My love for wine
My love for wine started when I first went to Napa Valley in California as a young 18-year-old. I was mesmerised about the vines, the procedure and of course the end produce. I have always had a fascination with food and taste and different combinations and as a very young child asked mum to by exotic fruits and made weird and wonderful combinations so this was easily transferred to understanding the different grape characteristics and the blending process was something I found really intriguing.
After my year in San Francisco I moved to London and found myself starting a new job at a pub on King’s Road. This was the beginning of a long career within hospitality.
Macmillans wine bar
At 19 I become a young Manager at Macmillan’s Wine Bar on Fulham Road and was able to assist the owner in writing tasting notes. The tasting notes were of the easy kind as we had three white, one rosé and three reds! This was the beginning of wine drinking in England and one of the first chic wine bars to start a trend that has grown and now we even see wine bars in our villages. Our customers were affluent and considered wine connoisseurs but all they would ask for was sweet or dry white, so we still had a long way to travel to the extend of the wine lists today.
I had an amazing opportunity in my mid 20’s to open a wine bar in Earlsfield, South London and we also had a 90 seat restaurant. I remember going to visit the site and there was an old-fashioned Café Rouge opposite and a couple of old pubs and to say the least I thought I ended up at world’s end…. I was used to the hustle and bustle of central London and the trendy bars, clubs and restaurants in Chelsea and I wondered what on earth I was doing but hey ho onwards and upwards…
From print shop to restaurant
We turned the old printing shop into this contemporary restaurant with top of the range wines and a large wine bar with an extensive wine list and many served by the glass and this was the start of an amazing journey. To say that Willie Gunn became a family is the only way to describe it. We were a little community in South London that was so much more than just a great place to eat and share a lovely glass of wine with a friend. It was also a start of experimenting with wine and building wine clubs and moving away from sweet or dry and having tasting notes like elderberry, grass, zesty, chocolate and so on.
We were a young team and I must say that I had the best teacher I could ever had have – Roger Austin from Ellis of Richmond. Roger was in his late 40’s when we met and he was so patient dealing with a young Manager with little experience but a love for learning. He very bravely took the young team to various wine tastings and he was the one that taught me that nothing is wrong within the ‘wine language’. He always asked us just to tell him what we could smell, taste and feel and we had some cracking times! Roger had the patience of an angel and we remain friends – although nowadays I hope he is spending his time on the golf course.
The first introduction I had to English wines was not really English wines it was an English lady – Olivia Donnan. She had moved to France to become an owner of the magnificent Chateau Masburel. I swore that I would be like her one day – here I am in my camper van picking grapes in Wales – but needless to say – happy!
White Castle Vineyards Wales
The inspiration to this blog was really my excitement of interviewing Nicola and Robb Merchant – owners of White Castle Vineyard in South Wales. I know it is English wine week but I also wanted to spread it across the Severn Bridge and introduce some of the fantastic wine establishments I have come across since moving here and it has been really interesting to see how they have expanded to become recognised on the International market.
I first met Nicola and Robb 2010 once running a hotel a few miles away from their beautiful land. They had the previous year planted 4000 vines in May 2009 and I was fascinated. I had fulfilled one of my ticks on my bucket list and did a harvest for Ancre Hill vineyard that year and was so excited to hear about this hard-working lovely couple and another vineyard to visit.
At this time of my life one of my jobs was to match food with wine on our award-winning tasting menus. It is something I have always loved and I think it is one of those things you just know. When I have run courses and tastings I always say it is like a painting and once you can imagine the food and the different taste of the ingredients of the food you can blend them with the grapes and make your canvas. I was producing wine flights to match the daily changing wine list and we were lucky to have a Le Verre du Vin, preservation system so able to offer wines from across the world as tastings. I was massively proud to introduce the award-winning English and Welsh Wines.
As we are in lock down and going through this horrific pandemic these venues will of course also find themselves thinking outside the box and White Castle Vineyard held a very successful virtual tasting at home last month and I certainly would recommend you try this.
I guess we are all planning our trips away when we can go and visit places again and I would definitely make England’s and Wales Vineyards a place to visit. If you would like to meet some friendly people from all different paths of life why not volunteer and join us for a harvest.
Celebrate Wine Week
Many of UK’s vineyards offer the public to attend tastings, tours and voluntarily join them for a harvest. There are over 700 individual vineyards in the British Isles with about 200 open to the public. As we celebrate English Wine Week why not get together virtually with friends – buy a bottle and compare tasting notes – remember anything is possible within the wine language and there is no right or wrong.