Daniel Brennan, or “Decibel Dan” as he’s better known, was born in Syracuse, New York, and raised near Philadelphia. He is one of 5 children in a Catholic family, and with his mother having ties to Europe and Italy, plus the family diner, Sicilian food and wine culture was his normal.
His Great Aunt and Uncle owned a beer and shot bar in what Dan describes as “a rough hood.” He says, “I remember going as a kid at 10.00am, and it was packed from the night shift workers. It was busy all day and all night.” Dan’s Uncle, who had been living in France, returned to the States when Dan was 16. At the time, his Great Aunt and Uncle were looking to sell the bar, so his parents and uncle purchased it together and transformed it into an Irish Pub featuring Mediterranean cuisine. Dan began working there, at McCrossens Tavern, and dabbled in almost every role, from dishwasher, to front of house, working in the kitchen and bar tending. McCrossens exposed him to quality made beers and wines, and Dan sunk into the cosmopolitan environment of the city. Dan’s first memorable experiences with wine follow a common thread: Martinborough Pinot Noir. He tried a Palliser Estate, a Dry River and a Martinborough Vineyards Pinot Noir, and he says he can still feel the experience of the wines stopping him in his tracks, making him think, “what was that?”
When I asked Dan what some of his other favourite wines are, he responded with, “Italian whites.” The reason is because “they’re so good at it.” He mentioned they’ve been making many styles of wines for thousands of years, across so many regions. “There are a billion varietals; it’s almost a cop out,” he said as he laughed. He recalls drinking an Italian wine across 4 days and noticing that it got better every day. “It made me reconsider everything I was doing. They thought about it as a different kind of drink. It was way too good to be an accident.”
After he graduated high school, Dan went on to study Political Science and Philosophy at The Catholic School of America in D.C. Although Dan’s study aligned with his interest in Philosophy, Politics and History, life eventually led him to another industry, and it wasn’t wine just yet. A childhood friend of Dan’s sent him the first CD he’d produced with his band and asked if Dan would help organize a bar gig for them. He agreed, and it proved both enjoyable and successful; he was asked to organize again the following year, and then eventually to manage the band. He managed Seeking Homer for 6 years, touring North America with them until he was 27 years old. Dan came away from that experience with some amazing memories; the band played with big names like Maroon 5, but also some of Dan’s “musical heroes,” Levon Helm, David Johansen, Richie Havens, David Byrne and Ryan Adams.
Eventually, touring life took its toll on everyone, and with the increasing popularity of sites like Napster, the landscape of selling albums changed. Dan transitioned back home, and began working part time at McCrossens while studying in Philly. He got into WSET courses, and doing beer and wine tastings, but wanted to leave hospitality, due to the unsustainable lifestyle. He decided to go to wine school, brush up on his chemistry and read anything wine related he could get his hands on. His research drew him to both cool climate and up-and-coming regions. Dan commented on the impression that having his Uncle live in France had left with him. “The idea that your Uncle lives in France says to you, ‘well I can do that.’ It opens your world.” With that little nudge of inspiration towards an international life, and Dan’s ongoing relationship with New Zealand Pinot Noir, he knew where he had to go to pursue his wine passions. It was 2008 when he arrived in New Zealand, and although he moved to the country because of Martinborough Pinot Noir, he settled in Hawke’s Bay to attend EIT for Wine Science. Ironically, he notes “I moved to Hawke’s Bay without having tasted a wine from there. I’ll never forget the bus ride into Napier thinking it sure was smaller.”
Dan’s purpose in New Zealand was clear, so it’s not surprising that he wasted no time in starting his label. He purchased grapes in 2009, and had the concept of Decibel in his mind, aiming to produce New Zealand’s famous Sauvignon Blanc, and one you may not expect, Malbec. His nickname, that ultimately inspired his label, “Decibel Dan” grew out of his signature when he was managing the band. He used to spend time with the sound crew before every show, and would sign off with his initials, dB. dB was already taken as a label, but fortunately, the simple yet significant word he now uses was available, and Decibel was created.
Even though he didn’t originally plan on being in Hawke’s Bay, he’s come to love it for simple reasons, like the fact that it’s the second largest region in the country, a great place to live near the ocean, and that it suits him more than Martinborough would have. More importantly, he recognizes how special the Hawke’s Bay is as a wine producing region. “It’s a great place to learn how to make wine because we do so many great wines well. Other places don’t give you the exposure.” Although he will always love Martinborough Pinot, Dan comments how “we make everything else here. Aromatic whites, big reds. I think it’s the best place in the world to make wine.”
He’s put his time in working in the Bay, with planning weddings and restaurant work at Te Awa in 2008, where he was fortunate to work alongside Jenny Dobson in the winery here and there. He did his first vintage at Te Awa that year. In 2009 he did vintage at Vidal, and says it was not high tech, but “hard work. You had to think on your feet.” From 2010 to 2013, he was the Assistant Winemaker at Unison, and then moved onto Assistant Winemaker at Paritua from 2013 to 2017. He was running Decibel along the way, always doing Malbec, and some vintages of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Dan’s not one to add anything to his wines, like acid or sugars, and that’s another reason why he loves making wine in the Hawke’s Bay. “We have natural acidity; typically, we don’t have to add acid and that’s a great start. We don’t have to add sugar either.”
Hawke’s Bay is now home to his family. Dan met his partner, Mara, at one of his famous “Kiwi’s Giving Dinners” in May 2012, that he holds in honour of American Thanksgiving. One of his friends sent him a text right before the dinner asking if she could bring her friend along. Dan agreed, and when he met Mara, he describes their connection as being “instant.” They have a five-year-old daughter, Cecila, named after the Patron Saint of Music, and pronounced in the Italian way, who they endearingly call “Chechy.” They have plans to get married in Italy when they’re able.
Dan’s got a few different labels within his company. Under the Decibel label, you will now find 5 single vineyard wines, including a Martinborough Pinot and a Malbec. His label Giunta, after his grandmother’s maiden name, features 3 young and fresh wines, one of which is a Nouveau style Malbec, and then, there’s Testify.
The birth of Testify came with an exceptional parcel of 2016 Malbec. He put it in a new puncheon, and neutral barriques, and recalls its purity of fruit. Dan said it was so special, he knew it had to be a new label. The name has roots in a song by one of his favourite bands, The Band, founded by Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm. The band also happened to finish in the same year Dan was born. They were largely influential to him for most of his life and have produced one of his favourite albums of all time. One of Robbie Robertson’s solo albums features a song called “Testimony”. He’s named his wine after the song because to him, it represents the testimony of the quality of that wine. “I put my hand on my heart. It’s my best effort. I put my name on it. I promise you, this is my best. I won’t make it if it’s not up to crack. And that’s fine.” For the Testify label, Dan only focuses on the best appellations that have a story to be told. It is a label that is close to his heart. The Testify line features a Gimblett Gravels Malbec/Merlot blend, a Martinborough Pinot Noir, and a Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay.
Malbec isn’t one of the main varietals that comes to mind when most people think of New Zealand wine, so why did Dan go with a Malbec right from the start, and why does he still include it in all 3 of his labels? “I’ve always loved it. It has a similar acid and flavour profile as Syrah, yet it’s easier to grow. With a learning curve and effort, it can grow well. I think I’ve proven a point. Great wine can be made from Malbec. Gordon Russel has proven that. It’s inherently more interesting than Merlot. It’s got plush juiciness, colour, tannin and acid. It’s a fun thing to make every year.”
Dan sources his roughly 80 tonnes of fruit from a few different vineyards in Hawke’s Bay and Martinborough. He works with several growers and has been consistent with some of them since 2011. He uses organic fruit and wants to support organic growers in the Bay. Part of the reason for that is because he’s learned to “take a breath. Let’s do it right. What we’re doing affects our life and everyone’s. Have some perspective.” He dreams of having a biodynamic home and hopes that more growers will move in that direction. “Organics is important. It makes sense. I can’t believe other people don’t go that route. People think it’s an easy path to not go organic. I get it; it can be scary, but it doesn’t make sense to me any other way. I’m not dogmatic about the way you do it. It just seems crazy not to. Why would you think you can do it better than the great designer has done it? It’s tapping into the right way. It goes back to music. I left myself open to writing that song. Conventional is not leaving themselves open to the possibilities. Nature can manage better than us. It’s scary, but we have to let nature take its course.” He refers to conventional vineyard practices, and says, “I wouldn’t want my kid around it.”
Although only 60% of Decibel is exported now (due to an amazing local distributor) Dan started his label in an uncommon position, as a 100% export label. If you remember his connections, he just so happened to have one main client lined up in the States, his family restaurant. He’s thrilled that his wine is selling in New Zealand now, but he also loves the unique opportunity he has to share his wine back home. “The best is when I get a message from someone I grew up with or knew from the past. People I have no idea who they are, saying ‘I just tasted this wine and it’s delicious,’ and they’re putting it online. Someone in Brooklyn saying it’s awesome. I’m the guy that gets to bring Hawke’s Bay Malbec to America? That blows my mind. I get to, through the wine, tell people on the other side of the world that there’s this cool place called Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand.”
Dan’s been challenged along the way, in finding fruit that’s up to what he’s looking for. Additionally, he speaks of the all too familiar financial and marketing challenges that many boutique producers face, and says he wishes EIT taught more on business. Although he’s been on the receiving end of great advice from fellow producers through the years, he was unaware going into his label just how financially challenging it could be. It took him 10 years to be able to make the jump into doing solely Decibel, and he wishes there was “bigger dialogue about how much cash is tied up in your wine.” Pinot Noir, his first love, also keeps him up at night. He’s still passionate about the difficult to grow variety, and often finds himself wondering what he’s going to do with it.
Wine life has given Dan a harvest of inspirational lessons. First, he told me, “just do it. Most of the time they’re not going to stop you.” How true of life; sometimes we just need to take that risk that most of us are too afraid to take. Secondly, he has learned to “live life by the season. Have a flow to the year. When it’s time to relax, relax.” Dan described his Catholic upbringing and agreed that he does have traditional roots in a sense. “Friends, social, family, we’re part of something much bigger. I have no idea what it is, but there’s something cosmic about it.” He talked about how he loves the busy season of harvest, but says, “there is receipt for that. There’s a natural flow to it. Flow, seasons, it’s all cyclical and natural. That was not part of my life in New York or Philly; it was go go go. There wasn’t a rhythm. It’s so important to slow down. Some people don’t have a flow, and it’s easy to get lost. It’s good to have boundaries.” He also loves the comradery in the industry and speaks highly of the Hawke’s Bay wine community. “It’s the people. Talking about all of the things we do. We’re in it together; talk through it. There’s not a point of making wine in isolation.”
Music has always been a meaningful part of Dan’s life, and he credits a few important business lessons to his time managing the band. “I released a couple studio albums with them. It primed me for the idea of getting a wine finished and put out.” Through those experiences, he understood that “it makes sense to take your time and get it right. It’s a captured moment in time. People go on about the parallels of music and wine. The real part is the art and craft. Some are great artists. Some great song writers. Some are both. It’s the same in the wine industry. Some are technical winemakers. Some are artistic. Some have both.” Dan explains that sometimes, wines may not be considered technically right by certain critics but believes that more importantly, they should be loved when they’re consumed. “That’s what I prefer; it should be like song writing.”
When I asked Dan if it’s all worth it, he responded with, “I don’t have a choice. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
To learn more or purchase Decibel wines, visit https://www.decibelwines.com or follow on Instagram @decibelwines.