Daniel Payne: An ode to the Hunter

Image: Dirt Candy owner and winemaker Daniel Payne

Growing up in one of Australia’s most iconic wine regions seems to shape many into a life working in wineries and vineyards.

For the Hunter Valley’s Daniel Payne, this is an all too familiar story. The allure of wine, combined with growing up in the region, called for Daniel to start his own winemaking passion project under the name Dirt Candy.

Journalist Samuel Squire sat down with Daniel to find out how his involvement with wine started.

Daniel Payne, owner and winemaker at Dirt Candy, grew up in the Hunter Valley, surrounded by the world of wine, so it wasn’t long before he decided to make his own start in the industry.

He managed to work a few vintages while studying to become a teacher, but working those vintages quickly opened his eyes to the opportunities the wine industry could offer.

New endeavours

Daniel started making a splash in wine while working at Drayton’s Family Wines over vintage to save up some extra cash during his university study break.

“Growing up in the Hunter Valley, I was always surrounded by the industry,” he said, “but working during a few vintages whilst studying teaching really opened my eyes to wine and the endless opportunities that it can bring”.

“I was just the roustabout doing odd jobs and cleaning anything and everything. I also helped out subsequently working at some events and some social media work over the following years and volunteering in the winery as much as possible to learn.”

From working at Drayton’s doing ‘anything and everything’ to learn about the inner intricacies of winemaking, Daniel decided to start his own label with its name as an homage to the place wine principally comes from – the dirt.

On starting his label in the Hunter, Daniel said, “The Hunter Valley is a great place to live and work. It will always be home to us and it is great to help add something different to the region”.

He added that what started out as a side project from teaching has now become a lot more serious than what he first thought Dirt Candy might become.

“Starting Dirt Candy was initially done to keep my skills up after finishing my winemaking degree. It was a passion project and I entered it thinking that if it didn’t go well, at least we would have something to drink on the weekends,” he said.

“My wife is a graphic designer and designed our labels and website and we started by participating in local markets and on social media.

“Our first vintage sold out in three months and from there it all started to get a bit more serious.”

Definitively ‘Dirt Candy’

Making his brand stand out among the local wine scene was the main key when it came to naming the brand.

Aptly named Dirt Candy, Daniel says the brand is named as an ode, of sorts, to the ultimate origin of wine, and what it’s seen as by those who enjoy it.

“The name ‘Dirt Candy’ came about because we wanted to be different and stand out in the very traditional Hunter Valley region,” he said.

“When we break the name down, ‘dirt’ references the soil the vines grow in and grapes are the ‘candy’ being turned into our wines.”

Daniel reminisced about the first wine he made and the quickly-ensuing lessons learnt about SO₂ management in rosé.

He says that first wine he made taught him a lot about winemaking and to make sure that double and triple checking became second nature.

“The first wine I made myself is the 2017 “The Gamechanger” rosé,” he said, “I fermented Tempranillo and Shiraz juice in old oak barrels and I was super happy with the result as it made a fresh and textural rosé”.

“I learnt to double and even triple check when doing SO₂ testing as a faulty piece of equipment meant that I ended up with 200ppm of SO₂.

“This required some more learning on how to remove SO₂ effectively from wine and also to be super careful with SO₂ adds!”

Daniel said that making the Young Gun of Wine’s Top 50 winemakers list over the last couple of years has been one of the best achievements for him as a small batch producer.

He managed to score a top accolade at the 2019 competition for his uniquely-blended wine that mixes Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional and a handful of Traminer skins – it’s only fitting to have that wine dubbed, “The Little Circus”.

“It was an honour to make the Top 50 over the past couple of years and to win an award in 2019 was nothing short of amazing,” he said.

“To see the quality of the other producers and meet lots of like-minded winemakers is awesome, but to win something helps as a brand to give some credibility to what we are trying to achieve and also helps to open some doors that may not have otherwise.

“The thing I love about The Little Circus or any blend I come up with is that there are no rules. It is just myself and my wife and I am free to experiment with any combination of fruit and or technique.

“There is a lot of freedom in that and as long as I don’t send us broke in the process, I am free to come up with anything. I try to think of the flavours in terms of cooking more than in a winemaking sense and what fruit will balance with another.”

The fruit, the whole fruit and nothing but the fruit

Daniel admits that to start a wine business from scratch, as it is for others doing the same thing, is an arduous task that requires solid focus and compromise.

He said that even with the challenges it presents, it’s also a task that requires forethought as fruit sourcing is becoming something of an increasing challenge.

“Starting a new wine business has been very challenging at times. We are entirely self-funded and don’t own any land or a winery and so it has meant lots of working around others while simultaneously retaining full time jobs to help fund the wine business,” he said.

“The challenge of working as a small batch producer is that we are often the first to miss out on fruit if someone else bigger wants to purchase it and, obviously, production costs are higher across the board, so the profit margins can be slim.

“Although the benefits are that at times I can source some small batches of fruit that may be surplus to the requirement of others and I can often grab some friends in to pick these small parcels of fruit.”

Onwards and upwards

Keeping a keen eye to the future of Dirt Candy, Daniel remains adamant that he will continue to produce top notch drops, keeping personal taste close by.

Growing the business is constantly on his mind, but Daniel says the winemaking will always take the priority at Dirt Candy.

“In the future, I would love a cellar door and to have my own winery space, but the focus is to produce quality wines and the rest will follow,” he said.

“As we are continuing to grow we are looking to increase our distribution network to allow the business to further expand with the view to getting a cellar door and winery up and running at some point.

“Having three active children also adds to the challenge, but I am lucky to have a very supportive and talented wife who not only picks up the slack whilst I am out making or selling the wines, she also does all of the design work to make sure the brand looks amazing as well.

“If we went larger, then I think it would be striking the balance between any other mass made wine on the market and keeping the ideas fresh and interesting to keep the consumer coming back.

“I’m keen to play around more with some fortified wine styles for the future as well as have some fun with whatever takes my fancy each season.

“I spend the year researching and thinking about what I want to do in the coming vintage but ultimately I am guided by the fruit when it comes in from the vineyards.

“At this stage we have continued to grow year-on-year and sell out, but with COVID-19 and everything that is unknown in the hospitality industry at present, we will be looking at a couple of years of consolidation and see where life takes us.”


This article was originally published in the August issue of The Australian & New Zealand Grapegrower & Winemaker. To find out more about our monthly magazine, or to subscribe, click here!

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