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.
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!