It is hard to pick what the most significant moment in Stephanie Maddox’s recent life has been - seeing snow fall for the first time or having the "aha" moment when talking about wine.
Both confirmed one thing for her though - Central Otago is now home. The native of Daytona Beach, Florida, more used to sun and long sandy beaches, is now a self-confessed winter girl - skiing during the day and working hospitality at night.
Which works well for her other passion - winemaking.
But the discovery of winemaking as a career path has been years in the making for Maddox.
"It’s been a 10-year journey."
Back home in the United States she completed a degree in hospitality and international business before taking an opportunity to travel and work in the United Kingdom, mostly in upscale resorts and restaurants.
"I wanted to travel and I loved it so I didn’t want to go back to America."
She ended up in Australia working in the Barossa - her first taste of living in a wine region.
"I was on my own and didn’t know anyone so on every day off I went to tasting rooms, talked to people and that launched my love of wine.
Maddox then moved to New Zealand eight years ago, working in the Bay of Islands for two years before moving to Central Otago.
"I sort of fell in love with it and never left."
Maddox revelled in Central Otago’s wine culture and became involved in wine-tasting groups. But it was not until she had the opportunity to open the Lodge Bar and work with master sommelier Cameron Douglas that she had that "aha" moment.
"It was an amazing experience working side by side with him. One day I was talking to a table from the States and he was grilling me on New Zealand wine and regions, soils, varietals. At the end of that shift, I realised I was having so much fun. So I thought it was time I learned more about it. I was tired of just talking about it."
So she did some research, discovering she could do part-time study in wine-making and viticulture at NMIT(external link) while living in Central Otago. The course appealed as she could learn both skills, not just winemaking.
"Within the month, I was enrolled and I haven’t looked back. I graduate next year."
In 2020, she gave up full-time hospitality work to concentrate on winemaking, a process that enthralled her from the start, especially as there is always something new to learn.
"I love to learn and wine has infinite amount of learning possibilities. You don’t have to know anything about it to love it but the more you do like it you realise there is all these layers to wine, the more you want to learn about you can keep digging and keep learning. You’ll never know everything about wine which makes it a really exciting and a field which is open-ended with so many possibilities."
Eager to find out the realities of working on a vineyard she has done some work at Valli Wines and Maude Wines and headed back to the US where she did a season at Sonoma in California.
"I wanted to see how another "new world" country does pinot noir."
When she returned to New Zealand she did a stint at Valli’s cellar seeing the grapes she had worked with the previous season before they were made into wine.
"It was a cool full-circle moment."
She is also about to head to Oregon for three months to do a season on one of its pinot noir wineries. It is also, coincidentally, home to a winemaker Valli winemaker Jen Parr, an expatriate from Oregon, knows from two decades ago.
"It’s a small world when working in pinot. I want to build a CV with lots of experience."
Part of that was taking up the opportunity to learn to judge wines as part of the New World Wine Awards(external link) last week after her tutor made her aware the awards were seeking two associate judges.
"Getting into judging is so hard and competitive. It’s usually years before you get considered so to be able to have that peak behind the curtain and see how it works, network and see how the judges think about wine [is great]."
As Central Otago is home she is concentrating on learning all she can about pinot noir making but admits to a soft spot for chardonnay.
"Pinot is what we do but I love chardonnay and I think New Zealand chardonnay is underrated."
She hopes to be able to fit in a stint at a chardonnay vineyard in the Hawkes Bay at some stage and she is all for the small but growing chardonnay production in Central Otago.
"If I could only drink one varietal for the rest of my life it would probably be chardonnay. There is a chardonnay for every occasion."
Her fascination with chardonnay is that there are so many possibilities in the making of the wine and winemakers have the ability to put their own stamp on it.
Long-term she hopes one day to be head winemaker of a vineyard.
"For now I have a couple of friends and we’re pooling money to maybe buy a tonne or two of fruit to maybe make some wine. More for fun and for experimental stuff."
Maddox says the transition to cooler climes has not been that hard after experiencing it for the first time in Scotland years ago.
"That was a jolt to the system but I feel in love with the seasons, having cool weather."
But no place like Central has ever tugged on her heart strings the same way. Especially as she had never seen snow fall before she moved to Queenstown.
"I’m such a winter girl now. It’s just magical to me."
So it is no surprise her plan to spend one year in the region has gone out the window.
"I was going to check out a city ... but now I’m so happy I stayed. I would have been miserable in a city. Central is unbeatable really."
Republished with permission from Otago Daily Times. Written by Rebecca Fox.