“It was quite a journey. It was definitely not a straight line,” says Daniel Bell of his trek from the halls of Vandalia High School to the hillside vineyards of Napa Valley, California, with stops in South America, Chicago, Australia, Oregon, South Africa, and New Zealand along the way. What began as a quest for an answer to the question of what career path he should follow, ended up as an odyssey of self-discovery that has shaped the whole Daniel of today in so many ways.
A Fruitful Life
I really value growing up in Vandalia. It just feels like much more of a community.
His path begins in childhood. Daniel projects a sense of humility and self-assuredness that he believes is a result of growing up as the youngest of four. “I’m very chill, go with the flow, happy-go-lucky,” he says. Being able to observe how his older siblings navigated the waters he would himself later negotiate, along with the knowledge that he had a strong support system to prop him up when he stumbled, gifted him with the confidence to try all kinds of new things without being held back by fear of failure.
Fast-forward to 2011. Daniel graduated from Vandalia High School, and like a lot of his peers, he was unsure about his career path. One thing he was certain of, though, was that he would be attending the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. You see, “quite a bit of family tradition” almost guaranteed that he would end up at U of I. Daniel relates that a study of his family tree revealed that he is the fifty-fifth member of his family to attend the University of Illinois, going back all the way to the 1800s. One of his older brothers studied engineering at Urbana-Champaign and now works for an ag-tech startup, and his other brother graduated from Illinois with a business degree, and works in finance in New York City. He also has a sister, “But she went to Iowa State, so we don’t talk to her,” he jokes.
Not feeling comfortable slotting himself into any single job category, Daniel decided that a business degree would make the most sense for him, as the skills and knowledge he would acquire would be applicable in a wide variety of settings. Upon his graduation from U of I, he was still unsure of the path he should take, so he decided to take a radically different path and travel around South America for three months. When he returned home, he moved to Chicago, still without a job.
However, a college friend was just starting a new company in the Windy City, and suggested that Daniel come work with him temporarily while he figured out what he really wanted to do. The company was in the food and wine space, and as it turned out, that was what Daniel really wanted to do.
He began working there in inventory and purchasing, not having much experience with or knowledge of wine. “I was twenty-two years old, and suddenly put in charge of this company’s wine inventory, and I was like, ‘I should probably learn something,’” he says with a grin. He began reading books on wine, talking to people about wine and doing a lot of research to get himself up to speed. The more he found out about wine, the more fascinated he became by it. He began to become curious about how, exactly, wine was made.
To further his knowledge, he applied for an internship at an urban winery located in Chicago that uses grapes shipped to the Midwest from the west coast. It was this experience that cemented his passion for winemaking, and when his temporary job with his friend’s company ended in 2017, he began to pursue winemaking, full-time. Taking advantage of the way the seasons are opposite in the northern and southern hemispheres, and the fact that wineries need extra help in the busy autumn season, Daniel began to ping-pong back and forth across the equator, learning more and more about wine at every stop. From Chicago, he flew south to work at an Australian winery. When the busy season was over in Australia, he headed back up north to California, then South Africa, Oregon, New Zealand, and finally California again. He currently works for Vin Fraiche Wine Group in Napa Valley as a winemaker, as well as in the hospitality area. “I really enjoy the wine industry,” he enthuses. He acknowledges that it’s not the most lucrative field he could have gone into, but money isn’t what it’s about for him. “Everybody’s in this for the passion and the lifestyle,” he explains. “It’s a pretty sweet life.”
Though it may seem as if Daniel is every bit a self-made man, he makes no bones about the fact that he would not have been able to get to where he is without the love and support of family and community. “I feel very fortunate to have the support of my family,” he says. Being able to see what his older siblings were accomplishing helped him to realize it was possible to venture out and make a mark on the wider world outside the borders of Fayette County. “Having that inspiration and the role models that I did, was super instrumental,” he says.
Sports were a big part of Daniel’s upbringing, and besides his family, he has drawn inspiration and learned many life lessons from various coaches. “You learn so much through sports – collaboration, teamwork, and that mix of being aggressive, but having to set your ego aside and do what’s best for the team,” he shares.
“I really value growing up in Vandalia,” Daniel says. “You know everybody who walks across that stage [at graduation] with you, you’ve been going to school with them since you were four. It just feels like much more of a community.” Compared to his college friends who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, Daniel feels like his time in Vandalia schools afforded him a much different, and richer, type of college prep. His friends who went to bigger schools may have played one sport and participated in a single club, but Daniel was a three-sport athlete throughout high school, and participated in student council, yearbook, band and science club. “You can just do so much, get so much exposure, and I think that’s a great way to learn about yourself, to be able to dip your toe into all sorts of different things,” he says, adding, “If you have an aspiration, or an idea, or something you enjoy, try to explore that.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Daniel also believes that there is much knowledge to be gained – both about the world and the self – from travel. “Meeting people who are different from you, getting outside your comfort zone, and just kind of exploring… you get to know other people, and at the end of the day, you get to know yourself, too,” he says. Knowing one’s self leads to the confidence necessary to pause every once in a while and just reflect on what you are experiencing. “In that silence, and in that reflection,” he explains, “you kind of see different opportunities. You have to put yourself in a place to have those opportunities by talking to people, traveling, reading, and doing some research.”
However, Daniel believes, the next step – taking advantage of the opportunities revealed to you – is perhaps the most difficult. “You have to be willing to be uncomfortable and fly to Australia,” he says, referring to an episode from his own life. When he took that leap, he was quite apprehensive about flying off to a foreign country, never having been there before and not knowing anyone who lived there. “But, that was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had,” he asserts. “Being able to say ‘why not?’ and just do it – for some people, that’s easier, but I know for some people it’s a little more challenging,” Daniel says. But taking on that challenge opens one up to the possibility of so many rewards. After all, the cliché “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is a cliché, at least in part, because there’s truth to it. And sometimes, rather than being a setback, failure can launch a person forward into successes that they would not have achieved if they had not been willing to fail first. “It’s okay not to know what’s next, and it’s okay to not succeed at first,” Daniel counsels, “because that’s where you learn about yourself, and you see those opportunities that you wouldn’t have seen before.”
Some might call it introspection, others might see it as a kind of self-confidence. Both are right of course, but to hear Daniel tell it, one cannot help but think of his success as being inseparable from who he is and where he was made. #VandalStrong.