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Interview: Collette O’Leary

Swirl meets Collette O’Leary, head winemaker at Henners Vineyards.

Colette is an English winemaker on the rise. She’s in charge of the small team at Henners, a stone’s throw from the coast in Sussex, where they make delicious English wine. We talk about her career switch from PR to winemaking and what English wineries could do to improve their communication.

Career changes to work in the wine trade are not at all uncommon – maybe it’s the romance of grape and glass! – but pivoting to become a winemaker is far more unusual. What inspired the change? 

In 2010 I went on holiday to visit my sister in Nepal when I was stranded there by the Icelandic ash cloud which shut down air travel for a few weeks. Nepal doesn’t have great internet or beaches to lie on, so for that fortnight I was really alone with my thoughts – which were increasingly centring around my work in government PR. I really felt at a crossroads. I’d been doing PR for a long time, but I knew in my heart of hearts that I didn’t want to be doing it in my 50s or 60s. Plus, with the financial crisis and changing government the cash for the sorts of campaigns I liked doing was drying up.

I’d done a sort of gap year in 2006 when I’d worked at a cellar door in New Zealand. It had quick started a real passion for wine – so when a friend pointed out that vineyards had become my ‘happy place’, the penny dropped. I know I could’ve moved into wine PR, but it can be really high octane, working deadline to deadline so sometimes you feel like you are chasing your tail.  I decided I wanted to work on something longer term, where you take your time, plan for the future and works towards its fruition and the wine industry is perfect for that because nothing happens overnight, you have no choice but to be patient and go with the trials and tribulations of each season. I came back to the UK and never looked back.

What’s been your experience of training to be a winemaker at a later stage in life? 

I’m a city girl and don’t have a scientific background, so winemaking was a considerable change for me. But what I do have is a strong work ethic. I’m tenacious, I don’t let things get to me and if I want something then I’ll work until I get it. I was in some ways an advantage coming to this change a bit later in life. Coming to a new profession later in life gives you a new perspective, you know what it can be like to do something you don’t truly love, so you don’t take it for granted. I’d also spent my career to that point working out what my strengths and weakness were so I’m very aware of what I can bring to the table – and where I need to ask for help. When you’re younger, there can be a bit of a reluctance to show weakness. When you’re older, you really have the confidence to admit when you don’t know something which is really valuable in a winery.

How do you use your PR/ marketing expertise in your new role as winemaker? When you’re making a wine, are you also thinking about the story which will appeal to your customers? 

Making wine can be such a challenging journey and you really are led by the fruit, rather than the customer when you are making wine.  It’s a natural product so it will do what it’s going to do, as winemakers we just try to guide it along. You can’t make wine with just your customer in mind because wine is a living natural product. The seasons will give you what they give you. To a certain extent, if you think you’re making wine to a recipe because you have a certain style in mind then it doesn’t work. It has to be quality and vineyard driven.

But on the other hand, there are quite a lot of small wineries who have the attitude that ‘this is how we make our wine; people will like it because they should’. I think craft spirits and beer companies have got the right balance. They don’t lose their integrity of quality because they’re also minded of a story or category which their consumer can engage with. It’s partly why we’ve rebranded in the past three months. We’re celebrating our approach as, for want of a better description, a craft winery.

What’s the one thing UK winemakers could do to improve their communications?

I’ve spent a lot of time at tasting rooms while working overseas so I really understand how powerful that experience can be. The thing about English wineries is that we are still smaller – so the experience you get is often more personal and exciting than you get at big, established overseas Tasting Rooms. Here, you’ll meet the owner, the winemaker. They’re not reading from a script. You are introduced to the wine by a person talking with authentic passion. When I worked at that cellar door in New Zealand, I delivered a lot of the tours and my experience is that visitors are sponges. They want to understand as much as possible. There’s so much technical lang used in the wine industry which, to extent, is used to keep people at bay. It’s part of a general aloofness around wine. It was typical that as we move through the winery people who always be saying ‘I don’t know’, “I can’t taste’, ‘my opinions aren’t valid’ – the job of a cellar door is to give people confidence. It’s also a great opportunity for us to change price perception. There’s been a move in the UK towards valuing provenance. There is a cost to quality which people are really understanding in relation to food, and cellar doors can share that information too. After listening to a winemaker talk about how hard it is to make wine in the UK, people go away thinking ‘how can I buy a £4 bottle in Aldi’, not ‘this English wine is expensive’.

I genuinely think that the more we reach out to people, the more they’ll buy into it and take pride in the fact that these wines are made on their doorstep. They just been to try it and be given confidence to stand firm in their choices.

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