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

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!

Guess What Working in the Hospitality Industry is Teaching Me?

Spoiler alert! The answer is … hospitality. I’m learning many other valuable things, but for the purposes of this blog, I’ll focus on hospitality.

“Hospitality: the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors or strangers.”

– Google Dictionary

I used to think I was a decently hospitable person, but I’ve realized that I was really only hospitable to those I wanted to be hospitable to. It’s not that difficult to receive or try to entertain my own, invited guests with friendliness and generosity. I’d say most people do a decent job of that.

The “strangers” part though… that can be a bit harder sometimes. Most customers are very nice, and quite friendly and happy. It’s definitely easier to be hospitable (by definition) to them.

When they’re not that nice to be around, receiving and entertaining them with generosity and friendliness – there’s the challenge; that is true hospitality.

(Https://images.app.foo.gl/ZBuMXh5gfnGhgbE79)

I had the rudest of rude customers a while back. He seemed to make it his mission to hate all the wine, and commented how much so after each taste (which basically never happens at my job – we have excellent wine and are a reputable wine brand); I even caught him making gagging faces with his finger down his throat at other customers while I was getting his next taste of wine … Real mature, sir.

(Hcareers.com)

I’ve had drunk customers cuss me out for not serving them as much alcohol as they’d like, or get cheeky with me when I can’t serve them any more at closing time.

I still feel like I’m just getting my feet wet in dealing with these types of people, but I’m watching some great mentors do it with class. Some of my colleagues know how to stick to their guns, yet still come across to angry, or drunk, or even hostile customers as hospitable; I’ve seen some interesting situations diffused calmly and quietly, when they could have easily gone the other way. It amazes me, how these colleagues can be so truly hospitable to anyone and everyone, and it’s honestly an admirable skill that I hope to pick up bits and pieces of more and more. All will come in time, as I learn.

Now that I’m in this industry, I’ve started paying even closer attention to how hospitable and welcoming others are to me when I’m visiting a place, and it’s often the smallest things that can make a huge difference. It really doesn’t take that much more effort to be helpful to someone in a small way, but it can really change the outcome of their day, or make their experience with me, our establishment, their day, or their entire holiday better.

For example, the other night at work, a lady had just ordered a glass of wine, and ended up knocking her glass and spilling half of it. Our Event’s Manager offered to fill it back up for her, at no cost. She could have just pretended she didn’t see it happen, or charged her for another glass, but she went out of her way to do something nice, to make that lady feel special; I’ll bet it went a long way.

(Quotemaster.org)

Going to other Cellar Doors and restaurants in our travels, as well as recently in New Zealand, and even visiting our own wineries on our days off, have really reminded me of what it’s like to be on the customer’s side. Those have been such beneficial learning experiences (sometimes positive and sometimes not, but beneficial either way).

The Golden Rule really comes to my mind a lot in this business.

It’s service.

It requires humility and grace.

It requires me to put another’s needs and wants above my own.

It requires selflessness, generosity, forethought and planning, or adaptability and flexibility.

It sometimes requires sacrifice.

(Pinterest.com)

It’s about putting myself in the customer’s shoes, and thinking about how I would want to be treated in any particular situation. Some days that’s easy enough, and other days, that’s hard, to say the least!

(cheezburger.com)

Despite it all, I believe hospitality can be learned through mindset and practice, if someone is motivated to learn it.

Even more importantly, I’ve become more aware of how the skill of being hospitable isn’t just useful in a hospitality job; it’s a life skill of incredible value to offer to those around me. Anyone can benefit from being more hospitable in their workplaces, communities, friendships and families. I’m thankful that I’m getting all this time to practice it.

So cheers to all of you incredible hospo people out there, who work hard and make your customers feel truly welcome and special in your care; you are amazing.

(cheeseburger.com)

#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.

“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.

Napier, New Zealand: The Art Deco City

This is an exciting blog post for me, as I get to highlight the city Greg and I call home in New Zealand. (The 1920’s/1930’s photos you’ve seen of us will make more sense once you’ve read this article as well!)

Nothing will prepare you for what Lonely Planet describes as the ‘charismatic’ New Zealand city that ‘can provoke a Great Gatsby swagger in the least romantic soul’.

https://www.artdeconapier.com/

(Facts in this article are taken from this website, as well as what I’ve learned from Napier citizens during our time here.)

The Art Deco story all began when the people of Hawke’s Bay experienced a devastating earthquake on the 3rd of February, 1931. The quake measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, and was the largest in New Zealand’s history. It killed 261 people in the Bay, 162 of which were from Napier City. After the quake struck at 10:47am, fires broke out in the cities of Hastings and Napier. Hastings was able to control their fires, but Napier wasn’t, and the city was largely destroyed.

The land shifted and tilted up 7 feet, and the sea line extended out east. According to artdeconapier.com, Napier gained 5575 acres of land. The land was drained and is now where a lot of our city sits, including the new downtown, and the Airport.

The people rebuilt the city in the early 30’s, with what was the popular 20’s fashion at the time, Art Deco. Our city is filled with Art Deco buildings and street signs, gardens and homes, artwork, and lots of old cars we see driving around during the festival, and all year. It’s a very cute city to visit, and is a stop for most cruises that come through. The most photographed building and statue in New Zealand are in Napier.

The Art Deco Festival is an annual event that allows the citizens of Napier to showcase the history of their home, share their story of survival, and celebrate it’s rebirth. It’s a time for people to come together as a small community, and honour the past in a meaningful and fun way! Kiwis come from all over New Zealand to participate in the festival; tourists come from Australia, and even places as far as Europe to participate! The 2019 festival was the 31st annual celebration, and according to media.newzealand.com, there were over 300 events, and 40,000 guests in attendance.

There were both ticketed and free events to participate in. We kicked the festival off with an Art Deco Valentine’s Day; we had a walk around after dinner, and some wine at a cool wine bar in town where we listened to old music and watched the customers dance the night away.

Greg and I went to the opening ceremony on the Friday evening with friends, which consisted of the first fly over of the old war planes. They did tricks and put on a show that everyone gathered along the shoreline to watch.

Almost everyone who’s out gets involved in the festival. As we sat on the beach with our friends later that night and looked around, it actually felt like it could have been the 1930’s.

Little kids were dressed in their 20’s/30’s gear and playing catch by the ocean with their parents. A group of teens were dressed the part, lazing on the beach nearby, drinking and laughing. Seniors had old tables and chairs set out on the lawn, with full spreads of classic China and glassware, and were enjoying a picnic while decked out in top hats and pearls.

There was a live orchestra and band performing 1930’s music, and people were dancing in the parks and in the streets. As we made our way around, we took time to stop for a chat with a familiar face, admire a beautiful car, have a photo, or just take it all in with the numerous groups of others around us doing the same.

Walking through the downtown streets, seeing every person in 1930’s dress, looking at the old buildings and cars, and hearing the music, I felt like we’d all travelled back in time.

We also spent some time walking around on Saturday, seeing the old car parade, old motorcycles, and a fashion show.

There were numerous musical groups to be spotted all around town.

We attended the Gatsby Picnic on Sunday, and had our lunch there.

We were, again, awed and entertained to see how many people went all out to participate in this event. We’d heard that many of them go each year at 4:00am to get the best spots and set up their themed gazebos. Some of them were absolutely amazing!

Being part of the festival was a special experience, to say the least. We both talked about how an event like this just wouldn’t work if the people didn’t get so into it. I believe the enthusiasm the locals show, young and old alike, is what makes the festival really successful each year. There’s something truly magical about watching an entire community fully embrace the spirit of the time, and come together in a significant way.

We loved Napier already, but celebrating it’s rebirth as part of the community this festival made us love it even more.

A Day in the Life; What Working in the Wine Industry Actually Looks Like for Me

If you’ve read my previous post about what Greg does, you have seen how a winery operates from the vineyard and winery perspective. My job is quite different than Greg’s.

I work at Church Road Winery as a Visitor Experience and Cellar Door Host. What that means is that I am responsible for many aspects of what makes a visit to our winery a great experience for the customers. I’ve included some examples below:

⁃ doing tastings at the bar for walk in customers or pre-booked groups

– tour operator group tastings at the bar, or seated at tables for small or large groups

⁃ running the till for people to pay for their meals, tastings, wine, or merchandise

⁃ answering the phone

⁃ educating customers about the wine and helping them in the shop

⁃ serving wine and drinks to tables at the restaurant or those enjoying the lawn area. We have a restaurant in the Cellar Door, and although we don’t run the food part, all of the drink orders for all beverages (even Soda, etc.) come through us. We are also responsible to clear, wash and polish all of the glasswear.

⁃ VIP drink service and general assistance at concerts

⁃ tours of the winery and through the museum, which include educating the guests on the history of the company, the wine making process, and our specific procedures

(I don’t usually wear heels to work! This photo was during a private tour for Greg.)

⁃ stocking the shelves in the shop with wine and merchandise

⁃ stocking the bar with wine, drinks, and clean glasswear

⁃ working in the new Container Bar. We just opened our new bar down in our park area. It used to be a shipping container and is now a really nice outdoor bar where we can serve drinks to outdoor customers wanting wine and snacks on the beanbag chairs or blankets in the park. We can also use it for concert service and as an additional tasting area on really busy days.

⁃ So much more!

Church Road is only closed 4 days of the year, and we are the most visited winery in Hawke’s Bay. The team won “Cellar Door of the Year” last year, meaning they were named the best Cellar Door experience in the whole region; this shows and means that the Church Road team takes the visitors’ experience very seriously and places it in high regard. There are about 16 of us that do what I do. We have a wide range of ages represented on the team as well, which is so nice!

We are very busy most of the time! We are open from 10:30am to 4:30pm for tastings, but we have a beautiful venue that is often rented out for weddings and other functions after hours. We are also hosting several Sunday Jazz festivals in our park, as well as 5 big name concerts this summer, like UB40, Fatboy Slim, Toto, Sticky Fingers and Angus & Julia Stone. This all means that my hours can jump around quite a bit, and my weekly schedule is never the same.

We also have a gorgeous setting!

The stage for our concerts is in the beginning stages of set up on the left side of the photo.
The projection and chairs were set up here for a staff meeting; it’s a beautiful place to have a meeting.
The tasting area is pictured on the left, with the indoor part of the restaurant on the right.

One of my favourite parts of my job is leading the tours. We offer 2 tours per day; the Behind the Scenes Tour is at 11:00am and requires booking ahead. This one features an hour and a half experience of a full winery tour, on which the guests get to taste wine right out of our Oak Cuves and Stainless tanks, visit our wine museum, (which is the only one in New Zealand), and have a seated tasting that is paired with food. The second is at 2:00pm and is a Winery and Museum tour, that features a more basic walk through the winery and museum, and a tasting at a private bar afterwards. I have recently begun doing these tours on my own, and have done a good number now, with various sizes of groups up to 15 people. As a teacher, getting to teach people who actually want to be there and who have lots of questions, is so refreshing. Teaching the visitors, and talking about wine with them is really enjoyable, and there’s no homework to mark afterwards either.

In addition, when cruise ships are in, sometimes extra tours will be booked that start at 9:30am or 10:00am, and we will open early for those groups. We’re expecting 72 cruise ships in Napier this summer, and several of them will bring in large groups to Church Road. I just co-lead my first 40 person tour last week; the group was engaged and asked a lot of questions, and it was so much fun to do the tour with my colleague.

It is typical for me to start at either 10:00am or 11:00am, and on my schedule it says I work until “F,” which means when we’re finished! Sometimes, if it’s been a slow or rainy day, and we can get all of our glassware washed, restocking the wine done and all the other cleaning and organizing finished sooner, we will be done work by 4:30pm or 5:00pm. Other days, when the weather is nice, and people are hanging around finishing wine outside, or if we’ve been busy and have lots of glasses piled up, we don’t finish until 5:30pm or 6:00pm. There have been a few days when I’ve been helping unload palates of wine into the store room, after our stock has been replenished, or cleaning up until after 6:00pm.

We don’t get scheduled lunch breaks, because we are usually the busiest over lunch. We take turns popping into the back for 15 minutes or so to eat, and then we come back out so the next person can go. We have the freedom to use the washroom or go grab a snack or drink when we have a moment. Sometimes one of my colleagues will make tea in the afternoon, or someone will bring baking, and we’ll stand at one of the bars and have a cup (if we’re not slammed)! The plus side to a schedule like that is that I’m paid for the whole time, even while I’m eating lunch, or while we’re having tea, so more work means more money.

I also love my colleagues, and spending time with them at work is fun! Lots of times when I go to work, it feels like I’m on my way to go spend the day with friends. We truly have an amazing team of people (and if you can’t tell by these photos, we have a lot of fun)!

Another part of the job that I love is doing tastings. I get to meet so many amazing people from all over the world when I’m behind the bar. Most of the people that come to the counter are traveling, and as they are generally on holiday, and they’re out wine tasting, they’re usually in a great mood (99% of the time). I enjoy asking them questions about where they’re from, hearing their stories, and getting to talk about wine with them.

Every day of work is so different, and there’s so many things I might do. It really depends on the time of year, the weather, if there’s a cruise ship in, if the tours are booked or not, if the restaurant is fully booked and lots of drink orders are coming through, if there’s a function or concert that day, etc.

Another great perk of my job is that we get to have a bit of wine at the end of each work day! I love this part for a few reasons. Drinking great wine is obviously a huge plus. Apart from the obvious, getting to taste the wine helps us keep our palates tuned into the wines we’re talking about to people every day. We have 25 wines at Church Road, so it’s helpful to keep trying different wines again, to keep them fresh in our minds. Even more enjoyable to me though, are the friendships being built during this time. I love that we all sit down for half an hour or so after work and unwind together, and talk about our personal lives as friends. It really encourages a positive work environment and building relationships with our colleagues. Sometimes the Winemaker will join us as well, or our bosses will, and we get to see them in a different light. It’s a really special time of day for me, and I make sure not to rush off unless I absolutely have to be somewhere.

Another question Greg and I are often asked is how much we actually drink the wine from our places of work.

I personally really love Church Road wine; several of them have won many awards and they’re of high quality, so it’s not at all difficult to want to drink them! Our Winemaker was named the best in the country in 2013 and 2016, and he definitely knows what he’s doing. Church Road is a highly recognized and reputable brand throughout New Zealand. It’s too bad we can’t ship to Canada, or I’d be sending it back in hordes already! There are extra perks sometimes too… for example, our Chief Winemaker, Chris Scott, had an interview with a wine writer a few weeks ago, and he opened a bunch of really high quality, aged wine. Not only did us Church Road staff get to try it after work, but as they would just go to waste otherwise, we got to take the bottles home the next night. Greg and I had the remainders of a 2006 Grand Reserve Chardonnay and a 2002 Tom Merlot Cabernet with our dinner.

Surprisingly, I even enjoy some of the tasks I thought I wouldn’t, like polishing glassware. The ladies told me I would find it a nice, zen-like break from doing tastings on busy days, and it really actually is! It’s a great place to either rest our voices, or have a chat while polishing together (like our version of the water cooler)!

Most surprising to me, is that I also love taking the cardboard out. It is so strange to me that I love that job, but whenever there’s cardboard, I’m all, “I’ll take it!” That sounds ridiculous, but allow me to explain. I have moments every time I go do it, when I put that “high-vis” jacket on and get to stroll through the working winery to the cardboard bin. (Side note, I ran into UB40 while taking the cardboard out last week, so that was pretty amazing too.) Besides the off chance celebrity run in, I think I love it because it’s a particular moment in the day when I take a walk outside, and stop to realize that I actually work in a winery. Me. I do! I’ve dreamt of it for years, and now I do. Taking the cardboard out sounds like such a menial task to enjoy, but it reminds me of what I’m actually doing with my life right now. I can hardly wait to take the cardboard out during vintage when I’ll get to see all the grapes coming in and being processed!

Thanks for reading, blog family; that’s such a small glimpse into what I do, but it gives you the general idea for now. I’ll be sure to post updates on my job as it changes, and once vintage starts.

…And if you ever get a chance, have a glass of Church Road wine, and think of me. 🍷❤️

A Weekend in Wellington

We’ve had a very busy January at work (and by “we” I mean “me,” as Greg’s been enjoying all of the public holidays). I’m used to having two weeks off over Christmas and New Years, and then spending the next few weeks of work struggling to get out of bed and motivate myself to get back into the routine, after having to dig my car of out of the snow in the dark, minus 40 weather. This year, of course, with an industry and country change, brought a big life change, and a significant change to my January! I’ve not had more than two days off in a row in a long while, (maybe at all since I started my job), but with that, comes no dread of returning to work, and no broken routine. It’s a good thing I love what I’m doing! January is one of the busiest months in the Cellar Door, and we’ve been working hard, for long hours, in the heat! We’ve had many days in a row of higher than 30 degree weather, and heaps of sunshine. I’ve been spending my mornings going for jogs along the ocean instead of digging my car out of the snow, and getting sun burnt instead of frost bitten!

With all of that work, I’ve been very tired, but when Greg and I realized I had a weekend off, we decided we needed to take advantage of it and go see some more of this beautiful country we’re calling “home.” As we did a “rustic” trip last time (slept in the car, next to a stream on a mountain and hiked 20kms), we decided to do a city trip this time. We chose Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, a four hour drive for us; on route, there is the Wairarapa wine region, with Martinborough in it, famous for its Pinot Noir, something Hawke’s Bay is too warm to do much of.

We left early Saturday morning and headed through many cute little towns on the way to Martinborough. We wanted to fit in a few wineries before our 1:00pm appointment at Ata Rangi.

We visited Poppies, Vynfields, and Schubert during the lunch hour. They were all very small production, beautiful places, and featured the Pinot Noir we were after.

We ran into a family at Poppies that lives in Wellington, that I had done a tasting with at Church Road recently; we all recognized each other, and stopped to chat! They told Greg how great of a time they had with me, and that they could tell how passionate I am about wine and the process of making it. That’s definitely true, and I’m glad it comes through to people who visit me in the Cellar Door!

We had a beautiful, seated tasting, with only 10 people at Ata Rangi, and got to hear a bit of their history, as well as the history of Martinborough.

After Martinborough, we headed into Welly! The first stop was the mall, where I bought some necessities that are harder to find in Hawke’s Bay, and looked for some clothes. Greg and I are noticing that the styles here are very different than in Europe or North America. I didn’t find much, but got a few things. We checked into our Airbnb in Island Bay, and then headed into downtown.

We had a walk around the waterfront, checked out Cuba Street and the candy store, Nicnacs, before having a pint at Hashigo Zake, a craft beer bar.

We had dinner at Chow, an Asian inspired place, that surprisingly was able to accommodate me very well. We loved their food, and atmosphere.

We finished the evening at Noble Rot, a famous wine bar in Wellington, where we got a Napa Chardonnay, just to remember what they taste like, and did a blind flight of three reds from around the world. We did decently well on our guesses, and enjoyed having some red wine from the old world again.

Sunday morning, we slept in a tiny bit, but had too much on the agenda to laze around! We started with a trip to the top of Mount Victoria for 360 degree views of the city. It was beautiful up there, and definitely worth a see!

We checked out the Te Papa Museum, where we learned about some of New Zealand’s history in the First World War, and saw their amazing, more than double life size models of soldiers; they have been crafted in incredible detail!

Next, we headed to the waterfront to walk more of it, and grabbed a coffee. This was a relaxing part of the day, and was a peaceful stroll.

The wind was intense! I had been warned of the Wellington wind, but didn’t quite comprehend how fast it actually is! I literally had to hold my sunglasses on my head because they were blowing off. The wind actually pushed us along if it was behind, and we had to lean into it if it was in front. I had to tuck my shirt into the front of my pants to prevent it from whipping up!

We eventually found the cute huts at Oriental Bay, and then headed to do some breweries for Greg!

Wellington has a really big craft beer scene. We went to Husk first, that features Choice Bros brewing, and great food, and then to Whistling Sisters. Greg found most of the beer very good; his favourites still lie in other parts of the world, but he really liked lots of the Welly ones.

We did some wine shopping at Moore Wilson’s and Glengarry, and were excited to find some wine from other parts of the world. We’ve got a craving for a good Napa or Sonoma red, but we haven’t found that yet. (Do we want it just because we can’t find it?)

The last stop was at Starbucks, for the New Zealand souvenir mug, and an Americano. To be honest, I’m starting to get used to New Zealand’s amazing coffee, and how rich and velvety it is, with a nice foam to it, that I found the Americano a bit lacking; however, it was a weird sized cup and had too much water for the amount of espresso, and it also didn’t have the same flavour as in Canada. I don’t blame anyone, but they’re competing with so many other amazing coffee shops; if Starbucks wants to become more popular here, they need to up their game. (Disclaimer: I will always love Starbucks.) We can’t use our app or gold cards here, and they don’t have the oatmeal, but I did get my Americano free with my mug. The mug was $30 here (yikes) but Switzerland still takes the prize for “most expensive we’ve seen” at somewhere around $32 – $34 Canadian. The Starbucks people probably think I died, seeing as how my gold card, that used to get several purchases a week, went from full on, to absolutely nothing the day I left Canada. If anyone from Starbucks is reading this, I am alive, and I still love you.

We enjoyed the ride home, as it is a really beautiful drive through mountains, with lush greenery, and several cute towns, one of which won New Zealand’s most scenic town recently.

I said to Greg before the trip that I wanted to have a relaxing weekend in Wellington, as I have been so tired from work and not sleeping well due to our almost 30 degree nights (poor me, right?). If you know me though, I always try and fit as much in as possible on a trip, because I like to take advantage of being in the place. I have to go back more than once to be able to fully relax in any place! This weekend, no matter how much I thought we’d relax, was not relaxing, but it was full of sight seeing, and we felt like we were on holiday! I said to Greg at one point, “doesn’t it feel like we just flew here and we have to fly back to Canada soon? But we don’t. We will just drive back home and go to work tomorrow.”

I’ve also noticed there’s nothing that makes me feel more at home in Napier than leaving it, and then getting that comfortable feeling of coming home when we return to Hawke’s Bay. We’ve definitely ended up living in the right place for us, and it’s feeling more like home every day.

Our weekend in Wellington was short and sweet, and we’re happy to have seen the city; we’re also happy to be home… until the next time!