food.
How did you find your hosts? You could’ve chosen a chef, not a sommelier.
Morton: In Norway, Liora is the best and most famous sommelier in Norway so she was naturally on the top of the list. She is on TV in Norway as well. So, I did know that she worked very good on camera and she’s funny and she can do all kind of things. It all started with Liora and then we also wanted to have some foodies, and then Yolanda appeared and she has this energy that we would like on the show. The latest scoop is another sommelier from Sweden, she has the same position in Sweden as Liora has in Norway. She’s also a beautiful lady, a lot on TV in Sweden. We like to call them the “Charles Angels of wine.”
We interviewed Andreas Viestad (the same production company), but this is a new concept pairing wine and chefs. Was it hard to get it funded as a new show concept?
It is always hard to fund new TV show but I think it has worked out pretty well. It will always be better when we have success, but it’s aired many times with a lot of viewers and it’s now available in 94 percent of U.S. households. It’s a great success and then it’s always easier.
Will there be more seasons?
Definitely. We are almost done with Season Two and we are planning for Season Three.
The first season was mostly German wineries, right? The first season was, Austria, Germany and Norway. We have been through Covid and it was very difficult to travel to all those places.
Wine regions, some wineries around the world, it was not possible, so it was only five programs in the first season. The next season, we are in fact going to Michigan, we are going to Indiana, and we are working on Italy, Slovenia and France. So it’s going to be many more countries in Season Two and Season Three.
The first season was hard to do but you did do it during the pandemic?
We managed to get four programs done before it all went bad, and then when it was orange in Norway, we had opportunity to go do hard cider. That’s not wine, but it’s close enough (laughs).
For Season Two, why did you choose America? Is it because of PBS?
It’s important, we have always been talking about being in all regions and going to the U.S. and do some shows for the American audience. And, the people from Michigan and Indiana have been really great; love the people, and the tourist board and everybody that has been involved, great shows.
America is Season Two?
America, and we are also going to Chile, Argentina, Italy, Slovenia. We are working with all the big wine nations. So it could be six to eight programs for Season Two and the same for Season Three.
(Morten leaves the discussion and the rest is with Liora)
Liora, what was your favorite part of the German and Austrian wineries?
I probably shouldn’t have favorites, but one of the most spectacular things for me in the first season was the fact we visited the Mosele Valley and I got to do a hot air balloon ride over the Valley. It was not really one of the wineries that was featured a lot, it was just kind of like a stop, but the owner is from the U.S. and he was there with his wife and they wanted to do something special, so they invited me along on a hot air balloon trip and I’ve never that before. It was super exciting, it was beautiful to see everything from above and, obviously, I’m a wine nerd and to look at the map from a map perspective. (laughs) That was amazing!
Was that filmed?
Yeah, of course.
As a sommelier, what was your path to this show; I guess he just called you?
You know what was funny, I was in London when they called me and I was in London for a meeting with the “Wine Show.” The meeting was kind of an interview to take part in a wine Series called the “Wine Show,” I think it was only produced in three seasons through BBC, really famous people – Matthew Gould, who was in Brothers in Sisters and with some super famous wine people in-between. I was going to this interview and they called me from Norway and said “Do you want to be on this wine show?” “Yeah, sure, call me if it ever happens, I’m in,” because Norway is super difficult when it comes to alcohol, because people have pitched doing wine TV with me so many times and I’ve done a few pitches and it never happens because Norway is super difficult when it comes to legislation around alcohol. And then these guys were like, “OK! We will!” And a couple days later, they called me, “Do you want to come in for a test shoot?” “Sure why not?” And then it kind of just rolled from there.
Morten said you’re on TV a lot, so are sommeliers on TV frequently?
No, they’re not, I am, but not a lot. We have the breakfast show here “Good Morning Norway,” it’s like a morning show, so I talk about wine on the show once a month for the past five, six, seven years. I get five to seven minute slots once a month. That’s all the regions can digest, if not they’re going to call, “Yeah, you’re recommending people to drink alcohol in the morning, its not good!” I suspect it’s the two same people (laughs), but they have to listen to it. But in Norway sadly we don’t get a lot of space for alcoholic beverages on television. Being on TV once a month talking about wine in Norway, that would be considered a huge amount of TV time, yes.
You’re Norwegian, you live in Norway?
I’m Norwegian-Israeli. My dad is from Israel, but he arrived in Norway back in the 1960’s, and my mom is from Norway. I grew up here, I live here, my base is here. I do travel a lot. I try to not travel as much anymore, but I say that every year.
Why do you need to travel as a sommelier?
I do many things within wine. I do everything about wine, I just don’t sell it, even though I guess I do, indirectly. I have a lot of different hats, I write about wine for a food and wine magazine, I do “Good Morning Norway,” I do a lot of tastings for consumers, but also for the Norwegian trade; I used to teach at the sommelier education programs, I’m the president of the Norwegian Sommelier Association, and I also work for ASI, which is the International Sommelier Association. I’ve been traveling for them a lot for the past five years. They organize the Best Sommelier of the World contest, the Best European Sommelier, the Best Asian Sommelier, etc., so I go to all these events. And, recently I started working for Star Wine list, which also has me traveling around the world a lot. It’s like the Michelin Guide, but for wine people. So, I organize events around the world.
It’s interesting, both of the show’s hosts are women of color, in Norway and also on TV, it’s nice to see the diversity.
I don’t think that was the reason they chose me, there’s not a lot of wine people featured publicly like I am, so for me it was like luck (laughs). And Yolanda is from Argentina, but at the time she lived in Germany and she’s a foodie and she used to work for the distribution company before. So it was kind of lucky we’re both of color. (laughs)
What’s the favorite part of your job for the show?
I think it’s the filming with the producers; it’s a lot of fun. And with the girls as well. I didn’t know until a late stage in life that I like to do public appearances. I thought I didn’t at all. And then someone told me, after I finished my sommelier education program, “You need to compete as a sommelier in the Best Sommelier of Norway contest and stuff like that.” I’m like, ‘I’m never going to do that, no way, I’m not going to be on a stage and perform,’ and they kind of twisted my arm until I said, ‘Alright, I’ll do it.’ And it turned out I loved it. (laughs) I thought it was so much fun. So I was in competitions for a few years, and it went really well. I won Best Sommelier of the Nordics in 2012 and the Best Sommelier of Norway in 2013. And after that it was basically either continue on the path of competitions, where I would probably focus all my time and a little bit more on studying and practicing for competitions or have a normal life. And if I had chosen the first, I wouldn’t be able to work 100 percent because you need to be studying. It’s like any other sport, if you want to be the best you need to spend all your time on it. And my boss at the time, even though he was
my mentor and coach, I was his only employee, so there as no way he could give me the time off to concentrate on it. So, I started helping with coaching the national team of sommeliers – I make it sound like a real sport and it kind of is (laughs). I’m sad that I didn’t compete, because I really loved it, but on the other hand it gave me the possibility to do so many other things. I started writing for magazines, I started doing tastings for consumers, I started teaching at the school for sommeliers. I became a burgundy ambassador in Norway. I’ve been lucky; I’ve had so many opportunities to do so many fun things within wine. So when I started doing “Wine First” and Star Wine list, these are my top priorities at the moment. I love talking, I love communicating, I love meeting new people and interacting with people, especially like we do in “Wine First,” where you have to lead your co-actors, like the producers we visit on the show. The producers we visit are not familiar with being in front of a camera. Many of them, they tend to get nervous and stiff, so trying to get them to feel comfortable and relaxed, I liked that.
I love watching the German wineries; they were shot really beautifully.
We have amazing videographers, with the cameras and also with the drone shoots.
I liked when one wine maker said he read books from the 1800’s at night and when he does it’s like a time machine, taking him back to that time, and how he tries to make wine like that. You go with whatever they say.
We kind of have scripts, but I’m terrible at following and reading scripts, our director knows that and we have a very good collaboration. He knows me, I know him, he’ll say, “I want to have…”; I wing it.
Since the show features food, do you have a favorite go-to dish that’s quick and healthy?
Yeah (laughs). It’s Chili con Carne, but with minced meat, which is so basic, so easy, it takes me 15 minutes, and normally I make a huge pot and I freeze it down to these plastic bags and I make them completely flat, so that they’re super quick to defrost. I eat on the go a lot. All I need is some fresh herbs, and I normally always have fresh herbs on the counter. Some cilantro sprinkled on top and I’m good to go for another five to six hours.
Doesn’t cilantro bolt and go to seeds quickly?
Not when you use it as much as I do! (laughs)
What is the recipe?
I fry up some garlic and onion, together with minced meat. I add chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, lots of salt, pepper, cayenne pepper and some chilis. I like it spicy. I let it simmer for a while, approximately 10 minutes and then I add green bell peppers, sweet corn and I’m good. Chopped cilantro on top.
Do you have a favorite inexpensive wine?
I have plenty.
I did see Left Foot Charley when we were in Michigan, I just love the name. I live in Norway, we have extremely high alcohol taxes, so there’s no such thing as ‘’two buck Chuck’’ here. If you want to drink an inexpensive wine you would have to pay around $13-$15 dollars. In Norway, it’s very strange, expensive wines are cheap and cheap wines are expensive. For me, like yesterday I had a very nice Chilean wine, a pinot noir. It’s just juicy, fresh, doesn’t cost much, love it. At home, I tend to drink juicy, cool climate reds, very often Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, or fresh whites. Right now I’m enjoying a chardonnay from England. (as she takes a sip)
As a sommelier, do you ever not drink, for a day, do you take a break?
A lot, yeah, yeah. People think I drink all the time, and I don’t. I taste so much wine and that goes in cycles, because in Norway we have a monopoly system, they have that in Canada as well. So, alcohol in Norway is regulated by the government, and you can only buy wine and any alcohol above 4 1/2 percentage in government shops, and we 343 shops across the country. They all have the same selection, which is great, and that’s where you buy your alcohol. The good thing about it is everything is available for everyone. And that’s where everyone buys what they need. They have six new releases a year and all wine journalists are invited to taste wines. And normally that would take a couple of days, maybe up to a week, but that was a long time ago, now it takes three weeks and you sit from nine in the morning to five in the afternoon tasting wines. It could easily be 100 wines before lunch. In those weeks, I tend to not drink much alcohol at all because I taste and spit all day. If I’m going to drink something, maybe I’ll have a beer. (laughs) I drink much less than what people would expect.
So in Norway, new alcohol isn’t released whenever they want?
No, everything is very regulated.
That’s interesting, wow. You know how here everyone just has wine whenever.
Here it’s Monday to Friday 10 to 6, Saturday 10 to 4. You can order it through the mail, but you have to pick it up before 6 o’clock (laughs).
So far almost everyone’s had a Julia Child story, or that she’s influenced them. But you probably don’t even know who she is, right?
Of course I do, I love Julia Child!
Was she famous in Norway?
No, but I love food and I’ve read books and I’ve seen the movie and I always thought it was an amazing story. What I think is amazing is I’ve been to the States a few times and to be completely honest, I haven’t been impressed with the food outside the big cities. We were in Indiana this summer and oh my God, I cannot eat anymore deep-fried food in my life. So, what she did for the American cuisine was amazing, And I hope there’s lots of Americans who keep it up, because a lot of Americans need to eat more healthy, and different, and more varied.
Do you pinch yourself you get to do this for a living, and also be on TV educating people?
When I was a teenager, I always loved traveling. When I was a kid, I wanted to become a truck driver because then I would be able to drive down to Europe and see the world. It didn’t really occur to me that I could do that in other ways. After becoming a teenager, I was like, “Ok, I could just take a plane, and I love watching travel shows and I would love to have my own travel show one day.” Now, I kind of do. Maybe like 10 years ago, I started becoming well integrated in the wine trade and I started dreaming about doing more stuff and traveling with wine and working internationally. I started my own company in 2014 and today I live off traveling the world. It’s amazing, I pinch myself all the time because who would’ve ever thought.
For those of who watch the show, is there anything you want to add?
If they watch the show, what I hope to achieve with the show is to inspire them to travel. Travel to where we go, see what we’ve been seeing. Obviously, we’re in a lucky position getting to do a lot of exciting activities as well. But for most people who haven’t visited a lot a wine regions, traveling to a wine region, visiting a wine producer, and tasting the wines, it’s such an amazing experience and I hope they get to do that as well. Not just that, but also understanding and meeting other cultures and people and languages and different kinds of foods. That’s what we want to share.
I don’t drink wine generally, but when I was in Italy, just to drink the house wine…If wine tasted like that, I would drink wine, because the restaurant house wine, it tasted like there was no alcohol and that it was fruity. I think because there’s no preservatives. That’s what I was told, it was made in the restaurant.
I think it was because you were on holiday.
It was not the way I know wine to taste.
There are so many wineries that don’t add preservatives or anything, that’s kind of the trend. But what does often happen is that when they’re traveling, they’re in a different mode and you experience things in a more romanticized way and that [applies] to food and wine also.
Wine First airs on KLCS’ Create TV, find the full schedule at: createtv.com/schedule; The full season is also available to stream on KLCS|Passport: watch.klcs.org/show/wine-first. You can learn more about the show and see episode guides at createtv.com/show/Wine-First or on Instagram: @winefirstdotcom.
Follow Liora on social media: @lioralevi_com (Instagram) @liora_levi (Twitter)