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!

“Cherished Life” Moments

I call this blog, “Cherished Life by Chelsea” because I used to run a business under a similar name; when I named the blog, I didn’t yet know that I was going to move to New Zealand and get to live one of my dreams. I didn’t understand how many memories I was going to make that I’ll have for a lifetime.

The first time I remember specifically creating a lifelong memory was on our first trip to Paris.

There are, of course, many milestones in life that I’ll remember forever, like our wedding, travels, family holidays, graduating with my degree, my first teaching job, buying our houses, etc., but I remember those in more of a larger context, or I remember specific things about them as a whole.

I’m talking here about experiencing a moment in time, and being so precisely aware of how special that moment is while it’s still happening; it’s almost like time has stopped for just that moment, so that I can step outside of it, look into it, and really realize how valuable it is. Have you ever experienced anything like that?

The first time I created a memory like that was during the last hour of a Paris City Bike tour, on a Seine River cruise, at dusk, as we sailed past the Eiffel Tower, and I saw it sparkle for the first time. Greg was standing behind me, and I was leaning against the rail of the front of the boat, with the perfect view. It was warm, and there was a gentle breeze coming off the water. Everyone else on the boat sighed in wonder as the tower began to sparkle, and I remember distinctly thinking, “I’m going to remember this moment for the rest of my life.”

We toured the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and got to stand in “the circle” where the biggest country artists of all time have performed, and sing an acapella “Amazing Grace” in two-part harmony; as I felt the spot light on my face, and listened to our voices echo throughout the rows and fill the room, I created another lifelong cherished moment.

There are so many mundane moments in life, where we do the same things we always do, and we can’t or don’t choose to remember what’s different about one day from the next. It’s often the escape from the mundane that’s the most memorable. I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower sparkle now too many times to count, and although I still appreciate it and savour it each time, none of those times specifically stick out to me as much as that first time does, when I was forever imprinting that memory into my mind. Singing “Amazing Grace” on stage has happened several times in our lives as well, but singing it on the Opry stage… I knew I would cherish that for a lifetime.

Moving across the world has brought me more of those cherished moments, and I’m so grateful for them.

Every time we walk from our house down to the ocean after dinner, and stick our toes in the sand, I realize how fortunate we are to be able to do that. When we just grab our wine glasses and walk down to the ocean with friends to sit on the beach or stand in the water while we visit – I cherish those moments.

We were recently wake boarding and buiscuiting on a clear, warm, bright blue lake, next to some volcanoes, in January, and we sat in a natural hot pool in a corner of the same lake, with kind and generous friends who have taken us in, and brought us along to these places. We cherished that moment.

One of my most recent cherished moments was at the UB40 concert I worked. We closed the bar down shortly after 9pm on the police’s call, but the band was still scheduled until 10pm. We did as much clean up as we could for the time being, and then our manager told us to go enjoy the concert until 10pm. We grabbed a glass of red wine, and headed up into the tanks that overlook the park area of the winery where the stage was. (Those tanks also happen to be for red wine.) We got to dance and sing, and drink red wine, as UB40 sang their famous, “Red, Red Wine.” During that song, I knew I was creating another memory that I will truly cherish for a lifetime.

We don’t make a lot of money here, and it feels like we’re living on borrowed time until our savings/credit run out. We left our careers, and our circles and routines in Canada to make a move that could have, or could still, turn out badly in the end, or leave us with nothing to our names. It’s not always easy or perfect, but it’s in moments like that one – when I looked at my life for that three minutes, in New Zealand, where I live, at the winery where I work, with my amazing new friends and colleagues, dancing and singing to “Red Red Wine” in the red wine tanks, with red, red wine, being sung by a famous band that I got to meet the day before – when I realize that no matter what happens, this risk we took of coming here, will have already been worth it. That song will remind me of my time in New Zealand, and at Church Road, for as long as I can still hear it. I’m realizing that these cherished moments in life can’t be bought. They just happen, and when I stop to recognize them, I’m able to be grateful for them.

I was fortunate enough this week to participate as the Cellar team opened the customary bubbly to kick off the 2019 vintage; we all poured the remainder of our glasses into the first load of grapes. I got to watch the first crush happen, and taste the juice as it was pouring from the press. I’ve been in the winery as much as possible this week, watching, asking questions and learning so much, and I’ll continue soaking up every opportunity I get. Greg and I will both cherish the memories of our first vintage.

I don’t know how long we’ll stay here, or where we’ll go from here. I don’t know how long we’ll stay in the wine industry. I don’t know what’s going to happen in our future, or with our finances, or our house back in Canada, or anything else. I do my best not to get too caught up in the future, and to let each day worry about itself. (That struggle is easily another post of its own!)

What I do know though, is that these memories we’re making are more valuable than money can buy; they’re shaping us, and changing us. These experiences are impacting us in meaningful ways, and giving us more moments that really remind us to stop, take it in, and cherish life . . . and we feel pretty blessed, and grateful for all of them.

The Last Starbucks

I have been picturing this moment for years now… picturing, dreaming, envisioning, hoping for, praying for, questioning at times, even fearing it if the anxiety got too tight a hold, but grasping onto it in my mind as clear as day. Greg and I talked about “that dream moment,” many times, when we would be HERE, sitting in the secure area, at our gate, with our last Canadian Starbucks. 

There were many times it seemed like it would never come. I even started typing this post a long time ago so I could read it over when I needed a reminder to have faith and hold tight to the dream. Every time we travel I take a secure area Starbucks photo before we get on the plane; if you’ve followed me in the past, you know the ones.

This is “the last Starbucks” on this side of the ocean for a while. This is the last Starbucks on this side of a one way ticket to New Zealand (I left a blank when I typed this months ago because I used to be sure it was Rome but somehow knew it might be somewhere else).  

This is the last Starbucks on this side of the life we know, the last Starbucks on this side of a life we can almost predict. This is the last Starbucks on this side of safety in our people, comfort in our communities, stability in the familiarity of home. This is the last Starbucks in the same building as family members and close friends, who we’ve just hugged and cried with downstairs. This is the last Starbucks on this side of the biggest adventure we’ve ever known, this side of the contradicting panic and fear, and also complete peace that we have in knowing we’re supposed to do this. This is the last Starbucks as people who have only ever lived in one city, before changing everything we know, and trusting God more than we’ve had to in a while to provide everything we need. This is the last Starbucks on this side of the hugest leap of faith we’ve ever taken. 

This moment is here

This moment is real

This moment is now

Woah.

We’ll catch up with you on the other side of the world! Cheers.