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Meet New Zealand’s best young viti

Meet New Zealand’s best young viti

Name: Caleb Dennis

Growing up in Wellington Caleb Dennis always had an interest in agriculture. He had initially decided to pursue a career in farming but a cruise through Blenheim's lush vineyard landscape inspired him to consider the wine industry.
'I was going to do a science degree,' he said. 'But after driving through Blenheim on my way for a week of skiing I got thinking about the wine industry, the more I looked into viticulture the more it appealed to me.'
The 27-year-old Kiwi didn't skip a beat, he enrolled in Lincoln University to study a bachelor of viticulture and oenology and found a summer job to practise his skills in the vineyard.
Dennis quickly worked his way through the ranks to become the group technical officer at Craggy Range, a winery famed for producing premium wines from a variety of vineyards across New Zealand.
'I am based in the Hawkes bay, and I primarily manage our viticultural data collection, scheduling and reporting, as well as a number of other technical aspects of grapegrowing,' Dennis explained. 'I also continue to spend time in our Martinborough and Marlborough Vineyards.'
With enough experience under his belt and five vintages with the wine company, Dennis entered into the local Bayer Hawke's Bay Young Viticulturist competition in July this year.
Beating out seven other contenders to claim the title, Dennis was then faced with the challenge of competing against other regional champions in the national competition.
'I was pretty ecstatic to have won as it was the third time I had entered,' Dennis said. 'The first time I entered I was under a bit of pressure but I got the bug and the challenge kept me going. It's a great way to learn and also to make contacts in the industry.'
As the national final was hosted in Hawke's Bay this year, Dennis was surrounded by supporters as he competed in a wide range of challenges over three days.
After a series of practical tasks that tested speed, knowledge and skill, Dennis' final challenge came at the Bragato NZ Winegrowers Annual Conference, where he underwent a quick fire buzzer round of questions in front of over 200 wine industry delegates, before delivering a speech entitled Wine price slashing continues in key export markets - how can NZ survive?
Obviously impressing the judges throughout every stage, Dennis was named the winner of the event with Matt Duggan from Cloudy Bay coming in second.
Dennis said he was 'lost for words' when it was announced he won the national title, but luckily his colleagues from Craggy Range who sat in the audience filled the silence with a rapturous applause.
"I was absolutely delighted because you never know how you're doing in these competitions," he said. 'It was pretty daunting when I started the series of challenges but I felt comfortable in my abilities as we progressed.'
Dennis said the accolade has topped his career, naming it as his biggest accomplishment to date.
'I put in a lot of hard work,' Dennis said. "It makes people realise you know what you're talking about.'
Not only has the win provided Dennis with national industry recognition, he also received an impressive trophy, a one year lease of a Hyundai Santa Fe, a $5000 travel fund from NZSVO, $2000 cash and Spiegelau wine glasses.
With some time to spare before next month's New Zealand Young Horticulturist of the Year competition, which will see Dennis compete again, the keen outdoorsman said he was looking forward to getting out and about.
'I enjoy skiing, both snow and water as well as getting out fishing or hunting,' he said. 'I am also a volunteer firefighter with Havelock North Brigade.'
In fact, Dennis's first full time job was as a sailing instructor in Wellington back in 2005 after he had finished high school.
'If I wasn't in the wine industry I would either be a ski patroller or a sailing instructor,' he said.
Luckily, Dennis invested his passion into viticulture and said he intends to work hard to reach his career goals.
'I aim to be involved in growing the highest quality grapes that I can,' he said. 'Eventually I'm aiming to be running a wine company.'
Although Dennis admitted the wine industry has its challenges, he said the outcome depended on your mindset.
'One of the bigger challenges I've come across was being involved in the roll out of some end to end business software,' Dennis explained. 'I was involved in the viticulture module of this and there were a number of challenges in optimising it to suit Craggy Range, as well as rolling it out to all the staff and managers to ensure it performed as we wanted it to.
'But life is made up of lots of challenges, I try not to get bogged down by them but to keep on moving forward and looking forward to the next one,' he said.
Dennis credited Steve Smith and Simon Radburnd as his biggest influencers throughout his career and encouraged those starting out in the industry to acknowledge a mentor.
'Get lots of experience in different areas and ask as many questions as you can,' Dennis said. 'It is surprising how something simple that you have learnt along the way, and that at the time you think may be irrelevant, will be of use to you later on.'

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