It’s mid-March and I’m at a third birthday party.
Smoke rises from the Asado and twists up into the fairy and festoon lights, Malbec flows and the Argentinian-style beef is succulent and moreish. The mad, bright colours on the wall glow as dusk descends. We’re not singing the Happy Birthday song, but for the few dozen of us there, it’s a happy moment, representing three years of a changed Herschell Street in Central Napier – three years of Matisse Wine Shop and Bar.
A couple of weeks later I’m perched at the bar, chatting with owner Nadia Nazaryeva about the establishment of this – one of the city’s favourite food and drink spots – and more recently the retail solution to all our take-home wine desires. The barn-like space was once the Napier Club, and then vacant for over a year before she brought in a structural engineer and began work to transform it into its colourful, spacious-but-cosy and totally unique current iteration.
In such a visual setting, the story comes as a series of striking images. Nadia back in Moscow, as a student, sitting on a museum bench taking in the Matisses. And later, tearing about the city as a marketing exec for a real estate development firm. Wide-eyed travel through Australia and New Zealand in 2008 and 2009. Nadia on a beach in Koh Samui, glass of rose in hand, realising that to move to New Zealand, she’d need a skill more transferable than Moscow-style marketing …
So how about retraining as a winemaker? Fast forward a couple of years and Nadia is on the EIT one year post-grad winemaking course, doing the 5-day practicum at Sileni and realising she is NOT made to make wine.
“I realised very quickly that is wasn’t for me,” she says with a smile, “But I thought, I absolutely still love wine!”
The idea to create a bar celebrating New Zealand wines while introducing the local audience to interesting styles from overseas firmed itself up on the end-of-course trip to Gisborne and Auckland. But of course, even with encouragement from her mum back home and her new contacts here, Matisse was to be a couple of years in the dreaming and planning. Two years of cellar door work and vintages at Linden Estate in the Esk Valley and a lot of sleepless nights, immigration stress, wine study, renovation and paint and then, splash – the place opened to an enthusiastic crowd in March 2018.
The first year was the honeymoon, Nadia says. Then come the tougher second year. Then the pandemic lockdown. Like many local restaurants, it was a time to innovate and reach out. Matisse Bar had always had an off-license, but now was its time to shine. The team offered wine package delivery and kept in touch with their locals.
Since then, the focus on retail has continued to grow. Head past the wine chiller and you’re greeted by the sunken space that was seating in the past (and rumour has it, a pool way back in the day) and you find the wine shop. Every wine on the bar’s extensive list is here for sale to take away – around 300 and growing. Nadia says decisions are made for the most part in a half rational/half emotional manner. And the overall objective is to build a library of wine, so the two questions to ask of each potential wine are: 1. Is it good? And 2. Does it fill a gap?
The vintage library ladder, the mural of Matisse’s The Dance, the stacks of wine from truly ALL over the world … you could spend hours just reading labels. But then again, you’re likely to be lured back up to the seating area to taste something interesting (and I don’t think we’re really meant to climb the ladder without supervision).
Two Napier hospo stalwarts Gaston Sarlangue (putting his extensive wine knowledge to use focusing on building the retail arm of the business) and Nils Kühlsen (name a better cocktail bartender in the Bay, I’ll wait…) have the front of house covered. “My right and my left hands,” Nadia calls them.
The third year has seen the operation steady itself. Like many Hawke’s Bay hospitality and retail businesses, there has been a bit of a boom post-Covid-19. Maybe it’s the natural progression of being around past the two-year mark, Nadia muses. Maybe it’s the fact that we all wanted to get out after lockdown, and we’ve kept going out, more. Much of it must be down to the lift in visitors from around New Zealand while the borders remain closed.
Bound to be a mixture of all of that, plus the Baby Bandito Stay Brave orange Chenin Blanc from South African winery Testalonga that’s currently on glass pour. (When it’s served in the special orange wine glasses – stemless with little finger divets – your weekday after-work tipple is automatically elevated to a special occasion.)
And the lamb kofta. That sprinkling of juicy pomegranate seeds. And the house-made focaccia.
So, it’s a combination, a long list of ingredients, and time. But there’s plenty of that to come. As the wine store grows, so too do the hours. Matisse is now open from midday (previously 4pm) until late, Wednesday to Saturday and midday until 7pm on Sundays.