Isabel Gilbert Palmer interviews Daniel Brennan, an American who has settled in New Zealand and is working to do something different with wines in Hawkes Bay. His advice to anyone taking a step towards a winemaking career is to be ready to work hard and not make much money for a very long time. He says its important to work with people who have the same mindset as yours and are passionate. Here is his story.
Lets begin with a timeline Dan. What year did you come to New Zealand and specifically why?
2008 to study Wine Science at the Eastern Institute of Technology (EIT) in Hawkes Bay.
Where do you live and from where did you come from originally ?
I live in Hawkes Bay. I am New York-born, and grew up in Philadelphia in a Sicilian-Irish family.
What brought you from the East Coast of USA not exactly known for wine growing to the East Coast of New Zealand and Hawkes Bay, well known for it?
I can answer that partly with a question for you. Do you think tasting a wine could inspire you? Inspire you enough to leave home and family and all you are associated with? Could you smell a glass of wine and decide to follow it, to find its source, move there and begin a new life?
For me this is why I am here today. It is why I left Philadelphia.
I discovered New Zealand wines.
Is that it, the whole picture? It sounds very romantic and adventurous. Let us start where you are from and what you left behind.
My parents still own a neighbourhood restaurant in Philadelphia called McCrossen’s. Today it might be described as a gastro pub with a wine bar. It has been like this since Prohibition in the United States which took place from 1920 to 1933 which was a USA wide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages.
I hung out at the restaurant on the weekends and after school and during the holidays since I was a kid, waiting tables, bartending and working in the kitchen.
Then I went to college at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC and studied International Politics and Philosophy
And after College what happened?
I studied at the Catholic University of America and even spent seven months in Brussels at their Catholic University doing International Politics and working in the European Union for a British Member of Parliament. I learnt a great deal not only about European history but also American involvement, the Marshall Plan. I came across lots of great Belgian beer and French wines.
I always had an enduring interest in chemistry. When the time came for me to chose what I wanted to become, politics wasn’t for me, so I took to the road with a rock band and worked my way throughout the USA as their Band Manager. Touring was amazing but it is an unforgiving and hard way of life.
I lasted for about 6 years. After the hype and highs and lows, I wanted something more substantive in my life so when I quit the music industry I went back to the restaurant to figure out what exactly to do.
I’d grown up around wine at the restaurant. My grandfather Michael Rodolico, I discovered, was a winemaker. My mother dropped this gem casually into conversation one day when I was justifying my chose and passion for wine and winemaking and my new chosen career and lifestyle. My great grandfather, who also made wine, had travelled from Sicily to America in search of inspiration which is not much different from what I have done later.
So you were back in the family business again.
Yes and I started researching wine, extended the wine list of the restaurant, organising wine tastings, added new beers and I was enjoying myself immensely.
The more I tasted, experimented, found new ones, the more I wanted to go deeper and study the chemistry involved in winemaking. I looked for winemaking courses in the USA and thought about a course at the University in California at Davis.
I’d travel interstate to New Jersey to buy New Zealand wines from the importer there because New Zealand wines had made such a huge impression upon on me. They were clean and pure, but earthy and were also rustic.
I then discovered EIT and the courses they offered in Hawkes Bay in New Zealand and that was that.
It was a big step and something I hadn’t really anticipated before. I did not imagine I might go somewhere near the bottom of the world but I enrolled in their Wine Science and Viticulture degree
So this was 2008 you arriving in NZ and now eight years on what has happened?
Well I did the course and made some new wine industry friends there, who remain great friends now. Professionally, I got to work at some outstanding local vineyards. Te Awa, Vidal Estate, Unison and am now the assistant winemaker at Paritua Vineyards. In 2010 I began making my own wines under the Decibel label. I’ve had great mentoring at Paritua under winemaker Jason Stent. He’s really encouraged me and has taught me so much about creating fine wine to the next level in terms of technique plus he totally gets what I’m after with my own wine making as well.
What are you making in Decibel and how do you distribute them?
I’ve just made a Malbec and I am happy with it. I create wines using classic practices, minimal intervention, natural wines, community based and sourced.
I am busy at the moment with Malbec, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, all from Hawkes Bay and a Pinot Noir from Martinborough. These are all for private tasting at home and through a couple of small local establishments here, but most are sent to the United States especially the East Coast where I have more than a few connections. I love Hawkes Bay Sauvignon Blanc, and knew it would be a hit in the US. It’s more food-friendly plus it really benefits from being kept for a few years.
You’ve said elsewhere my story and my wines are all about the people who inspire me, the places I’ve been and the music I love. I see in your living room Musical Paraphernalia strewn everywhere around us …what is that all about?
I started playing the guitar when I was a kid and I just love to have instruments and equipment around to play with. I was always the guy with the stereo, bringing it to parties, even when I was 12 years old. I always had vinyl, a great CD collection and I am still looking for new, great artists. But more than anything, I like to have guitars, amps and wires laying around. I can’t explain it, but it just feels like home. Sometimes I go a while without playing them because I get so busy. But I just need them around me.
I heard that you were one of the movers and shakers behind the New Guard in the Province. How did this happen and what does it mean in an old well established traditional and the first established wine growing areas of New Zealand to begin a group like this?
I guess it was organically in the beginning. Just friends getting together for tastings and parties. I tend to throw a lot of parties and host gatherings. And I try to engage folks as much as possible to have fun and shake things up a bit. And one day, I just called as many friends together as possible and laid it on the line. I told them scenes don’t start by accident. They start because we decide it’s so. Because we want to make a concerted effort as a group, or as a few different groups, to change things. We’re all pretty keen on changing the industry here in Hawkes Bay. It’s got a great history, but it’s time we took it somewhere else. Somewhere that appeals to not only the retiree with a great wine cellar but also to the millennial who has a great curiosity about wine and wants to learn more.
So where do you really call home nowadays?
Hawkes Bay. I have started my own family here and I love the lifestyle here. I have a home with my Italian wife Mara, (who immigrated here like me). I met here here and we have a little daughter Cecilia, live in the countryside set amongst the vineyards on the western boundaries of the wine growing area famous for its red blends and Syrah.
How do you feel about being in USA now?
Back in the US is my extended family and I love to visit, love the action, the cosmopolitan lifestyle, museums, music and all.
What does being in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand give you then personally and professionally?
Balance. I can work hard and enjoy my family. We live a great lifestyle. I work hard, particularly at certain times of year. But I always have time with my family. We live out on a vineyard, we go for hikes, we go to the Hawkes Bay Farmer’s Market, we go to Ocean Beach, we don’t spend time in traffic, we don’t have stressful commutes, etc. I’m able to focus on what’s important: my family and making great wine.
What do you imagine the future is for your daughter having being born in New Zealand to American and Italian parents.
As for my daughter, we will raise her here and do the best we can. And with 3 great passports, she’ll have plenty of options. But I do foresee her spending some time in Italy and America. I think it will make her a strong and interesting person. The world is smaller these days anyway. But right now, we’ve got plenty on our plate and we’re just trying to enjoy the ride.
Do you see your own vineyard in the future with your name at the gate?
I’ve never wanted to own a vineyard. So far that plan has worked for my business. I’m better making the wine and marketing it. New Zealand has plenty of great farmers. I think I can help bring their hard work to the rest of the world.
Any advice for others about taking a journey into winemaking?
Be ready to work hard and not make much money, certainly for a very long time. They say ‘time makes the wine’. Well time also makes the wine business and the wine career. Just hang in there and try to work with people who have a mindset like yours and are passionate.
And life in New Zealand in 3 words?
Pure, Raw, Free