Only an hour from London a delightful vineyard destination awaits with experiences to match other wine regions of the world. Vineyard trails and tours, tastings of award-winning wines, delicious local produce in the café, luxurious gift hampers, lively fayres and events – Vineyard visits Bolney Wine Estate and meets Sam Linter the driving force behind this exceptional boutique family wine business.
The Bolney Wine Estate story began five decades ago when Sam’s parents first planted vines and were one of the early pioneers of English wine. Sam now heads up the family business and has through determination, grit and embracing opportunity grown the small vineyard into a multi-stream business with domestic and international wine sales, and a top-end visitor experience. “It’s been a long journey and taken a lot of hard work,” exclaims Sam, “but I have been lucky to gather a good team around me over the years. My ethos is to learn from mistakes – and we have made a lot. I work collaboratively with others in the industry and observe what is going on around me – both in our industry and the wider world. At Bolney we continually aspire to improve, especially our wines, and are constantly benchmarking ourselves against those we think do better than us.”
Visitors come first
Tucked away down the pretty tree-lined Foxhole Lane, on the edge of the Sussex South Downs, Bolney Wine Estate is a hidden gem with something for everyone. Sam has been lucky to experience vineyard tourism in other countries in order to learn what works well and meets the needs of visitors. “Looking at what people enjoy doing and listening to our customers to find out what they want is important, as we have always tried to adopt a customer first approach. We have been prepared to evolve what we do and offer, as customer demands have changed. But above all we hope to break down barriers, so customers do not feel intimidated thinking we are the wine experts, and they are not.”
Locals already know that the Eighteen Acre Café is the perfect place to meet friends for great food and wine. “I think there are various reasons why we have such a loyal local following; we run fayres once or twice a year, we have our café, we get involved with local events and sponsorship too. It helps that we have been here nearly 50 years. We also run a wine club. But I think the key thing is that we are welcoming and friendly and remember people when they visit,” commented Sam.
The Vineyard Shop is beautifully presented and very popular with both locals and visitors from further afield. It offers many delights including the Bolney range of award-winning wines, the Bolney Estate Gin and Rosso Vermouth, along with artisan teas and coffees, and locally made Sussex produce, chocolates, charcuterie, and luxurious gift boxes and hampers.
Vines and wines
When asked what makes Bolney unique, Sam explains, “it is the site, every site is of course unique, but for us we embrace being in Sussex and what Sussex is – and our wonderful sandstone soils.” Bolney have also championed still wines more than sparkling and are especially renowned for still red wines. “We were experimental and started making red wines in the late 1990s. I challenged myself to create a quality Pinot Noir – when many considered it impossible. Over the years our winemaking has evolved to produce the national and international award-winning range we have today,” Sam added.
The Eighteen Acre Café has stunning views out across the vines. The original vines planted by Sam’s parents, Rodney and Janet in 1972 have now been replaced, and Muller Thurgau has made way for Pinot Noir (both sparkling and Burgundy clones) Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Bacchus, Rondo and Dornfelder. Bolney Wine Estate now has 36 acres of vines, planted between 2001 and 2012.
The Bolney wines are dry in style with a focus on the fruit characteristics. The sparkling wines are created from the classic Champagne varieties, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay – along with the rather unique Cuvée Noir red sparkling. The stills include Bolney’s flagship Pinot Noir, Bacchus, Pinot Gris and lesser-known, but exciting varieties as well.
With the closing of restaurants, pubs and bars during the pandemic, Bolney Wine Estate, like most vineyard businesses, saw sales disappear overnight explained Sam. “Also having to close down our café and tours was very hard. Fortunately, we had a good website running before the first lockdown and although it was mainly focussed on our onsite activities, we were able to pivot very quicky to have an online retail sales focus – this has been a life saver for us. We also put more investment into digital advertising and SEO, which made a big difference. Just after the first lockdown we came up with the idea of doing digital wine tastings – like many other vineyards – and this has been very successful for us. It also meant I was able to give some work back to our tour guides.”
Leading on exports
As the production of wine in the UK increases and as it builds an international reputation, export is becoming an important route to market for many producers, including Bolney Wine Estate. “It is slow progress and needs a lot of investment in time and money but will be vital long term as our industry continues to grow. We mainly export to China, Norway, Netherlands, Belgium and the USA. We have always attended Prowein, the major wine trade event in Germany, as we were one of the group of vineyards to start the English wine stand, and this has helped us a lot. We have export agents to help us find new custom and also work with WSTA and DTI,” commented Sam.
Sam and the Bolney team
Sam is the chief executive and head winemaker. She is passionate, innovative, inspirational, hardworking, as are her team. Sam is still very hands on in all aspects of her business, and as a fully trained winemaker, she is happy to roll up her sleeves and get stuck in at harvest. “I have a great team and I think you often employ people that have the same ideals and passion as you. Sam is joined by winemaker and production Manager, Michael Hayward and Assistant Winemaker, Tom Sutton. “Their unique winemaking style sets Bolney apart, with our fruit driven and linear wines” she said. Sam is also really proud that there are three generations of the family involved in the business. “We think that all of our employees are a part of our extended family – we have a friendly and dedicated team.
“In addition to our current team, we are hoping to have more customer facing staff once we are open again. We also plan to bring in even more expertise into the business, across production and operations. With our fabulous new winery, we now have the ability to make more wine under contract for other vineyards, that will be our next focus.
“We have always been a business that is very inclusive and this year we will look at how our business can attractive a more diverse range of staff as our vision is to continue to grow our destination experience and customer numbers to our vineyard. We will also continue to grow our production and sales – but we will always remain a family premium boutique business,” added Sam.
Despite her parents having a vineyard, Sam’s first choice of career was in fact hairdressing. “I went into hairdressing as I was told I had to go to university or do an apprenticeship. I really started at Bolney to help my Mum out when I had our second child and was looking for a part-time job. Dad was trying to do the winemaking at that time and run an agency business, so I thought why I don’t give it a go. I studied winemaking at Plumpton College, and it went from there. Although starting all that with a four-year-old – and a baby – was not the most sensible idea,” Sam confessed.
Although Sam did not have any formal business training, she says she learnt the skills to run a successful business from anyone she could. “I like to fully understand things so ask a lot of questions. Collaborating with others in the industry also helped. A lot of trial and error – and when we could afford it, I also worked with a business consultant.”
Sam feels that there is a very exciting future ahead for Bolney and the UK wine production industry. “There is more consistency in quality now throughout the industry, and people are really passionate about what they do. There are a lot of great wines – and the world is taking notice. We have so much more to achieve but we are definitely on the right path to continued success,” she added.
As a director of WineGB Sam shares her knowledge and experience to help the industry stating: “I want to do what I can to help the industry to continue to be successful and progress. I strongly believe in collaboration and how important it is to grow our industry.”
With a huge grin Sam said she loves her job: “We grow grapes and turn them into a product which people enjoy drinking. How cool is that.”
A chance to drink other English or Welsh wines is always a treat for Sam, but choosing is difficult, “there are so many… Fox and Fox Inspiration for sparkling at the moment, and for a red Hush Heath’s The Red Miller 2018.”