The road less travelled...
Henners new estate manager and winemaker, Collette O’Leary, took some time out from the vineyard to chat about tractors, philosophy and the future of English wine…
Collette’s journey to Henners hasn’t been entirely straightforward. She didn’t start her career in the world of wine, in fact she spent several years working for PR agencies in London before realising in 2010 that it wasn’t where she wanted to be: “It sounds like a cliché, but I had an epiphany; I’d travelled a lot, done a lot of wine tasting and I realised that being near a vineyard was my ‘happy place’.”
After graduating from Plumpton College in 2014, Collette did some more travelling, going to California and South Africa to continue her winemaker training. England called her home, however, and she worked at another vineyard in Sussex as assistant winemaker for four years before hearing about Henners: “Meeting Eric and hearing about the vision, and the team that sits behind it…I was ready for the challenge and I felt that it was an amazing opportunity and an exciting time to be joining.”
So, what is it about winemaking that Collette loves so much?
“It’s an amazing combination of hands-on [work], nature, science and art… You can’t really put your finger on exactly what it is. Every day’s a challenge and every vintage brings something new, which is reflected differently in the finished wine. Obviously, there are days when you’re wet and dirty and tired, your feet hurt and your hands are chapped, but it’s amazing and a real buzz!”
Although she’s been at Henners for less than a year, there are big developments coming and her excitement about the winery is tangible: “It’s so different from what I did before… There’s only Colm and me at the vineyard, so we do everything. From pruning, through to bottling, through to hand-applying the tabs over the top of the Native Grace bottles. We do it all, and that’s quite unusual.”
The road ahead…
So, what does the future hold for English wine, according to Collette?
“It’s a really exciting time to be in the industry. There is so much growth going on; I think there were a million vines planted last year and over a million being planted this year*, it’s phenomenal. We’re also getting better at understanding how to grow grapes in our climate, how to get better quality grapes even in difficult years, and how to match the varieties and the clones to the soil and the conditions. The skills coming into the industry are immense, so the quality is only going to improve.”
But it’s not all that easy either; the idea of English wine has been the butt of viticultural jokes for decades and overcoming that stigma will be key to the survival and success of the industry. “English wine will not survive if it’s just a pity purchase or a novelty purchase. People won’t come back and buy another bottle if the wine inside isn’t great.”
With that in mind, what is her philosophy when it comes to winemaking?
“You obviously need good grapes to start with and my general aim is to intervene with the wine as little as possible, so that the finished wine is a true expression of where the grapes were grown. In the end you want to enjoy what you’re making, and I think you can taste that in the glass.”
Having come into the industry a bit later in life, does she have any advice for those looking to join the world of wine?
“Do it! It’s never too late. I came at it in my thirties from a background in PR, so it wasn’t a natural career trajectory. Getting hands-on experience is probably the best thing you can do; the idea of being a winemaker seems very romantic, but when you’re in the middle of harvest and the grapes keep coming, that’s when you realise whether you really do love it or not.”
Was it a big learning curve?
“Definitely! Learning to drive a tractor was my biggest learning curve. I’m not naturally a practical person, so learning to get my head around the sheer practicalities of working with machinery was big!”
We are thrilled that Collette made the decision to jump on the winemaking learning curve, and more so that she has now joined Henners; her enthusiasm for the winery and the region as a whole matches perfectly with our excitement for the future.
There’s just one more thing we need to know first: does she have a party trick?
“No, I don’t have one and I wish I did! I’m enormously jealous of those who do.”
We’ll keep you updated on any developments there…
*According to GB Wines statistics 1 million vines were planted in the UK in 2017, 1.6 million in 2018 and they predict that another 2 million will be planted in 2019.”