Edging the picturesque South Downs, English wine producer Bolney Estate is a major fixture of Sussex’s rural economy.
Founded nearly 50 years ago – only the sixth commercial UK vineyard – Sam Linter, the founders Rodney and Janet Pratt’s daughter and current MD and head winemaker, took over the reins in the 1990s. What follows is a credit roll of award-winning wines and investment in production innovation with Bolney billed as pioneer in the English still wine market.
Their 2019 merger with neighbouring Pookchurch estate signalled the next phase in the stepped up production – in terms of bottles produced and variety, including a range of single vineyard still wines. The 104 acre estate is family-driven, female-centric and Eno-tourist friendly. We caught up with head honcho Sam – a recent addition to the Wine GB board of directors – to ask about her three-decade tenure.
Being a family business is a central pillar of the Bolney business. Family businesses tend to hit bumps in third generation handover – how are you planning to insure against this?
I think we are still a way off thinking about that. We’re currently very-focused on our expansion plans for the next few years, following our recent merge with Pookchurch Vineyard. Having said that, the family-aspect is very important to us, it is good to be mindful of our roots and we consider all of our staff here to be one big family. It is a part of our ethos to retain that culture as the business grows.
At present there is no current plan or expectation that third generation family members will take over the reins, but at present we’ve got two third generation family members in the team- one from the original Bolney family and from the Pookchurch family (Charlotte Linter and Pippa Wood). Who knows what our future will hold?
Bolney has a female-centric workforce and you’ve spoken previously about how you are particularly concerned with encouraging women to work in production. What has been your experience of the gender revolution in the trade, seeing more and more women getting involved in what was, until recently, a very male-dominated industry?
I think the revolution has been going on much longer than people think. When I joined the industry in the early 90s, yes it was male-dominated, but things started changing a while ago now and most people have been supportive of that. We’ve got some fantastic female winemakers in the UK and we’re seeing more women go into the Vineyard as well- our own Sue Osgood has been managing vineyards for 20 years. The real change more recently has been the press attention that women in wine have received and our voices are very much being heard and our contributions recognised. That being said we should not forget the important contribution men have made and continue to do in our industry.
In your capacity as a Director, how do you think English wine is perceived internationally? We still perceive English wine to be an emerging category. Sparkling wines (especially Champagne-style, highly branded offerings) are well established, but we’re intrigued by English still wines (which Bolney specialises in).
Yes, Sparkling Wines have been well-received for quite some time, thanks to the huge amount of prestigious awards UK winemakers have been winning for the past decade or so. But still wines have been steadily improving over the years and now winning those awards and people are starting to pick up on that. The main issue is production levels of stills are much lower, but brands like Bolney have paved the way and more vineyards are now looking towards still wine production as a commercially viable option. We’ve proved that we can do much more than make Bacchus- such as our own award-winning Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.
People who live in regions or countries with a winemaking tradition tend to have a keener understanding of the winemaking process and greater engagement with the importance of sustainable winemaking. Do you think that English winemakers have a unique opportunity – even, a responsibility – to educate consumers about the significance of sustainability in the winemaking process? We’re thinking specifically of the ‘waste’ products Bolney has created (including a vermouth and gin).
Yes, that’s a really important focus for us. We’ve overcome so many challenges over the years and sustainability is a real focus for us now and going forwards. Our winemaking process has changed over time to be as sustainable as possible and we have exciting plans for the future. We’ve incorporated waste products into our Gin and Vermouth. We continue to look at further ways to make wine sustainable. We have a member of our team as part of the WineGB suitability committee.
You’ve spoken in the past about how much you loved being hands on in the winery. If you could, would you return to this practical role? Otherwise, what would you change about your day to day role?
I’d love to return to the Winery, but I have to put my energy and time where the business needs me most. Unfortunately, running a business is not about doing just what you enjoy. What has been nice though, is growing and nurturing my winemaking team and watching them build on what I started and sharing my passion and knowledge with them. If I could change anything about my role, it would be freeing myself from days of back-to-back meetings! But I love the challenge of growing our wine brand and quality of what we do.
Your new winery was part-funded by EU grants. How do you feel about Brexit? How will it impact Bolney? How do you think it will impact the UK trade generally?
As a business we’ve always committed to being politically neutral. We appreciated the EU grant that we received for our Winery; it helped us push forward with increasing our wine production at a pivotal time for Bolney’s expansion. Going forwards, our focus will be on future-proofing our brand and a part of that is working with whatever challenges the current political and economic climates present.