I left Stowe in 1984 and, at that time, I would never have imagined I’d own and run a vineyard in the UK. However, careers and life take many interesting twists and turns!
My path out of university didn’t lead in this direction initially. The first twenty or so years of my career were spent working in the marketing departments of two large multi-nationals, first Nestlé Rowntree and then Heinz, spending much of my time travelling and living overseas.
It was whilst based in Singapore, some 18 years ago, that our initial inspiration for starting our own vineyard came from visiting lovely boutique wineries and vineyards in New Zealand and Australia. When we returned to the UK and my second child was born, I decided I needed to step out of corporate life and we moved to Hurstpierpoint in Sussex, from London.
Never one to be taking life quietly, I enrolled part-time on the BSc in Viticulture and Oenology at Plumpton College (which happened to be a few miles down the road) as a hobby at first. However, my initial casual interest grew into something much more serious as I became fascinated and absorbed by the world of wine.
As with so much in life, it’s all about timing. As I was completing the course at Plumpton, the English wine industry was just starting to take off. A combination of investment, quality improvements, and high profile international awards shone the spotlight on English wines and the growth and excitement that was building around the industry then is still prevalent today and I decided I would like to be a part of it.
Starting the Vineyard and Winery from scratch has been extremely hard work and challenging. I was by no means an expert and it’s been a steep learning curve. Setting up and running your own business is one thing, learning how to produce the best possible grapes and wine in the UK is more complex still!
This is partly because the UK does not have the years of tradition and experience of the ‘old world’ wine producing regions and we are different climatically from much of the ‘new world’, so you can’t simply cut and paste what works in one to the other. We are still learning the best varieties and vineyard management options to maximise our potential in our extremely variable and challenging marginal climate. We’ve just gone through two harvests that have literally swung from a 30 year low in 2017 to an all time high in 2018 – any business would struggle to handle that much variability!
Despite the challenges, we’ve had many great moments along the way like winning UK Wine of the Year in 2015 with our second only vintage and meeting lots of people who love and appreciate our wines.
As a winery producing wine only from our own grapes, we’re focused on quality, which we manage in the vineyard and the winery, and on innovation. We constantly look at new ideas and better ways of doing things – whether it’s new ways of pruning, using new types of yeasts and pressing methods to launching one of the UK’s first Vermouths in 2017. We have exciting plans for 2019 as well.
I’m quite unusual as a UK vineyard owner/manager, firstly as a woman, and secondly as one whose first career was in marketing. Whilst the latter may not seem directly relevant to the job it has been invaluable. From the start, I focused on the end product and what makes us, Albourne Estate, unique and special. Every detail counts, from how the grapes are grown, to how the wines are made to how they look in the bottle with our distinctive and beautiful labels. As for being female? I think the ability to multi-task (constantly) is invaluable!
I recall my time at Stowe, especially my teachers, with great fondness. Good teachers make such a difference. So my lesson in life, if you want to go into anything new career wise, would be make sure you learn as much as you can about it first from knowledgeable people. Find the best consultants (but don’t blindly trust them), study and research yourself so you know the right questions to ask and be prepared to get your hands dirty!
We would love to welcome Old Stoics to visit our vineyard, try our wines and, for those real ‘oenophiles’ amongst you, to get involved via our Wine Club – sign up to our Newsletter to be kept up to date.
We sell a delicious range of English still and sparkling wines (and vermouth) so if you are looking for wine for a special event or would like us to host a private tour/tasting, please contact me to discuss a special OS rate.
Alison Cooper (née Nightingale, Stanhope 84)