We are both wine lovers and organisational researchers, curious about the factors underpinning the growing success of English wine. How, we are interested in finding out, in the short space of 40 years, has this industry developed from more or less scratch? The growing complexity and diversity of the contemporary English wine industry makes it difficult to highlight its specificity. This is why we have been speaking to the producers.
Our quest began on a snowy January evening as we left Leicester for East Sussex, down mud tracks in the pouring rain onto farmhouse kitchens. After drying out beside the Aga, our travels proceeded through Harry Potteresque train stations and along various chaotic country lanes. Finally, gratefully, we reached a sun-drenched terrace admiring lush vineyards in all their early summer glory. During the period we drank gallons of tea (just tea, we promise!) while taking in the trials and tribulations of those who have been there and done it. We met the pioneers and the new rising stars of English wine. We listened to those on the point of retirement and those just starting out. We spoke with those with 3 hectares and those with 30. Despite these differences, this group of producers was characterised by the drive to rise to a challenge, ‘to delight in making fine wines’ and to do so with determination and passion.
English sparkling wine is now served on British Airways First Class, the Orient Express and Royal banquets. It is also a regular feature on the wine lists of top London restaurants and commands a growing proportion of major British supermarket shelf space. All of this despite the fact that the industry continues to grapple with very particular challenges: its lack of history and embedded knowledge, questions around quality and reputation, not to mention the English weather! Responses to these challenges have led to very specific entrepreneurial behaviours, which have in turn led to the distinctiveness of the production and promotion of English wine. In its early days the English wine industry was resource scarce in every sense – money, root stock, equipment, networks, knowledge (much of which already exists in traditional wine producing areas). The early pioneers had to use what little they had to hand, developing specific practices which still shape the industry.
When we asked our discussants ‘what is special about English wine?’, three main themes emerged: a) the hand-crafted and artisanal nature of the product, b) its ability to reflect English fun and style, and c) the way in which it fits with the English preoccupation with the weather. One of our research participants told us how he saw his wine as artisanal in the Savile Row suit sense: ‘it’s beautifully made, it’s very English and, yes, it’s handmade, but it’s stylish and it’s quality.’ Other producers played up the English sense of fun and a refusal to take oneself too seriously, while at the same time producing a high-quality, premium-priced product: ‘Sparkling wine should be fun, shouldn’t take itself too seriously. We try and be a real mix of celebration and fun.’ Unlike much Champagne, English Sparkling Wine is generally single-year vintage, and a virtue is made of this, linked to the English preoccupation with the weather: ‘The British are fascinated by weather, so why not make a wine which reflects that?’ Another producer added: ‘I like the idea of the wine you are making is going to express the year that has just been; that every season is different and… I like that idea – let the wine do it.’
The practices described are creative ways of making the most of the context to hand and of simultaneously creating a social field and positioning themselves within it. These achievements reflect the product but they also require much by way of research, learning and experimentation. Validating English wine in the eyes of the consumer was one of the industry’s biggest challenges due to its relative lack of history, tradition and gravitas. The lack of the ‘cellar door’, local purchasing of wine habits, and the lack of a distinctive positive identity or image also made things difficult. The producers responded to these challenges by finding ways of drawing on other elements of English history and design in wine marketing, by working hard on the visitor experience and by playing up the uniqueness and Englishness. The industry has benefited as a result.
At an average of around £25 a bottle, English Sparkling wine is not cheap, yet at the present time demand outstrips supply: justifiably so. English sparkling wine is a high quality product, comparable to much Champagne, as testified by the increasing number of medals won in international wine competitions. But in addition to that, what lies in the glass is the handcrafted product of devoted entrepreneurship, bricolage, learning and experimentation – all of which makes it special and unique. Festive Greetings!