Wednesday, 07 February 2018 13:02

Crazy career choice is a winner

Written by  Tessa Nicholson
Kelsey Daniels. Kelsey Daniels.

There are times when Kelsey Daniels has to pinch herself. Not surprising given the last six months.

In the last six months, Daniels has become a New Zealand resident, purchased a house on the same day she came second in the Tonnellerie de Mercurey South Island Young Winemaker of the Year, and a month later she took out the national title. This 27-year-old assistant winemaker at VinLink has never done things by halves, and 2017 is proving that.

Even her rise to the top of the New Zealand winemaking echelon is a story in itself. Californian by birth, she knew nothing about wine, her parents didn’t even drink it. Showing skills in both science and literature, Daniels head was turned in her last year of high school, during a chemistry project. The students had to shadow a professional over a six-month period. While her classmates chose doctors, dentists or optometrists to follow, Daniels decided to shadow a local winery laboratory technician. For a 16-year-old who had never set foot in a winery before, the sensory overload was not what she was expecting.

“There were all these amazing smells and shiny tanks and everyone was so intelligent and hip. It looked like a really cool place to work and a different kind of career.”

The visit created a conundrum – should she go to UC Berkley and follow a writing career, or maybe go to UC Davis and become a winemaker? 

“I went with a gut feeling and decided on winemaking. My parents thought I was crazy – they thought ‘wow that came out of left field’, but are always incredibly supportive.”

Undertaking the four-year course in just three years, meant she got to take a year off to study overseas. Firstly, she went to Italy to learn Italian and Art History, and then came to New Zealand to undertake some winemaking papers at Lincoln University. 

She will never forget her arrival in this part of the world, given it was less than 24 hours before a 6.1 earthquake devastated parts of Christchurch, including the University. 

“I live in California and have experienced earthquakes – but that was like – welcome to New Zealand.”

It didn’t put her off though, as she headed back to America, completed her degree, gained an internship at Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande and then began looking for jobs back in New Zealand.

It was 2013 when she arrived in Marlborough to take up a position at Sugar Loaf Winery, a company that produces its own label and provides contract winemaking facilities. It was the perfect scenario for the young winemaker.

“It was the biggest winemaking growth spurt for me, as they made their own wines and had clients. It was very full on, a great place to learn.”

While she took time out to undertake a vintage in Germany with her favourite variety Riesling, she came back to Sugar Loaf as an assistant winemaker in 2014. 

After harvest 2015, she travelled overseas with her partner Paul Chambers, undertaking vintages in Oregon and McLaren Vale. When Paul was offered a job as a brewer at Moa Brewing Company in Marlborough, Daniels was ecstatic – she could come back to Marlborough. Since July last year, she has been the assistant winemaker at VinLink, a contract winemaking facility in the heart of the region.

One year later she is now the holder of the title of Tonnellerie de Mercurey New Zealand Young Winemaker of the Year and weeks after winning, she is still buzzing. Not least because she never thought she stood a chance.   

Take the South Island competition, held on August 25. As mentioned earlier that was the day hers and Paul’s first home was being finalised. 

“So in between modules, I was on the phone to the lawyer making sure that the bank had come through and everything was happening.” 

Lots besides winemaking was going through her mind that day.

She didn’t win, although coming in second was just as good as a first she says. 

“I was surprised when I came in second in the South Islands. You know, I felt like I had already won, I had already done better than I thought I would. 

“But then I thought I have to step up my game for the finals, ramp up what I study and how I study.”

With that as her focus, it is understandable that her belongings in her new home remained boxed up. “I had no time to unpack, I was forever studying.”

The first competition had shown her weaknesses, she says, in areas such as marketing.

“I knew it was going to be hard as I have never had any wine marketing background. I have never had to sell a wine to a panel of judges, so that was new. Then in the knowledge module, I thought I knew that, but there were some sections that I hadn’t gone over, like microbiology.”

With the finals a huge step up from the regionals, Daniels describes the day as “probably the most stressful things I have done in my life. I wasn’t alone, but I was the loud American that would come out of a module and go, ‘oh man that was tough.’ I had no qualms about saying that out loud, but I think everyone else played it closer to their chest.”

The one module that she says “broke” her, was the Capital Expenditure model.

“It was so hard, so tough. I walked out and thought, okay let’s go and take a five-minute breather in the bathroom. I told myself, you will not cry, you will not cry. It’s okay, keep doing your best, don’t give up.”

But if the truth be known, she had already decided she didn’t have a chance of taking out the title – so instead she concentrated on winning the speech section – an area she came first in during the South Islands. 

Daniels didn’t win the speech section, that was won by runner up Sara Addis from Hawke’s Bay. While that was a disappointment, it was all forgotten when her name was read out as the overall winner.

“I still get goosebumps thinking about it. I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t think what to say.”

While competitions like Young Winemaker and Young Viticulturist are all about celebrating those younger members coming into the industry, Daniels says there is a lot more to it than that. She believes she is a better winemaker for the competition, as it has pushed her to think about things in different and more in-depth ways.

“It forced me to study, and my critical thinking in the day to day aspects of winemaking is better now. And it has given me confidence. Winemaking has always been a crazy career choice for me, so it’s pretty cool to be able to say, alright, I know what I am doing and I can do it well.” 

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