Wines by Jenny Dobson; The Story of a Legendary Wine Producer

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Jenny Dobson: winemaker, boutique wine producer, icon in the New Zealand wine industry. When I had the chance to sit down with her to hear and write her story, I was honoured, to say the least.

Jenny, a born and raised Kiwi, grew up in a time where licensed restaurants were rare in New Zealand. The wine industry was basically non-existent. Her father was English, and for her parents, wine was a regular part of any meal; they drank it, and shared it with the children as per their cultural norms. Although they chose wine mostly from South Africa and France, Jenny’s father had a special love for Chateauneuf du Pape. Jenny remembers adding McDonald wines to their table when they began gaining popularity in the 70’s.

Even as a child, Jenny had a fascination with aromas, and most of her memories are linked through scent. She can vividly remember the smell of the Rosemary bush and the Lily of the Valley at her childhood homes, along with a fascination with the diversity of smells and flavours in wines; she wanted to discover the underlying reasoning for this. She is scientific by nature, so she entered a Science programme in University, but couldn’t envision herself inside a lab full time and wanted to be part of nature. She discovered that working in wine could provide that.

Vineyard at Harvest time in 1989 – Chateau Sénéjac

With the Wine Science degree not yet established, she transferred to Food Science, where she took a course on sensory observation; she realizes now how “invaluable” that course was to her “understanding of taste and the importance” of it. With a professor passionate about wine, Jenny was able to focus her schoolwork in that direction. As an independent learner, she spent her personal time reading every book, article and study she could get her hands on about tasting or making wine. There is a book shelf in every room of her house, full of wine books, that she graciously offered to lend to me! It was at the end of her 3rd year in University, after all of her school-driven and personal research, that she knew wine was her passion, and she says “if you don’t have passion you could not work in the industry.” 

Jenny in the old cellar at Chateau Sénéjac in 1986, 6 months pregnant

She’s always excelled at science and maths, and used to think she “had no artistic bones,” but her opinion has changed.

“Fine winemaking is art. So many of the decisions are felt. They’re a sense of what is going to be right. [Winemaking] so deftly combines science and art…You need scientific rigour but artistic license and openness of thinking to push boundaries. I love the fact that wine can not be made to a chemical formula.”

As soon as she graduated, she travelled to France, motivated to learn from some of the “best and oldest” winemakers in the world. She says she was “very naive” in her move there, but was “lucky enough to get a job at Domaine Dujac in Burgundy.”

Her job at Domaine Dujac involved her living with the family, and doing everything from “babysitting, cleaning, vineyard work, cellar work,” to eating and drinking with the family. She realizes how fortunate she was to be able to “drink so widely with Jacques and Roz,” and she explains the rarity of his wine collection.

“I had a glorious introduction to wine. In most wine producing areas in France in those days you only drank the area you were in. You wouldn’t find anything else in the Supermarket. Because Jacques’s Dad was Parisian, he had started a cellar for Jacques when he was young including wines from around Europe; Jacques added to it with wines from the new world, so I had the pleasure of drinking and getting to know fine Burgundy, but also wines from around the world.”

Bottling Blanc de Sénéjac in 1988

Jenny attributes much of her wine making philosophy back to the time she worked at Domaine Dujac. From Jacques she learned the value of “reflecting vineyard vintage variety,” and that “wine is made for people to enjoy.” She also learned that she values “integrity and authenticity” in her winemaking. “It’s working hard at every stage, especially in the vineyard, not tweaking at the end,” and if you drink Jenny’s wine, you can be sure she’s taken pride in it’s authenticity at every stage.

After working at Domaine Dujac, Jenny moved to Paris to work with the famed Steven Spurrier, who started a very controversial wine school. If you’re a wine enthusiast, you’ll know his name. Steven Spurrier organized the iconic and history-making Paris Tasting in 1976, in which the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from Napa Valley won the blind tasting, to everyone’s shock, putting California on the wine map. He was instrumental in beginning to bring Californian wines into France in the 70’s. Jenny comments about Steven that he had a similar philosophy to Jacques, in that the “diversity of wine is the beauty of wine. Every bottle, every property is different.”

Jenny began working with him in 1981, and her role was enough to make any wine lover jealous! She explained that after the historical 1976 Paris Tasting, winemakers from all over the world wanted to be featured in Steven’s shop. She was part of the selection process; she tasted applicant’s wines, and helped chose those lucky few that would be fortunate enough to grace Steven’s shelves. She also worked in his wine school, and gave 2 hour courses on French wine, appropriate cheese pairings, and French regions and helped organize and participated in many tutored tastings run by L’Académie du Vin.

In Paris, Jenny expanded her world palate, had one of the best jobs any wine lover could ask for, and on top of that, met Charles, the English grandson of a wine merchant with offices in London and Bordeaux, and the love of her life. Before you think it was all sunshine and roses though, imagine her living in a flat on the 6th floor in the building’s roof, with no toilet, in which she could literally touch both walls at once with arms stretched. The toilet was on the 4th floor and was a squat toilet. There was no lift. She jokes about a huge upgrade from that place when she moved to her second flat with a toilet and a bedroom! Despite the quirky places she called home, Jenny says with fondness, “I loved living in Paris.”

Vineyard, Autumn 1988

She did miss winemaking though, so she moved to Bordeaux and got a vintage job in Graves at Chateau Rahoul, which was part owned by an Australian man and wine industry icon, Len Evens. This also happened to be in 1982, one of the most iconic vintages in Bordeaux’s history.

One evening, she went along to a magazine wine tasting, and as Charlie was in the merchant business, he was there. They met casually; she went back to Chateau Rahoul to finish her vintage job, but then moved back to Paris. She was at a wine bar one evening, when she met the owner of Chateau Sénéjac, who offered her a cellar hand job in Bordeaux. She moved again, back to Bordeaux, in Steven Spurrier’s delivery van of all things! The day she arrived in Bordeaux, she was out for lunch, and there was Charlie, at the same restaurant. Eventually they found themselves in the same social circles, and “the rest is history,” as Jenny says. They were married in 1984.

Jenny, Charles and their children in 2000 – New Zealand.

Charlie being a wine merchant has contributed to Jenny’s diverse palate. She explained how the businesses operated at that time. Bordeaux Negociants, wine merchants, would buy wine “en primeur” from the properties (Chateaux) around 6 to 8 months after harvest. The wine was then sold at a later date, sometimes before and sometimes after bottling to other merchants in and outside of Bordeaux and to private clients. This pre-purchase of wine by the Bordeaux merchants helped shoulder the cost of production for the Chateaux. The Chateaux would present barrel samples to the merchants for tasting and Charlie would bring them home at the end of the day for Jenny to evaluate as well. Jenny commented that “in retrospect, that was a huge advantage” for her, because she “got to taste the finest Bordeaux wines when young and also drink them when mature. It gave [her] a benchmark for the young wines she had in barrel at Chateau Sénéjac.”

Vineyard in Winter, 1984/85

She has also made 13 vintages of Bordeaux, and because she stayed all year long, she gained knowledge of the vineyards, what to do in the cellar, and onwards; she saw the entire process. She learned “the effects of ferments on the wine in bottle, 2 years later, 3 years later, and how the vineyard choices translated into the wine.” She realizes that is something else that has helped develop her skill in winemaking; she “had a vision of where the wine was going in years and years of time.”

We discussed not only making wine, but what it’s made for. Jenny believes that wine is made to be consumed and enjoyed, and that the industry today is pushing towards simply selling an alcoholic beverage, rather than appreciating an art form, as it was meant to be. “It’s made to sell product for people to drink and get drunk rather than educating them about wine so that it’s looked more so as an art form than a beverage.”

She shares how they had “wine every day” in France. There was “no such thing as a non-wine day. Sometimes we finished the bottle, sometimes we didn’t. It depends on your attitude. We always looked on wine with pleasure and enjoyment, not as a guilty sin… If it’s always there, there’s no compulsion.”

Jenny explains what the enjoyment of wine brings to her. “I drink wine for it’s diversity. For it’s intellectual stimulation. For it’s flavour and taste.” She explained it so beautifully, and I couldn’t help but completely agree.

Jenny and a friend, Norma, tasting Pinotage at Te Awa in 2000 – Hawke’s Bay

“It’s like music or painting, or any form of art. If you just have background music, anything can be there. If you’re actually listening and understanding then you have a greater appreciation.

Jenny believes “the more people know about wine and get excited about it, there will be less mass consumption.” These are the kinds of palates she is mindful of in her work.

Jenny and Charlie had their 3 children while in Bordeaux, but eventually decided to move to Jenny’s home country, New Zealand. When I asked why she chose Hawke’s Bay, she answered that it seemed the “logical place” because “you can ripen the Bordeaux grape varieties” that she was used to working with. She had also done a vintage in Western Australia, where she gained experience with Chardonnay and Syrah, also key varietals in Hawke’s Bay. She and Charlie visited every single wine region in the country before making their final decision, just to be sure!

When she first arrived in the Bay, Jenny began working as a wine consultant, but found it to be “isolating.” She noticed she was only getting to be involved when things went wrong with wine, and customers needed her to fix it. A job came open at Te Awa Farm, and Jenny spent a “glorious” 12 years as the winemaker there. She got to really know the vineyards and the wines; when it went through a change of ownership, she decided to move on. The consultancy she does now is hands on. (Jenny had been racking barrels all day before her interview with me.)

Jenny with a press in the new winery in 1987

New winery, 1987

With Jenny’s experience and clear appreciation of the artistic side of wine, I was curious why it took her until now to start her own label. First, Jenny believes wine starts in the vineyard, so she wasn’t ready to do something for herself if she had to be buying fruit. She has her own now, that she fell upon quite interestingly. She had a client in 2009 that had some land on Ngatarawa Road, and asked her what he should plant. She had been reading studies about the Italian grape, Fiano, and thought it would be great for the Bay, as it was interesting, and had good acitity. It was a “throw-away comment,” as she describes it, but she told him to plant Fiano. She came back a year later, and he had planted it, and said to her, “well, are you going to make it?”

She made the first Fiano in 2013 for her client, and again in 2014. The plan was for her to continue making it for him, but due to personal reasons in 2015, he asked if Jenny wanted to take it over. She agreed, and made a small batch of the first Jenny Dobson Fiano. In 2016, she realized, “it was more wine than I could drink myself!” She released it to the public in 2017. Another reason she hadn’t started her label sooner was simply because she “was getting enough enjoyment out of helping other people make their own wines,” but she has realized, “if I don’t do this now I will never do it.”

Jenny’s Fiano

In 2018, she was inspired to add a red wine to her label, but wanted a unique one. She began exploring Hawke’s Bay Merlot with the aim to give it the “appeal that people like about Pinot Noir,” like “fragrance [and] texture but lightness and freshness in the mouth.”

As she works as the winemaker for William Murdoch Wines, and adores the character of their organic vineyard, she bought some fruit from them. She wild fermented it in oak, with whole bunch Malbec and Cab Franc “for texture and fragrance.” She explains that she “didn’t know what was going to happen” and that she was “being guided by the wine.” She basket pressed it and aged it in barrel, taking it out 18 months later in mid-September. Her red wine will be called “Doris” after her grandmother; Doris was “formidable, way ahead of her time, had vision, [and] didn’t follow any conventions.” Jenny’s favorite memory of her is her purple hair, so watch for that on the label. For the wine to represent its unconventional style, Jenny is also putting it in a Burgundy bottle, not a Bordeaux bottle, like other Merlots. She doesn’t want people to “taste it as a Merlot,” but rather “a red wine.” Doris is being bottled in October, and will likely be released next Autumn, “based on how she looks.” Jenny has carried on with Doris in this past 2019 vintage, and has some ideas to expand her label in 2020. She describes her current production as “tiny” at 80 cases or less of Fiano.

Because Jenny is always reading and learning, the 2019 Fiano has some new elements in the winemaking. She had read a study about Fiano that claimed that the skins have a compound in them that can contribute additional flavours, and that soaking some skins in the juice could enhance the character of the wine. Jenny did a 4 L trial tank to test out that theory. She bottled off a small amount of the trial tank for future testing to determine what she wants to do for the 2020 vintage. She says, “even with tiny amounts, you have to always be open minded and thinking of what you can do. Can I make a better wine? A different wine?”

When I asked Jenny out of all the wines she’s made, which she’s most proud of, she answered, “all of them!” She said they’re “like my children.” Some of her favorites are from the “difficult vintages, where you come out with something so good. It’s not the standout best in a line-up, but it’s best because you know the elements and Mother Nature were against you, but you’ve worked with it to produce something so good; it makes you feel really satisfied.”

Jenny’s story is amazing, but it’s not without challenges, many of which have been related to her gender. She says that being a woman is “an extra challenge that men don’t have to factor in.” When she was working in France in the 80’s, there were “signs outside cellars saying women weren’t allowed to enter the cellar.” They had “funny ideas” like the fact that “women had funny acids in their body that turned wine to vinegar, or if a woman had her period and came into the cellar the wine would re-ferment every month.”

Jenny was the first female maitre de chai in the Medoc; being a history maker leaves an incredible legacy, but it’s never easy. “It was a male dominated business” and people wondered how women would be able to manage the home, a family, and a career in wine. “Women were shut out because the industry people knew it was all encompassing.” When she did eventually have her children, she took a few days off, and was then right back into the work. She breast fed in the vineyard, with her baby strapped to her chest. She was bottling (not milk – wine) 3 days after giving birth. She lived on site, and the kids grew up around the vineyard and the winery. She successfully accomplished being a wife, mother and a winemaker. She had to overcome being the only woman making wine in the Medoc, but she did it. How? “My wines spoke for themselves.” She proved herself to the French people. She truly is a legend.

Winemaking is also a very physically demanding job. Jenny admits that she’s tired at the end of the day, but also points out that “so is a man working in a cellar.” There are different challenges for women today than when she began her career, yet she is confident we are moving in the right direction and knows that “a woman starting today will not face the same challenges” that she had to. “It was all men but me,” Jenny says. It’s “a lot closer to equal now; we are growing up with women and men in it together now.”

She doesn’t want to be known as a “woman winemaker.” She just wants to be known as a “winemaker,” like anyone else. She makes it clear that she doesn’t think “women or men are better winemakers. There are people that are better winemakers” than other people. She is also clear to point out that she knows it’s not all men that discriminate. “There are people that discriminate, not just men.”

With her current label, there are the challenges of selling the wine. Jenny has thought to herself, “[consider] the amount of money I make on each bottle – am I crazy? Why am I doing this?” She is doing it because she is creating “wines of distinction and individuality.” This also makes them “a bit harder to sell,” especially in the small Hawke’s Bay.

When I asked Jenny if she thinks it’s worth all the challenges, she gave a resounding, “yes! I wouldn’t be starting my own label so late in life if I didn’t!”

2019 was her 40th vintage.

Patsy the Rose is coming soon too! Patsy is named after her Aunt, and unlike most Hawke’s Bay rosés, it will be Cabernet Franc dominant. Being let in on Jenny’s thought process as she described how she wants to make Patsy was very intriguing to me. Here I was, sitting with the Medoc’s first female winemaker, who selected wines for Steven Spurier’s shop, who has 40 years of experience, and she was debating back and forth on what she should do, or might do, still undecided, still exploring ideas. I commented on this, and she responded by saying that it’s important to always be willing to experiment and learn because no one can ever just know what’s coming for any vintage or any wine. Greg had made a Cab Franc Rose in 2019, so he and Jenny discussed some ideas for the next vintage. It was surreal to listen to that conversation.

Doris Merlot grapes

Jenny at Chateau Sénéjac
Emma in the vines at Franklin Estate, 1995
Chris at age 1 in the cellar
Richard finishing breakfast while the bottling truck sets up, 1992
Jenny with son, Chris, 1988
Family labeling in 1992

Jenny, 1991

Jenny has learned some beautiful lessons in her career as a winemaker that I feel can reach beyond the wine industry to inspire; I have left them in her words.

“It’s all learning. You continue learning. There was a stage when I was looking for perfection in wine. Perfection’s boring. If everything’s perfect, it’s boring. You’re striving for perfection but the goal posts keep moving.”

“The best tool a winemaker has is the palatte. You have to keep it diverse. Natural wines challenge your palette. Things that challenge are the extremes that move the middle.”

“Recipe wine making has its place, but is one of the worst things. There’s so much unknown about wine that when you formulate a recipe you can only make good wine. You can’t make great wine.”

“You can not make a wine that will please everyone or else you’re making Coca Cola. You have to be okay with some people not liking your wine, but for everyone that doesn’t like it, there will be someone that does.”

Are you that someone?

To find out, you can purchase Wines by Jenny Dobson via mail order, through Boutique Connection, @boutiqueconnection or her Instagram @jenny_dobson_wines. Several establishments stock her wines, like Liquor King, Urban Winery, restaurants around Hawkes Bay and Wellington, Regional Wines and Spirits in Wellington, Vino Fino in Christchurch, and soon, the Auckland market.

Cheers to Jenny for following her passions, making history, sharing her story and for making interesting and authentic wines of quality; cheers to you as you enjoy them!

The Element Wines Story; Boutique Wine Producers in Hawke’s Bay

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The story of how Dom and Rachelle met is so adorable, it could be made into a movie.  The setting was their hometown, Auckland, New Zealand, and it was Tuesday, the 14th of January, 2002.  Rachelle was out for lunch, celebrating her cousin’s birthday.  Her cousin joked with the server that she should get a free drink as it was her birthday; the server told her she couldn’t, dampening the mood, so the girls decided to take their business elsewhere.  Little did she know, Rachelle was about to walk into the restaurant where her future life and wine partner worked.  The girls entered Wildfire, and took their places at the bar.  Dom casually sat down next to them, and was minding his own business; Rachelle goofily wacked the new patron next to her on the leg and told him that they had great drinks at this place, and he should try one.  He mentioned that he’d actually tried, and made, all of the drinks there, before turning to show her his work t-shirt with the Wildfire logo on it.  He took the rest of the night off, and bought dinner for the girls.  At the end of the night, he wanted Rachelle’s number.  Feeling a bit serendipitous, Rachelle told him she’d give it to him, but she wouldn’t allow him to write it down; if he could remember it, he could call her.  Thank goodness for Dom’s memory, because he did retain the number after hearing it only once, and as they say, the rest is history. 

Fast forward to 2019, and Dom and Rachelle now own and run Element Wines, a boutique vineyard and wine label in the Gimblett Gravels micro-climate of Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, with their two daughters, Zoë and Zaymia, a couple of cats, Turbo and Bubbles, and one big German Pointer, Brewski, all in tow! 

So how did two Auckland-raised Kiwi’s end up in the Gimblett Gravels, running a vineyard and wine label?  The simple answer, is that they decided that life was too short not to follow their dreams.  The longer, more complicated story includes tonnes of courage, some definite ups and downs, overcoming a lot of hurdles, and binding together to spend their days creating something they love and are proud of, while enjoying their lives as a family.

A day in the life of the Smith family includes high school for the girls, and everything that comes with that, like homework, sport, friends and slumber parties. The girls have spent the last several years helping in the vineyard when they’re finished their schoolwork, and it’s definitely a family affair.  They help with everything from pruning to harvest, and have developed an impressive knowledge of wine-making for their ages.  In addition to running Element, Dom also works full time at Sacred Hill Winery as the Cellar Supervisor.  Rachelle spends her days tending to the vineyard, and running her family.  A typical weekend includes playing with the pets, sitting on their beautiful deck that overlooks their vineyard, and enjoying delicious food, once the vineyard work is done, of course.  Zoë and Zaymia make the Sunday pancakes or waffles, but Rachelle makes the best French Toast.  Dom can craft a mean, made from scratch pizza in his clay oven, or roast incredibly tender and flavourful meats, but whatever the menu, there is always a delicious wine pairing to complete the meal, along with satisfaction after a day’s hard work. 

Owning a vineyard seems romantic, and ideal, and in some respects, it can be.  Most of the time though, it’s really tiresome, and the work never ends.  There’s something to be done in every season of the year.  If it’s spring, the vines are beginning to bud, and need to be watched and protected from frost.  Summer brings growth and ripening, and lots of vineyard and machinery maintenance.  With autumn comes harvest time, unpredictable weather that could potentially destroy a whole season’s fruit, as well as the pressures of making the right decision of when to harvest. Then, the grapes need to be processed, and the wine needs to be made, and maintained, while winter requires pruning in the vineyard to set it up for a healthy spring, when the work cycle repeats. I was curious to find out how all of this became the couple’s dream.

Rachelle didn’t grow up in an industry family, but she was around wine as a child.  She has memories of her god-mother letting her try watered down wines to see what they tasted like.  She also had family and friends with wine labels or vineyards, and she would spend time at their houses; this lead to her developing a comfort and familiarity with the vineyard environment.  Dom didn’t grow up industry either, but was the son of two teachers.  Although his parents drank wine, it was Dom’s hospitality work that opened his eyes to amazing wine. He remembers feeling like he had the world at his fingertips when it came to the wines he was able to experience, both from the old and new worlds. When he used to go out with his buddies as a teen, he noticed that he was among the few whose alcohol choice for the night was a fine wine; he realized that he was actually quite fond of it.  He found satisfaction in making the perfect recommendation for guests in his restaurant, or showing them something different; he once made a recommendation to a Wine Spectator writer, without realizing it, and was thanked and acknowledged by the writer’s wife for making an exceptional pairing.  

Once Dom and Rachelle got together, wine became a big part of their dating life.  They talked about their bucket-list wines, and tried many of them together.  (Trying those bucket-list wines is still something they do today; they can both recall the specific flavours and intensities of a 2006 Dom-Perignon they shared as a celebration of overcoming vineyard hardships.)  Owning a vineyard became their “Lotto-dream.”  If they ever struck it rich, they’d buy one! Ironically, due to hard times, they were put in a position with the business they owned in Auckland where they either had to rebuild, or move on. They were at a fork in their road, and they knew it. Dom had a memorable conversation with a good neighbour friend one evening who recommended that Rachelle and Dom see this as an opportunity to follow their dreams.  They felt the same way, so they did.  

It was the 19th of November, 2012, when Element was born. 

Dom had been able to find employment at a winery in the Bay, so they began looking at Hawke’s Bay properties for their own vineyard.  They also favoured the wines that come out of the region; they love Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.  Dom quipped that he would rather make “not-Sauvinon Blanc and have no money, than make Sauv Blanc and have money!” He’d been commuting between his job in the Bay and his family in Auckland since that August.  The couple had hummed and hawed over which property to go with, but kept coming back to a special one in the Gimblett Gravels.  It was a 4.2 hectare property, with 2.6 hectares under vine.  The vineyard had Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet and Viognier, the wines they wanted to make, not to mention gorgeous lavender that caught Rachelle’s eye. They ended up choosing the property for the vineyard, and not really caring about the specific layout or décor of the house! They got possession on that November day, and the girls still hadn’t seen the house. Rachelle took them to meet Dom to see it together, but Dom was held up at work, so they went for a drink down the road to wait. It really is a family affair! Then, all together, the family complete, Dom, Rachelle, Zoë and Zaymia walked into their new home, to begin a new life and a new adventure. 

Vineyard life didn’t exactly welcome them with rainbows and butterflies.  They had no furniture, and slept on air beds for a couple of months. The girls remember waking up that Christmas together in their half deflated air bed, that they were sharing to save on linen.  The vineyard had been damaged by frost that spring.  Dom had to learn to drive a tractor.  He had to learn to spray.  He had never done any vineyard work before.  He describes it as just having to “jump on board and figure it out.”  He tells the story of one particular night, where a storm was coming in, and he was trying to hook up some hydraulics on a machine.  It was 3.00am by the time he got it going and was able to spray.  To top it all off, he stepped on his sunglasses and broke them.  It was a long, hard night, to say the least. This wasn’t exactly the romantic dream they had envisioned!  It wasn’t all bad though.  The family has lots of fun memories of being together, all learning how to run the vineyard.  Everything was a novelty at first, even for the girls, and they enjoyed lifting wires, bud rubbing, and doing other jobs together.  Although Dom is quite certified now, in the beginning, they were largely self-taught, but they had some helpful neighbours and colleagues that supported them along the way.

After spending time with Dom and Rachelle this year, and seeing how challenging it can be to own a vineyard, I asked them why they chose that route, rather than just purchasing fruit for their label, like so many others do.  Why bother with the work?  Dom replied that it “seemed logical that you grow it and make it.”  They wanted the whole process.  Starting from the beginning, and having control over their fruit is part of their wine-making philosophy.  “Our story is that we grow everything that we make,” explains Dom.  A holistic approach is very important to them.

They strongly believe in nurturing the land, and that less is more.  “We have to tread lightly and look after the land,” Dom shares.  Although they’re not certified organic, they prefer all organic practices. They don’t use any harmful chemicals or sprays on their vineyard.  “My kids and my dog play here,” Dom says about their land.  It’s their home, and they take pride in caring for it. 

Another important company mandate to mention is that Element strives for a “true, terrior driven wine,” which is why they don’t mind to break away from popular trends and make wines that aren’t influenced by oak.  They currently use no new oak in any of their wines (even the reds) and are moving towards eliminating all oak use soon.  Many of Dom’s favourite wines from the old world haven’t touched new oak.  He remembers some specific wines from France that were made in either neutral oak or concrete, and he describes that “they get this intensity and expression from the vineyard and fruit not manipulated by anything else.”

After hearing their wine-making practices and philosophies, it made perfect sense to me why they chose their name, Element.  Their wines, born of the earth, from the vine, through the grapes, and into the bottle, truly reflect a sense of place, and are something completely unique to them. 

So where can I find this special, unique wine?  Customers can order directly from Element via their Instagram handle, @element_wines, their website, http://www.elementwines.co.nz, or see it on some wine lists throughout New Zealand. Rachelle offers tastings by appointment (021 146 8925) as well.

Options are Viognier, Cabernet Merlot blends, and Syrah from Element, as well as potentially a 2018 vintage 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Although they don’t enter wine shows, their Syrah has been their most highly accoladed wine with their 2016 Syrah getting 93 points from Cameron Douglas, Master Sommelier, and 93 points with The Wine Front in Australia.  Their Cabernet Merlots have certainly been popular among customers as well, and are often quick to sell out.  Element is truly boutique, meaning they produce only around 100 cases of wine per year, so if you want to get your hands on some, do it soon!

Their Viognier is aromatic, fresh and floral, with a beautiful oiliness to it that melts in your mouth. The Syrahs have that classic pepper spice, loads of cherry and liquorice, and a flinty minerality that can only come from the soil. The Cabernet Merlots have great structure, red and dark plum and black currants, a lovely hint of cocoa and beautiful soft, round tannins.

In reflecting on their wines and their journey, Dom and Rachelle realized they’ve already overcome several challenges.  They definitely had an uphill journey, especially at the start.  They had to learn how to manage a vineyard, while running a family. This means they have to sacrifice a lot of their personal time, and days off, to ensure that the girls and the vineyard both get the dedication they require.  Trying to find a trustworthy place to make and store their wine was a challenge as well.  They don’t have a winery on site, so to find a safe place where they could make their wine that would allow them creative control was a journey, but one that has rewarded them with a currently great home for their wines, and the all important creative freedom.  Having a vineyard is a lot like farming; the weather interferes negatively sometimes, and then they’re faced with challenges of how to work around that.  “It’s hard work, and hard work has to go in, in order to get the rewards,” Rachelle says. “When you’re small, you have to do more to reap the rewards.”  Lots of others also want to have their share, and have tried to get wine for less than nothing. 

When I asked them if owning the vineyard has been worth it, they both replied in a heartbeat, with a resounding, “absolutely!”  They’ve learned a lot about themselves, and each other, their relationship and their family.  It’s taught them that they still love each other at the end of the day.  It gives Rachelle the freedom to be a stay at home parent, who can be available when the girls need their Mom.  Dom shared that they’ve learned that “wine can bring amazing people together, because it has.”  They have made amazing friends within this industry, and the friendships they’ve gained, have been “the coolest thing it’s done.”  If there are three passions that consistently come through when spending time with Dom and Rachelle, they’re family first, relationships, and of course, wine. 

Pictured left to right: Dom, Zaymia, Rachelle, Zoë

We met Dom and Rachelle in the exact way adults always warn children to never make friends – over the internet!  When Greg and I decided to move to Hawke’s Bay, I started Instagram messenging every winery in the Bay that I could find.  Instagram used to lock me out after so many, and I would have to wait 24 hours before I could send more messages.  A lot of them never replied, but Dom did.  He was the first to reply to me, actually, and explained that they were a small winery, and couldn’t offer us jobs, but that he would help in any way he could.  After conversing with Dom for a few days, he invited us to come for a wine with him and his partner when we arrived.  I wasn’t sure if it would actually happen, but I said that we would love to.  I continued to message back and forth with Dom over the last month we were in Canada, with so many random New Zealand questions.  I think I actually asked him if they had peanut butter here! He was extremely helpful the whole time.  Once we had arrived, it was Dom that I sent a picture to of the first cockroach I had killed asking what it was and if it was poisonous! (We don’t have them in Canada.)  We did end up going for a wine with Dom and Rachelle, on only our second day here, and that wine turned into a dinner, 5 hours of conversation, and the start of a great friendship.

In the time we have gotten to know Dom, Rachelle and the girls, I can clearly see their strength, resilience, perseverance and dedication.  They were so brave to leave their life, family and everything they knew in Auckland, to move to the Bay and follow their dream.  They didn’t know if it would work out or not, and they took a huge risk; I have found though, that the greatest risks in life can lead to some of the greatest rewards.  Dom and Rachelle still work incredibly hard, and they invest their hearts, souls, and pocketbooks into Element.  They love their daughters more than anything in the world, and they’re doing a great job raising the girls; Zoë and Zaymia are beautiful inside and out.  Dom and Rachelle are some of the kindest, most hospitable, generous, and down to earth people we know. We are honoured to call them our friends.

Oh, and by the way…

…they make some pretty exceptional wine!

#nzv19

New Zealand Vintage 2019… is done.

The end of vintage brings mixed feelings. On one hand, it’s sad to say goodbye to the time of year when everything the industry people have been working towards for the rest of the year is finally realized. It’s also time for all the vintage staff to be on their way back to their home countries, or on to the Northern Hemisphere for the next vintage. Saying goodbye to a team of people who have spent more time with each other than anyone else for the last 6 to 8 weeks can be difficult, especially if it was a great team that got along well and bonded over late nights and long days.

On the other hand, for all the Cellar Hands out there, vintage is exhausting, stressful, and can be all consuming, so it’s a relief to get back to a normal schedule, start sleeping again, and get the occasional day off. The “wine widows” are happy to have their partners back too.

As promised, I’ll outline briefly what our experiences of our first vintage were, and better explain some of the photos you saw on our social media profiles in the last 2 months.


Vintage for my winery started on the 26th of February. I’ll remind you here that I work in the Cellar Door, not the winery, (which my boss had to remind me of a couple times – sorry Mitch) so any time I got to spend in the winery was really special to me. I didn’t personally have the long days, no time off, and night shifts that all the Cellar Hands did (and wow, do I admire them for their work). I certainly did clock some hours out there when the Cellar Door was slow, on my days off, and after work, to hang out with the crew and get my hands on everything I was allowed to touch.

I was fortunate to be able to participate in the annual First Crush Ceremony, which was an unexpected honour for me. The grapes were loaded into the hopper, and before it was turned on, we had a speech with some high-ups in the company, and some of our Blanc de Noir (Champagne-style wine). Traditionally, everyone has a sip or two, and then throws the remainder of their wine into the hopper over the grapes. It’s a way of “blessing,” if you will, the next harvest with some wine from previous harvests. Ceremonies like this are practiced all over the world, and have been for years. Traditionally, the ceremony shows thanksgiving for the vineyards, the grapes, the workers, and begins the new vintage with a united team, hopeful for the vintage ahead.

My face when one of the Cellar Hands told me not to throw the entire wine glass in! 😂 Obviously.

I stuck around to watch the first crush, and tried some of the juice straight out of the press. It was a great day! I had no idea then just how many things I was actually going to experience this vintage.

The team began by bringing in Chardonnay for our bubbles, as well as some aromatic whites, like Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc, and then moved onto Chardonnay. Whites lasted for weeks, and I made sure to try each type of grape as they came in, and each grape juice as it was pressed out of the tanks.

During this time, I learned how the hopper, auger, crusher and presses work in a lot more detail, how to rack a tank, how the barrels are filled, and got to try my hand at some Battonage (yeast lees stirring). I also got to learn about the process of several loads of grapes arriving in both trucks and in bins, and how the winery coordinates with the vineyards, pickers and truck drivers to manage it all.

Hand harvested Sauvignon Blanc being loaded up into the press

Meanwhile, Greg was doing his own vintage at his workplace. After seeing our first crush ceremony, Greg suggested his team do one as well; they took his suggestion and involved everyone there, including the Cellar Door team, to launch the vintage with Champagne. Greg’s First Crush Ceremony was on the 14th of March, when they brought in some Merlot for Rose. For his very first crush, he mostly cleaned equipment and learned how to do a thorough job of that. He helped run pumps, move hoses, de-stem and get the juice off of the skins.

Two weeks later, Greg’s winery brought in some whites. Greg had lots of different roles; sometimes he drove the tractor from the vineyard into the winery with loads of grapes, other times he helped operate the press. As his place is an Estate winery, everything is grown on site. With their small team, they often enlisted the help of picking gangs to come harvest the grapes on the days they were ready. Greg began doing more involved jobs, like loading the press, and continuing with that all important cleaning and sanitizing. He enjoyed harvesting the Chardonnay the most, but loved the taste of the Gewertztraminer grapes the best.

I got to experience my first harvest, and Greg’s second, when Greg and I helped our friends at Saorsa wines with their Viognier. I was so slow at first, but eventually got the hang of it!

As exciting as the whites were, I was thrilled when the reds began coming in. Merlot for Rose was the first red that came into our winery on the 24th of March, and the reds continued until the end of April.

Greg’s Winery brought in their first official red, Pinotage, on the 25th of March. He enjoyed harvesting the reds more than the whites, because although the reds require a lot more work in the winery over the next several months, the harvest day process is simpler. With the reds, Greg learned to do everything from pour overs, punch downs and rummages (to continually mix the juice and skins all together while they’re fermenting) to taking and recording data of temperature and Brix (sugar) levels in the active ferments every day.

His small team lead to some extra long days, as they had to finish processing the grapes that came in before they could go home. That same small team had some benefits for me though, as I was welcomed to come participate in some of the cellar work. I loved doing punch-downs, and helping with anything they’d set me up working on.

Couples who make wine together… 🍷

Meanwhile, at my own workplace, I was still taking every chance to be out in the winery. I witnessed a few dig outs (emptying skins from the tanks after fermentation is done) and got to try everything from taking the temperature of the cap of grape skins at the top of the tanks, to testing Brix (sugar) levels in wine, rummages (blowing compressed air into the tanks to mix up the skins through the juice and regulate the temperature of the ferment), and even running the hopper (with much needed and excessive supervision)!

Rummaging the Cuves
Testing the Brix
Taking the temperature of the cap of grape skins
Learning to run the hopper with a load of red grapes

Greg and I helped our friends at Element Wines harvest their Merlot, and got another little harvest under our belts.

Greg did his first dig out on his birthday!

A big highlight for me was when Alex of Saorsa allowed me to help him foot stomp his Syrah! This had been a dream of mine for years, and it was so amazing to actually get to do it.

Greg has also had the incredible and special opportunity to make his own wines. He’s got the mentorship of his Assistant Winemaker every step of the way, to help him create the style of wine he wants, and the benefit of the winery’s fruit and equipment. He is making a “field blend,” which is a mix of any and all grape types that come from the same block; his has 8 varietals in it, and will be a red wine. He’s also making a Chardonnay, and a Rose. He is learning to be a Winemaker on his own wines, which is an amazing way to learn. We’re so excited to try the finished products.

Greg’s Chardonnay
Greg tasting his field blend in the early stages
Greg’s field blend during the first week of fermenting

All of the grapes have been brought in now, but there is still much to do to tend to the wines, as they will be in the winery for months to years before they’re ready to be bottled. Greg continues to work on those tasks, and is doing some big jobs independently now. He continues to learn new things every day, and will soon be getting into pruning the vines with his Assistant Winemaker.

I’m spending more time back in the Cellar Door, and less in the winery now, but I’m reminded that it’s where I wanted to be, and still want to be – talking to people about wine, touring them around, and educating them about this passion of mine. There’s so much Greg and I have learned, and even more we want to learn. At the end of this first vintage we’ve gotten to be part of, the whole process of growing grapes and making wine is even more alive and exciting for us than ever before.

A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned; Value Wines to Please Your Palate

Many of us enjoy wine for a variety of occasions.  Sometimes, we want that special, expensive bottle, to celebrate a milestone or achievement, but sometimes, we just want a glass of red on the sofa while we read a great book, or a cool crisp white on the patio on a summer weeknight.  Although these occasions are special in their own right, not all of us can afford to be cracking $50 bottles three times a week!  Lots of us have also tried that $8 wine that looked oh-so-good in the packaging, with the fancy bottle shape and funky label, only to be let down by its lack-lustre or overbearing, unbalanced taste.  Can we say “cooking wine”?

I used to wonder if it was even possible to spend less, and get more in a wine.  The great news is, yes it is!  You just have to know a few things.  I realize that the $10 – $25 price range is the largest market for wine consumers, and I want to help you find wines you love for that price!

I gathered some friends together to help me give you the best information I can, and added our tips too. Specific wines are bolded throughout to make them easier to spot!

If you’re looking for even more specifics, a sommelier friend put together a list organized by price, specifically for you, my readers!  Check out the list at the bottom.


The WSET Grad List

Ivy and Aaron are certified in WSET Level 2, just like us.  They’re frequent hosts of wine tastings in their home, because they love sharing their passion for wine with their friends.  They’re on a quest to try 100 grape varietals, and have reached the final stretches in that goal.  They have an entire book shelf full of wine books (of which I’ve only yet borrowed one) and are pursuing further education in the wine industry.

“There are a few strategies that I use when purchasing value wines. Depending on what type or style I am looking for will determine which countries I will look for wines in. I love Riesling and in the Germany section you can get Rieslings under $20 that are a great value. If I am looking for a fruity and accessible red my go to is Beaujolais which is found in the French section. Beaujolais wines are the Gamay grape and one of my go to wine varieties under $25.” – Ivy

“When looking for value be sure to look at South America. Chilean Pinot Noir and Argentinan Cab Sav’s and Malbec’s. You can find inexpensive quality wines.” – Aaron

Great tips! They also include a category that I often don’t shop in because I don’t digest it well; however it’s widely liked, extremely popular and important to mention here – Sparkling Wine.

“One of my favourite tips for value is bubbly wines! I love my Champagne but don’t always love the price. Cava, which is from Spain, is made in the same style as Champagne but without the price tag. You can find lovely Cava under $25.” – Ivy


We met Sandra and Ian while they worked in the higher-ups of a restaurant we frequented.  Over wine, we discovered we had more in common than we realized, and became friends.  They’ve got ISG and WSET certificates between them, and Sandra has years of experience in high end service. Ian is the bar manager, and wine/spirits buyer, at one of our city’s most trendy, award winning restaurants, recognized as a top restaurant in Canada.  (He also designs hundreds of spectacular, award winning cocktails!)

Ian walked us through how he designs wine lists for his restaurants. His goal is to find wines that will pair with the menu, cover main regions and the grape varietals they do well, and be of value to sell to patrons, for example, Pinot Noir from Oregon, or Argentinian Malbec.

He also frequents industry wine tasting events and tries new bottles that reps bring to him on the regular, so he shows the value in trying new wines and producers.

He spoke highly of South African wines for value, while still being interesting to the palate, (look for KWV on the label for higher labour standards in South Africa), as well as one other particularly interesting grape, and left me with this hilarious, but true quote.

“Look for a good Petit Syrah; you’re going to enjoy the shiz out of that!” – Ian

Sandra’s value go to is the Santos de Casa Reserva Alentejano, retailing for $27.  They’ve shared this with us before – delicious.

“I love a well paired bottle of wine, but sometimes you get home from work and you just need to unwind and have a glass of something and you don’t want to plan your meal or think too hard.  This is the perfect go to for those occasions.  It is smooth and neither too dry or too sweet and will appeal to the seasoned wine drinker and the person just getting into wine alike.”  – Sandra


Ken

We were privileged to take our WSET Level 2 from this knowledgeable and intelligent man, who is well certified himself, and always continuing his wine education.  He is currently researching and presenting on Biodynamic Wines in his free time, and is a University Professor by day.  When I asked him for some tips for you, my readers, he shared some extremely valid points.

“It’s hard to say what a ‘good wine’ is for someone, so the answer for me is to drink more, and try everything!” – Ken

 That is very well said.  The wines my friends and I are presenting to you in this article are great to us, but may not be great for you.  These are meant to be a starting point in your exploring.  I must also note, that a ‘good wine’ to me 10 years ago, is not a ‘good wine’ to me now, because I’ve done more learning and exploring; tastes change, so try to hold an open mind and be discovery oriented.  Don’t they say we should enjoy the journey, as well as the destination?

“One approach is to look for lesser known regions that are close to the ‘famous’ regions, for example, rather than Chateauneuf-du-Pape, try something from Gigondas, which is close, similar, lesser known, and provides a good value.

Another approach is to look for ‘lesser’ sub-appellations within regions, so for example, if a person likes Chablis, Petit Chablis, rather than Premier Cru Chablis.  This doesn’t necessarily mean poorer quality, just different aging.  The longer it’s aged, the more money the producer has tied up in it, the more they need to charge for the wine.” – Ken

He does realize that some of his suggestions require some background knowledge, but encourages readers to have fun exploring and experimenting.  Plus, if you’re reading this, and have a more specific question about either of Ken’s approaches, you can leave a comment and I can help direct you.


Dawn

Dawn is certified in ISG and WSET Level 3, and runs the Tasting Room at our Coop Liquor. She is hilarious, kind, hospitable, a great chef, and extremely experienced and knowledgeable. That’s why the owners of Coop have put her in charge of choosing and buying every single bottle of wine that comes into that store! She works with wine producers all over the world, and here are her go to’s.

1.   “Bodegas Laya from Spain . It’s a big, full bodied red that over delivers for the price.

2.   La Vieille Ferme Rosé from France.  It is not as dry as some of the rosés from Provence, but it is very well made and always quaffable.  It is perfect on a summer patio day.” – Dawn


Our Tips to Affordable, Yet Still Great Wine

 1. Find an affordable producer that you like.  Chances are, if you really enjoyed one particular wine of theirs, you might also enjoy their other wines.

2. Shop lesser known varietals. You can find amazing value wine if you’re willing to step outside the Cab Sauv and Chardonnay boxes.

3. Avoid the mass production wines!  These are the ultra-cheap, big name companies, that I won’t name, but you’ve heard of them.  If they’re mass produced, they’re going to be a value, yes, but also boring and predictably not great. Look on the label for hints that they’re mass produced, like the non-specific region of “California,” for example, rather than “Monterey County.”

4. Shop in the European sections.  Many of the most overpriced wines come from the USA.  Canadian producers have high operating costs and small production, so they have to charge more.  You can get really great wine, for under $20 from Europe.  Our faves are almost anything from Italy or France, Riesling from Germany, Duoro from Portugal, Rioja from Spain.  In the Italy section, if they have a ribbon around the neck that’s a blue/gray and says DOCG or DOC on it, you know you’re getting a quality controlled wine, and yes, they have these for under $20.

5. Shop in the South American sections!  Carmenere from Chile and Malbec from Argentina, are great.  It’s also worth trying the whites from these regions. Last week we had an Eco Chilean Chardonnay that was superb, and $13.

6. Be willing to take a risk!  We had a Boutari from Greece last month that was $18.  We were in Greece in 2015, and no wine grabbed us as “the best wine ever,” but we decided to give the Boutari a go (open-mind!).  It was wonderfully crisp, with lemon and fresh herb notes to it that reminded me of being in Greece.  You don’t know if you don’t try.

7. Keep a list of what you’ve tried, and write down what you like or don’t like.  Have your “go to’s” for value white, red, sparkling or rose. I use the Vivino app to keep a running tally, and when I have time, I add my tasting notes.


A Sommeliers List – Available at the Coop Wine Spirits Beer store in Blairemore

Angela is the sommelier at the Coop Liquor Store and Tasting Room, she is certified in WSET Level 3, and is currently taking her two year Level 4 Diploma.  She sent me a list of her favourite value wines, all available at our Coop Liquor Store!  Upon getting to know her, I’ve discovered she’s passionate about interesting wines and discovering new, quality wines for herself and her customers.  She’s not going to set you up with something run of the mill or boring, which I really appreciate about her, especially because she fills my wine locker every month!  I’ve personally had all of the Under $15 wines, and they’re fabulous.  I would also mention that any wine by La Vieille Ferme I’ve had has been affordable and tasty.  Check out her list below.  What do you notice about it?

Under $15

• Plantaze Vranac $13.99

• Claude Val Rouge and Rosé $12.99

• La Vieille Ferme Red $13.99

Under $20

• Gerard Bertrand Corbieres $17.99

• Henry of Pelham Baco Noir $15.49

• Glenelly Glass Collection Chardonnay $18.99

• Mediterra Poggio Al Tesoro $19.99

Under $25ish

• Ricossa Barbaresco $22.99

• Gray Monk White Brut Odyssey $25.99

• Chateau Pesquie Les Terraces $22.99

There may be a lot of grape varietals that you haven’t heard of before.  Just because they’re not mainstream doesn’t mean they’re not flavourful, or a good value.  A lot of them are also international.  Hmm… I think I read that somewhere.

Remember, take a risk.  You might not like all of these wines, but you might also love them.  Now get to the store, find a value wine, and start popping corks, (or unscrewing screwcaps)!

A special thanks to all of my guests: Ivy, Aaron, Sandra, Ian, Ken, Dawn and Angela.  You’re all wonderful for taking the time to contribute and I appreciate you!

Cheers!