This article first appeared in Winepress magazine and is republished with permission.
“Wouldn’t it be great to be a winegrower? Those words were nothing more than a throwaway comment, made by the father of a young Chloe Gabrielsen as he sipped his usual glass of wine one evening.
Gabrielsen didn’t realize it at the time, but those words, like seeds, lay dormant for a long time before coming to fruition when she found herself back in Marlborough, many years later.
The Lake Chalice winemaker says that having grown up in Taupō and attended Turakina Māori Girls’ College in Marton, she knew nothing about the New Zealand wine industry.
Based on her parents’ choice of wine, she thought winemaking was exclusively Australian or French.
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For some reason, her father’s words stayed with her.
When she saw an advertisement in a newspaper for a winemaking course in Blenheim, she cut it out and saved it. But it wasn’t until she came to Marlborough ‘a boy’ a few years later that she realized New Zealand had its own thriving wine industry.
Never one to pass up an opportunity, Gabrielsen applied for a bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology. Although she didn’t take chemistry class in high school, she got a spot.
In 2006, after graduating the previous year, she phoned Saint Clair Family Estate to see if there were any vintage jobs available.
“It was daunting because I had worked a lot in the vineyard, but hadn’t spent any time in the cellar,” says Gabrielsen, who had worked summers at Ormond Nurseries while in college.
“Vintage had already started, so I was straight into it. There were a lot of blistering moments that first day. The team was amazing; I was just one of three or four women, it was very dominated by men at the time.
Seventeen years and a number of roles later, Gabrielsen remains at the Saint Clair Family Estate.
“No one told me to finish yet,” she laughs.
After a full vintage as a cellarman, Gabrielsen was offered the role of cellar master. Back then, the job wasn’t as big as it is now, but back then it was a big leap for her, she says.
“I didn’t feel ready, but the team was very supportive and I was always happy to take on a challenge and see what I could learn. I’m not afraid to do mahi, and I’m not afraid to fail or step back if something is too much.
After the birth of her son Asher, Gabrielsen reduced her hours and responsibilities for a time as health and safety manager, then in 2012 she took on a role on the winemaking team.
“Winemaking was something I always wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure I could do it,” she says.
“It’s one of those things you don’t know until you try whether you have the ability of your palate, or the ability to handle the workflow, or the imagination to dream up a great wine and the skill to create it in the cellar.”
In 2016, Gabrielsen expanded his winemaking portfolio when Saint Clair Family Estate purchased wine label Marlborough Lake Chalice Wines.
“That’s when I really started to learn the marketing side of wine,” she says.
“It was a big learning curve, being the face of a brand and taking all of my winemaking knowledge and transitioning into the market, rather than just making wine.”
One of the main things she learned was to be herself, she says.
“It’s very easy to look around and see other personalities and think ‘this is the kind of marketing I need to be’. But you are what you know, and once that I understood that and focused on being me and being authentic, it was easy to transition into this face-to-face.