Saved by the Decibel
[As published in March/April BayBuzz magazine.]
Daniel Brennan was born in New York and grew up in a part of Philadelphia known as Southern New Jersey, or as the locals say, South Jersey. He’d been living in the city, right near the Philadelphia Art Museum (remember the steps Rocky Balboa ran up?) for about 7 years, working at his family’s restaurant and taverna when he was first introduced to New Zealand wines.
It was love at first sip. He couldn’t shake it and had to have more. So after hefty research, lots of consideration, and harnessing the spirit of his great grandfather, Michelino Rodolico (a winemaker and barrel maker who travelled from Sicily to America to follow his dreams) Daniel flew to Hawke’s Bay to study Wine Science and Viticulture at EIT.
He did pretty well. Well enough to land work as an assistant winemaker to Jason Stent at Paritua Vineyards in Bridge Pa. That’s where I first met him, while filming a story for my wine show Thirsty Work back in 2014. We connected over a shared history in the music industry, a love of podcasts and both having changed tack to carve out careers in wine.
Today Daniel has his own business, Decibel Wines, which recently opened up Hastings’ first dedicated urban cellar door on the corner of Heretaunga St East and Warren Street South. It’s a city cellar door because Daniel, or ‘Decibel Dan’ as he’s become known, doesn’t own vineyards or a winery.
“I decided instead to partner with some superb growers in Hawke’s Bay and the Wairarapa to source my fruit, then I work with a team of good friends and trusted colleagues on the winemaking side,” Dan explains. “So that means, in any given vintage, I’m making my wines at about three different wineries and I’m often driving around between them, checking on ferments, preparing for bottling, or popping in to top-up barrels. It’s not that different from the norm, I mean any winery relies on a team to get the job done and so does Decibel.”
And ‘holy basket press Batman’, does he get the job done! Each year Dan will produce between 10 and 15 different wines, to release across his three brands. “Decibel is our core range of single vineyard wines that I started making back in 2009. That range includes Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Rosé, Pinot Noir, Malbec and now a Pet Nat.” That’s short for Petillant Naturel, a sparkling wine style.
“Testify is sort of our ‘Reserve’ range,” he says. “Those wines include a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir and a Malbec-dominant blend which I believe, in fact I can testify, that they are the greatest wines I can make and I’ll make them only in the best vintages.” Testify wines are on small allocation with some of Decibel’s distributors, but are mostly sold in the shop or directly online.
Giunta (pronounced JUNE-tah) is another range of wines named after Dan’s grandmother, Stella Giunta and her family, and they tend to be seen more in restaurants and wine bars. Dan reckons the rules for making the Giunta wines are somewhat loose. “Lots of fun stuff happens in this range,” Dan grins. “Some are one-offs or experimentally made, such as our skin-fermented Viognier or the Riesling. But Giunta also includes annual regulars like Malbec Nouveau, Crunchy Red, Crispy White and Pinot Gris, wines that have their own fan following.”
And the fans are definitely following. Stepping into the bright, cosy cellar door located in the very cool Albert Quarter in the East Blocks of Heretaunga Street, you’ll see Dan or his small team cheerfully chatting a regular stream of inquisitive visitors through his wines every day of the week. And if you’re passing on a Tuesday after 6.30pm and peek through the windows, you could spot him hosting one of his famous monthly, 12-person ‘Decibel Dinner’ parties. They’re a chance for Dan to open up his cellar and serve some interesting sips alongside a set menu devised by a talented local chef. Being social, hosting dinner parties, bringing people together over food, drink, great music and rich conversations is what fills his hospitality cup and sparks his joy.
Joy he also gets by working with creative people, artists, viticulturists, winemakers, musicians, graphic designers and even woodworkers to build the Decibel aesthetic. “Come check out some of the craftsmanship in the shop!” he urges.
Dan also enjoys employing left-field winemaking techniques and pushing the boundaries of style, particularly in the young, fresh, red wine space. “I’d also love to work with more concrete tanks, clay amphorae and large, I mean really big, oak vessels, but they’re pretty expensive and tough to come by here in NZ.” Would he build his own? “I’d love to build something like that but we just don’t have the craft workers here. I also can’t really preach sustainability and then ship a giant amphora or concrete tank across the world just because I think it would be cool to try it out. So I’m getting the word out now: Crafty local concrete folks hit me up yo!”
Most of Dan’s wines are either certified organic or are in conversion to get there. At the very least, they’re all certified sustainable, but organics start with baby steps. “I have a lot of empathy for the growers that I work with. Organics is a big undertaking that can’t happen overnight or on your own. So I endeavour to be patient and not too dogmatic in this space and I try to walk the talk by spending the extra money to support organic grape growers. I also try to convince growers who aren’t too sure about it, to just try one thing at a time, like eliminating weed sprays for example. It’s not easy, it’s a big commitment and I don’t take it lightly. Yet I think everyone knows it’s the smartest way to go, and some version of organics, biodynamics or regenerative agriculture is the future of farming.”
Speaking of farming, Dan is also growing a young family. On any given visit to the cellar door (which doubles as Dan’s office) it’s common to see his children quietly playing and ‘helping’, so I’ve begun calling him ‘Decibel Dad’ instead.
The wine business, however, is mostly a solo gig. “My beautiful partner Mara is Italian and like me she enjoys wine, but unlike me, it’s not her passion. She’s not currently involved in the day-to-day stuff because she’s a busy artist and a busier teacher; however I consult with her in much of my decision-making. She has awesome energy about her, probably coming from her Italian blood, and we’re hoping in 2023 she might have time to come on board to help a bit more,” Dan enthuses. “Our seven-year-old daughter Cecilia has grown up around this business and we have lots of fun experiencing this together. She’s learning every aspect of the process and is the future CEO whereas Juliette isn’t quite two yet, so she’s still developing her skills,” he laughs.
Anyone who meets Daniel will know he’s a cool cucumber, calm, cheery and generally unflappable. But as with all small business owners, especially when you’re working with nature, there’s constant, underlying pressure, tension and uncertainty.
For Decibel, shipping is the headache du jour. “There’s so much disruption on the oceans and in ports around the world right now and we have to keep a watchful eye on it. We’re getting the sense that things are slowly improving, but it’s very nerve-racking and slows down the momentum and growth necessary to be profitable,” he shrugs. “I’m not trying to be a giant international corporate or anything, but there are hard realities to the wine business. Many people don’t want to admit it, but below a certain level of production and revenue, it’s simply not possible to survive,” he adds. “That is unless you want this to be your ‘side gig’ or you have some other source of income. But not me. I want to do this full-time. So that requires a certain commitment to growth and issues like this can be very disheartening.”
According to Daniel, in order for wine production to make any sense, you need to make a lot of it. “I encourage any aspiring wine entrepreneurs to read the Deloitte wine industry survey that comes out every year. Those numbers don’t lie. Day to day, we’re just like any growing company, albeit with some unique challenges. We have to manage cashflow where, in the best case, we have a six month turnaround before we can even start to recoup our costs on a wine.” Six months! That’s almost as bad as being a freelance wine reviewer! And in the most extreme cases, Dan explains it can be years before he’ll see any returns.
“But we are growing, so we had to find Decibel a home base, a place where we could sell our wines direct to the people. We opened our tasting room and shop in 2021 before weathering the toughest year for hospitality that anyone can remember for a long time.” Despite Christmas 2022 and New Year 2023 being soggy and boggy weather-wise, the shop’s been busy and Dan feels a corner is being turned. “But I think it’ll be a few years, maybe many years, before we return back to pre-pandemic levels of off-season business, having an employee talent pool that can handle peaks in tourism and having the economic confidence required to pull many businesses out of the mess we’re in.”
Things might be messy, but living in Hawke’s Bay helps. “Days at Ocean Beach, hikes up Te Mata Peak, sunsets after a hard day’s work in the vineyard and peaceful moments in the dark corners of the winery are some of my favourite things,” Dan says. He thrives when he’s with family and friends. “And I love being part of a real neighbourhood on the East side of Hastings, making those daily human connections with mates up and down the blocks,” he adds. “Plus it’s great being able to talk to people from around New Zealand and now, finally, from around the world who visit our tasting room.”
But his real happy-place, Dan’s real pocket of paradise, is when he comes home each day to his cosy house on his quiet street in Hastings to mess around and play with his daughters. “There’s a lot of joy there. And even though Mara and I are busy, Hawke’s Bay affords us a happy, balanced life.”
So when he’s not parenting, tending grapes, making wine, working in the cellar door, away on sales trips and coordinating special events and marketing, does he have any hobbies or indulgences in those rare squeaks of downtime? “I play a bit of guitar. But I’m no musician. I mean, if you made wine in your garage would you call yourself a winemaker? I swim and do hot yoga, not so much for fun, I have to do it for my health. I’d rather play basketball but my knees can’t take it anymore,” he sighs. “I’m also a bit of a closet dork. My first degree was in political science and philosophy” (which would explain his considered, thoughtful demeanour). “So I read a lot and listen to plenty of those sorts of podcasts. What can I say? I’m someone who had an epiphany reading Camus.”
I wish I could say, dear reader, that I whipped back with ‘Blessed are the hearts that bend; they shall never be broken’, but I can never remember Camus quotes when they’re called for. “I love science and history and cycle through phases of devouring a lot of fiction,” he adds. “I’m also kind of addicted to Substack and all it has to offer for talented writers, free speech and creative ideas.”
And if he wasn’t making wine in Hawke’s Bay? “I reckon I’d be living in Italy, talking to old bastards in cafés. I once entertained the idea of moving to Central or South America to join a junta or something,” he replied. “But now I think I just want to spend time talking to people, hearing their stories.”
And that’s when a Camus quote finally came to me! So I went to offer, “But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?” But Dan had already left to serve some customers.