For all of its illustrious 47-year history Astley Vineyard has produced its own grapes, but never made its own wine. This was a task left to the professionals at Three Choirs in Ledbury, a large-scale, and lovely organisation who made excellent wines under the instructions of our predecessors.
But when we took over in 2017 we decided that we wanted to bring the winemaking in-house. This would make Astley completely self-sufficient and would open up a whole new world of choices, flexibility and control which better suited our small-scale craftsman approach to the business.
Using the traditional Haywood family “what-could-possibly-go-wrong?!” philosophy, we set about this task with enthusiasm even before we’d bought the vineyard. This madcap timing was mainly because of the availability of EU grant funding under the LEADER programme: a scheme which expires on Brexit. So the clock was ticking very loudly. We acquired the vineyard in July 2017 and were committed to have the winery consented, designed, built, equipped and commissioned before December 2018. And, of course, we knew nothing at all about winemaking…!
So we sent Bev and Chris off to Plumpton College to learn about winemaking. And we sent Tim in to bat with the kind folk of Worcestershire County Council (the administrators of the grant scheme) to learn about the funding requirements. Then we appointed Simon Day of Haygrove Evolution as our advisor/consultant/shoulder-to-cry-on. And off we set.
Step 1: what do we need?
Mind-boggling sessions with Simon to draw up the equipment list left us with a whole new vocabulary (mush, mash, racking, crusher/de-stemmer, diatomaceous earth filter etc etc) but very little idea about what this all really meant. Oh, and we also needed a building to put this all in. And planning.
Step 2: get funding
We wrote business plans and feasibility studies. We pitched the concept. We answered infinite questions (including, most bizarrely, on a conference call from Father Christmas’s birthplace in Finland while we were visiting Matleena’s family). We got a sympathetic ear from our local authority, keen to promote rural tourism. Then, happy days, we received an offer of the maximum grant available.
Step 3: procurement
This should, surely, be the easy bit? Oh no! Far from it! This is where it started to get tricky. Under the EU rules, we needed firm prices (on an exactly comparable, like-for-like, basis) from 3 suppliers for every piece of equipment and construction. And there were dozens of items. And we had very little idea of what we were actually buying. Or how the bits fitted together. And, because of the need to show best value for every item, we couldn’t just hand over the project to one supplier and get them to do a turn-key project for us. So Tim set about becoming a project manager. Time was now ticking even louder, but we couldn’t buy anything until we’d got firm prices for everything. Delay, delay! Finally, the last price came in. We got the green light, and starting placing orders.
Step 4: the building
Following the lengthy procurement process, we began building work just as the Beast from the East popped in and gave us the worst winter for many years. Our poor groundworkers battled through snow and ice, thought the worst was over, and were then faced with one of the wettest Springs on record. More delay! Then the building frame arrived and our lovely local contractor (a rowing friend of Tim’s, also called Tim) set about the erection. Then came the insulation. Then the electrics and water. Then the partitioning for the toilet block. Then the plumbing. We became our local building merchants’ best and biggest customer for a couple of months. Our car park was like a builder’s yard. We had more tradesmen on site than we’d ever had customers. Tim’s phone was red hot, and decisions were being made at machine-gun rate. An Adrenalin sport, this project management!
Step 5: the kit arrives
And then the fun really begins. A fantastical array of deliveries from all over Europe. Specialist equipment with very long lead times and very complicated delivery routes. The opportunity for Tim to learn how to drive a fork lift truck (five minutes before unloading tens of thousands of pounds worth of delicate equipment from a lorry from Lithuania). The rescue party sent out to find the Slovenian lorry driver lost in Stourport. The last minute mercy-dash of friends with a(nother) fork lift truck causing a lengthy 2mph tailback in the town when the first two forklifts had either broken down or failed to arrive. The near-impossible squeezing onto our car park of a 50ft lorry.
Step 6: now assemble your winery…!
And then…putting all the pieces together. The comically-useless Italian instruction manuals. The missing adaptors. The clever tricks to fit pieces together (thank you, Simon). More missing adaptors. The “What does this bit do?”moments. Yet more missing adaptors. And then the forensic cleaning of everything (dirt is the biggest enemy of the winemaker).
Step 7: gulp!
And so, on 6th September 2018, after a couple of tentative dry-runs, we picked 1.2 tonnes of Siegerrebe grapes and put them into our “crusher/de-stemmer”. And, do you know what? It crushed and de-stemmed! And our “pumps” pumped. And our “press” pressed. And our “must” is now sitting happily in our “Spiedel tanks” waiting to be “racked”. And we even know what some of those words mean, now!
So that's a snapshot of Tim's life for the past 14 months.
And here's what Chris, our future winemaker, has to say...
What’s the plan?
We say this rather a lot, but the main challenge of acquiring an established business is both staying true to what you are known for (quality still wines) whilst also realising what can be improved. In the short term our aim is to simply (or not) keep producing quality wines. Nothing overly fancy. Just safe, and good. However, the family motto is a loud and persistent voice in the back of our heads, and so as we grow ever more confident, we will begin to slowly put our own stamp on what we produce.
What does that mean?
Living on such a beautiful and ecologically diverse estate, nature and sustainability is always on our minds. As such, we would like this to translate (somewhat) into our wines. That doesn’t mean we will go full no-intervention, no sulphites as that is a rather risky game to play when your livelihood depends on it. We will, however, shift the balance ever so slightly more in this direction to allow the vineyard to speak for itself. Good wine is made in the vineyard, not the winery.
Another intention of ours is to embrace our boutique, niche size, and release wines that are suitably interesting for our customers (and also ourselves!). Maybe we’ll release a couple of hundred bottles of an experimental, one-off wine. Maybe we’ll release a wine with lots of bottle aging. Maybe there will be a ‘wild ferment’ release. We might even go so far as an orange/skin contact wine.
But who knows. This is just the start of our story here at the vineyard, and there is a lot still to do, and even more still to learn.
Whatever happens, it's all very exciting.