From Delran to New Zealand: How Daniel Brennan Found His Way to Winemaking

The Jersey native discusses the road that led him to starting his own wine label, Decibel Wines, in 2009.

Delran native Daniel Brennan of Decibel Wines in Hawke’s Bay, where he makes wine. Photo by Rakai Karaitiana

Decibel Wines winemaker Daniel Brennan went all the way from Delran (in Burlington County) to Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand to pursue his life’s calling. But don’t get him wrong—he loves being from Jersey. “It’s a badge of honor,” he says.

Brennan grew up in the restaurant business—his great grandfather was a Sicilian winemaker named Miguel Rodolico and his family still owns Philadelphia’s McCrossen’s Tavern. Like a lot of restaurant family kids, Brennan worked his way up over the years from bus boy to bartender to wine-loving GM (“I was the guy always grabbing the funky, interesting wines.”) Unlike a lot of restaurant family kids, Brennan went on to manage a band for five years, traveling with Seeking Homer while they toured the world with acts like Blues Traveler and the Dave Matthews Band.

Though Brennan did ultimately dedicate his life to wine, founding Decibel in 2009, he continues to foster connections between music and wine, from the idiosyncrasies of expression to the surprising power of restraint to the need to turn the variety volume up (the right way). We caught up with Brennan, who’s currently enjoying spring (and celebrates something called Kiwisgiving in May), to ask about the journey to his own wine label, what to expect in a Decibel bottle, and where we can find him and his wines this Christmas season.

Table Hopping: You come from a hospitality background, correct? And have a winemaker great-grandfather?
Daniel Brennan: Yes! My great-grandfather Miguel Rodolico was a winemaker and cooper. He emigrated from Sicily. We’re actually meeting up with some of my mother’s cousins to talk about him when I come home for Christmas. And the restaurant’s been in the family since Prohibition—McCrossen’s Tavern. I pretty much came of age there.

TH: You also managed a band called Seeking Homer for five years, but eventually found your way back to wine?
DB: Around that same time as we were winding down with the band, I was getting more and more into wine, taking classes at the Wine School in Philadelphia. That was the first time I realized I had a palate. And that last year-and-a-half [with the band], their touring was slowing down and my work in the restaurant and with wine was increasing. I started doing a wine program, hosting monthly wine tastings.

Winemaker and music lover Daniel Brennan combining his passions in Hawke’s Bay. Photo courtesy of Rakai Karaitiana

TH: How did you get all the way to New Zealand?
DB: I was doing these tastings and really trying to build our wine list and get people more into wine, and there were a lot of interesting wines coming into America then. It was the real first or second wave of great New Zealand wine. I’d done a New Zealand tasting and was just blown away, but was having trouble finding other New Zealand wines. I didn’t just want sauvignon blanc. I also knew I didn’t want to be running the restaurant forever. I basically made the decision and didn’t tell anybody: I applied to wine schools around the world and got into this one in Hawke’s Bay, the Eastern Institute of Technology in 2007.

TH: You founded Decibel in 2009. Was a winery always part of your plan?
DB: My original thought was be like a négociant or importer. And I wanted to learn winemaking so I understood what these guys were doing, but honestly at the time I couldn’t possibly fathom being a winemaker. I didn’t know you could do that. I literally wasn’t something I thought you could do. But my very first harvest here, I met this winemaker called Jenny Dobson. She’s still my mentor to this day. I’d strategically gotten a job at this winery restaurant where she worked; within a week she pulled me into the winery and I was addicted right away. I made a chardonnay and a bit of malbec in 2008. I remember thinking “I’ll do this every year for the rest of my life. I’ll make wine every year for the rest of my life.” And I have.

TH: Speaking of making wine, your selection at ranges from something like the rarified “Testify” label Gimblett Gravels vintage malbec to the arguably “fruit-bomb” stereotype-busting New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Is there a common thread?
DB: I am making a lot of different wines, yes. But the common themes are there: approachability, being true to varietal, minimal intervention. Varietal flavors can go way out of control until a varietal expresses like something it isn’t—a viognier tastes like chardonnay, for instance. The same goes for sauvignon blanc, where it ends up a big grapefruit bomb, too rich. Wine should be mouthwatering.

TH: You’re promoting a seasonal wine—a fresh red, the “Giunta” Malbec Nouveau. Can you tell us about that? It sounds kind of like the Beaujolais Nouveau style, juicy, affordable, easy drinking?
DB: Everyone knows the Beaujolais story. And it was always in the back of my mind that I want to do a fresh young red, and then one year a friend has some fruit available. This was from an appellation next to mine called Bridge Pa. I thought “What can I do with it? I have no barrels to age it in. I’m not going to blend it with my other Malbec.” A month or two after I’d fermented it, I tasted and thought “I would drink this right now!” The first we sold in 2017 sold out and we’ve sold out every year since.

TH: You’re stationed halfway across the world, but I have to assume we can find Decibel in Jersey?
DB: Absolutely. We’re available in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, a little bit of Connecticut now. Not all of the wines, but it’s really picked up over the last year. We have a great new distributor, which is great timing. People are really into wine here now.

TH: You’re far afield, but do you have any sense of the NJ wine scene itself, the producers set up here?
DB: I actually became really good friends with [winemaker] Todd Wuerker, down at Hawk Haven in Cape May. He was on my podcast years ago. When I did a harvest out in Napa, he came to visit. I really like his wine. I’m really impressed with the freshness and complexity. We went to his site and saw these ocean breezes. The summer humidity is really mitigated by these ocean breezes. It’s amazing.

TH: You also produce the Vintage Stories podcast, which kind of functions as a backstage pass for wine lovers, taking us deeper into the world of wine and winemaking with really cool people. Is it exclusively New Zealand-based? What kind of topics can people expect?
DB: No, no, I’ve talked to people in the states, French winemakers, Sicilians. One brewer! Though yes recently it’s more around Hawke’s Bay. This past year at the Organic and Biodynamic Winegrowing Conference in Marlborough, I interviewed a doctor of viticulture from France and a bunch of different organic and biodynamic winemakers. There were two guys from the largest organic wine producers in the world, out of Chile. So we did a whole series on organic and biodynamic wine. And in 2020, I’m going to do a series on pinot noir, ahead of Pinot Noir New Zealand 2021.

TH: Last but not least, you’re actually going to be home for the holidays. Where can we find you and your wines?
DB: I’ll be in the U.S. in mid-December, coming home for Christmas and doing some in-store tastings. On December 20, we’ll be at Sickles Market in Red Bank. And we’ll pass back through in January and do some wine dinners and things like that. We’re talking to some restaurants.

TH: In New Jersey?
DB: Of course!

Keep an eye out for updates on Brennan and the Decibel wine tasting schedule on the winery’s website. The “Giunta” Malbec Nouveau is available in some shops as well as online. You can also hear more from Brennan and a host of winemakers and talents in his Vintage Stories podcast.

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