|'Brut Force With a Touch of Finesse'|
The single-most enlivening part of my time in the wine industry, without a doubt, has been the people I’ve met. People drive me. Their quirks, life stories, clothing choices, cleanliness, eating habits, accents… they’re fascinating. From high-profile sommeliers to legendary winemakers and writers, I’ve shared some amazing dinners, been welcomed into people’s homes, and popped some stellar corks at my relatively young age. Those who have made my experiences most worthwhile up to this point, however, are all the young people I’ve met during my stint as a ‘traveling winemaker’. Sadly, last week I learned that one of those bright young stars is no longer with us.
Niki Dow was a young guy from New Zealand I met last year during my brief ‘harvest’ time in California. He shared a tiny room in a modest suburban Santa Rosa apartment with some friends who were working at a different local winery. He was a seamless counterpart in the cellar. His constant, quick-witted grin was enough to make you laugh in even the most stressful situations, or elicit laughter in the calmest of times. He put up with the crazy antics of his Moldovan roommate ‘John’ who didn’t speak a lick of English, and even managed to convince us all that John was a good guy at heart, despite some of his outward antics. Niki lightened the mood for anyone who cared to share in conversation. His eloquent stories of his rugby days from college made me wish I could have spent time as a fit young kiwi bloke; I was stoked to get an old rugby shirt of his when he moved back to NZ, even though it had a few holes in it and plenty of stains from a tough vintage. His physical aptitude was apparent, and he seemed to be the type that succeeded in every task he took on. Nonetheless, he possessed the ‘Kiwi-Humble’ I’ve come to know and love; so overwhelmingly sarcastic and jabbing (in a lighthearted sense) upon first impression, but in the end full of compassion and friendship. Nik, as I knew him, embodied all that I’ve come to love about harvest. A young person, fresh out of school with the world ahead of him, when it was easier to find a fulltime, well-paying job at home and settle into normalcy he embarked on a journey to follow his dreams, better his craft and expand his world outlook.
With a number of vintages under my belt I’ve gotten pretty good at saying goodbye. We, as seasonal harvest workers spend so many hours together in a relatively short timeframe. Best friends are made alongside the wine, and when it’s all said and done, everyone usually parts ways and moves on to the next job. I have fostered some high quality friendships and kept in touch with a few people, but have also lost touch with many more I was sure to see again. The wine industry is so small though that you never know when you might one day cross paths with an old friend. I somehow figured that would happen with Nik so his passing hit me like a bag of bricks. Maybe it’s also because it could have been me if I hadn’t decided to stay home this vintage. Maybe because it’s a harsh realization of hope, so quickly lost. He was in Portugal working for a world-class Port producer, a job that isn’t given to just anyone. Only 23 years old, he was surely brimming with excitement and infusing the locals with his positively high-octane energy. They were surely challenged, yet humbled by his work ethic, so notable it has inspired a Facebook tribute group called ‘TheLegacy of the War Donkey-Niki Dow’. I encourage you to check it out.
After sorting through the emotions in his passing, I move forth with a renewed energy and outlook. I’ve reached out to a few old friends who deserve a better effort from me. I’m going to do a better job of busying myself with work that I truly love, push myself to physical and intellectual extremes, and be sure to laugh a little more often, knowing that today could be my last.
Cheers to you Nik! You will be missed, but your legend will live on and inspire us all.