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Grape minds: Women at the forefront of Britain’s roaring wine sector

BY Joseph Phelan

1st May 2023 Food Heroes

Grape minds: Women at the forefront of Britain’s roaring wine sector

The English and Welsh wine sector is experiencing a period of unprecedented success. We meet the women heading up the vino boom and taking on wine’s big guns

We are an island of wine lovers. The average Briton, research suggests, drinks 120 bottles of wine annually. In 2020 alone, approximately 1.77 billion bottles were consumed across the country, with millions of cooped up oenophiles opting for wine as their go-to lockdown tipple. 

For centuries, we have been contented consumers of wine, happy to guzzle vintage vino from all corners of the globe. But, over the last few decades, a number of ambitious, entrepreneurial minds have spearheaded a wine revolution. Brits are now doing more than simply quaffing the best wines in the world – they’re producing it in record quantities.

"In 2022 the UK had a record-breaking year at the Decanter World Wine Awards, winning 151 medals"

3.2 million vines were planted in England and Wales in 2019, up from 1.6 million in 2018, and the wines being concocted are making waves globally. In 2022 the UK had a record-breaking year at the Decanter World Wine Awards, winning 151 medals, while in 2020, Dorset-based Langham Wine Estate was declared the world’s best sparkling wine producer.

The more recent demonstration of English wine’s increasingly stellar reputation came when British Airways announced it would be adding English sparkling wines — starting with Digby Fine English Brut NV — to its Club World drinks menu. Over the coming months, three more English wines will be added to BA’s most exclusive drinks rotation. 

The success of English and Welsh wine is a tremendous tale of perseverance, determination and ambition, but, perhaps more than anything else, its triumph is due to one key — yet often overlooked — factor: the efforts of women. Wine is a sector that has traditionally been monopolised by men, and while there is still a long way to go in terms of attaining gender balance — men still outnumber women in nearly every position — the divide is closing.  

In the UK, the benefits of prioritising a balanced playing field are being realised in earnest – women are pushing the sector forward, and showing the rest of the world what the future of wine is liable to look like.  

From the ground up

Compared to other countries, the UK's wine industry is relatively new, making more room for progress

“When I started out 27 years ago there were only three women in senior positions in wine in the UK. It was tough, I won’t lie. That’s not to say I haven’t been supported along the way, because I have, but I was constantly having to step out of my comfort zone in a way that my male colleagues weren’t required to,” notes Sam Linter, managing director of Bolney Wine Estate, and chair of WineGB, the industry body for wine growers and producers in Great Britain.

“We’re now in a position where that is essentially ancient history – every part of the wine sector has evolved, from the techniques and approaches used to grow the grapes, to how hiring and training is conducted. It’s night and day. Wine growing has gone from being a hobby for men with money to spare, to a viable, progressive, thriving sector. Women used to be invisible, but that couldn’t be further from today’s reality.” 

Wine, as with most industries, has a male-oriented history. There are numerous reasons for this — social and cultural norms, access to education and training, gender bias and discrimination — and while these hurdles still exist, they are, according to Linter, becoming less arduous to overcome.  

Linter suggests that one of the key reasons women are prospering in wine is because the UK wine education system has evolved alongside the sector itself. The UK sector is, compared to places like France and Italy, juvenile, and she sees this as a distinct advantage. “We’ve pretty much started from scratch, so we’ve been able to adopt the best practices, and forego the ones that are outdated or simply don’t work. That goes for the actual growing of the grapes, but also how the sector is run, the way the industry is structured, and who it employs.” 

"Companies in the top quartile of gender diversity on executive teams are 25 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability"

Linter specifically points to Plumpton College, a leading land and environment education and training facility, for playing a major role in this area. “Plumpton does amazing work,” Linter says. “It’s an establishment that has, for a long time, prioritised diversity and inclusion, and this has definitely catalysed positive change throughout the sector.  

“I’ve seen so much development over the past three or so decades. I don’t think many people can say they played a part in the birth and meteoric rise of an industry, so I feel very fortunate. Of course, in terms of completely equality, we’re not there yet, and there are various divides to bridge, but we’re getting there,” Linter adds. 

This last point is supported by Laura Rhys, master sommelier at Gusbourne Estate

“From my own experiences, I think the wine sector in the UK is a positive environment for women. However, it’s an industry that was historically very male dominated, and there are still areas where we need to work on diversity and addressing gender balance.”

The benefits associated with increasing levels of diversity and gender equality have been showcased time and again through both research and application. A study carried out by the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that firms with women in executive officer and director positions post higher annual profit margins than those without female leaders, while McKinsey & Company's "Diversity Wins" report concluded that companies in the top quartile of gender diversity on executive teams are 25 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability.

“There are a lot of women and men who champion women in the wine industry, and that’s excellent,” Rhys adds. “We’ve come a long way in just the 20 years that I’ve been part of the industry, but there’s always more we can do.” 

The new kid on the block

Elisha Cannon (pictured) is the co-founder of Folc, a sustainable English rosé company

The success of English and Welsh wine as a product is something to behold. It is a somewhat unlikely achievement, and one that, many in the sector would argue, deserves far greater recognition.

“The number of producers and vineyards has grown rapidly in the last few years, and that has resulted in a more diverse range of wines,” says Elisha Cannon, co-founder of Folc, a multi-award-winning sustainable English rosé company. “Although sparkling wine continues to dominate, there are growing numbers of producers shining a spotlight on still wines. It's also testament to our evolution that large Champagne houses like Taittinger and Pommery have bought land in Kent and Hampshire with the intention of creating English wines,” Cannon says. 

Grapes tend to prosper only in warm regions. England, which has an average daily temperature of 10.5°C, is not renowned for its abundant sunshine, and this has traditionally made grape growing a challenge. Damp climates encourage mildew, the vigneron’s eternal enemy, but with British summers becoming warmer, and growing techniques advancing by the day, grapes are acclimatising.

"English sparkling wines have been beating the Champagne houses at various competitions for years"

The number of wineries in the UK has almost doubled in the last two decades, going from 106 in 2000 to 197 in 2021. The UK is home to an estimated 897 vineyards, employs more than 10,000 people, and is expected to grow by 3.16% annually until 2027. The sector’s recent achievements are, it would seem, merely the opening chapters of a much longer story.  

“English and Welsh wine is a fairly young and very dynamic industry, but it’s absolutely brimming with creative, passionate and knowledgeable winemakers and vineyard managers,” Rhys says. “I believe that the UK is one of the most exciting places to make wine now, and I can’t wait to see what the next 30 years will bring.” 

Rhys’ optimistic outlook is shared by Cannon. “As with any blossoming industry, every year that it continues to grow, the individual contributors to the industry learn and improve, and also attract talent from elsewhere.  

“English sparkling wines have been beating the Champagne houses at various competitions for years, and our very own English rosé has scored higher at international wine competitions than the Provencal rosé powerhouses of Minuty, Mirabeau and Leoube. It’s the brilliant winemakers we have here that create a true expression of what we can do in the UK,” Cannon says. 

Slow and steady wins the race 

Studies show that companies with better gender equality enjoy higher profit margins

The English and Welsh wine sector is, undoubtedly, heading in the right direction. Its growth over the last couple of decades has been impressive, as has its dedication to comprehensively embedding diversity, but those in the industry are aware that its continued maturation will be reliant upon the very ingredients that helped it reach this stage: steady development and prudent thinking. 

“There are a growing number of top quality wines being produced, but – as we still have a marginal climate for ripening grapes – there is still a need to be careful in terms of site selection and clonal selection to make sure we achieve ripeness,” Rhys notes. 

And, central to this, will be continuing to ensure that the sector places value on diversity and equality. “The global industry is traditionally male dominated, and you will still find wine events attended by a male majority, but a large number of women have worked hard to create a very positive environment for themselves in the industry, and as a result have encouraged many women to join the industry,” Rhys says. “As with any traditional industry, the cogs can be slow moving and progress will take time, but the UK wine industry is evolving, and it’s opening up for everyone.” 

So, for anyone contemplating working in wine, what key characteristics and traits are required? What does it take to be successful in one of the UK’s most exciting industries?  

“Wine knowledge and tasting techniques can be developed if you’re prepared to put in the hours,” Rhys says. “Curiosity, determination and a desire to learn are the most important attributes required for a career in wine, as well as good communication skills and, of course, a love for food and drink of all kinds,” Rhys says. 

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