Seduced by romantic Swiss vineyards Gail Gardner persuaded her family to plant vines, but her business acumen and multi-stream income model has led her beyond wine production to create an exceptional visitor destination and swish corporate facility at Ashling Park Estate. Vineyard finds out the journey from tranquil meadows to ‘hives’ of activity.
Ashling Park Estate is the home of Barrie and Janet Christie, and their daughter Gail Gardner with her family, who live in a converted Coach House in the grounds. “The estate dates back to 1822, covers 50 acres and was, for many years, peaceful meadows surrounded by mature woodland – until the vineyard project began. “We have now planted a line of trees to give my parent’s house some privacy as the vineyard develops,” explained Gail. Previously, the family business for 50 years was security systems, until it was sold. Gail with a master’s degree in marketing was with the company for over 20 years. Today the Ashling Park Estate business is still a family affair. “Everyone plays their part, including our teenage children,” said Gail.
The vines and wines
Framed by 100 year old oak trees, the estate is in a beautiful setting just miles from the south coast, near Chichester in West Sussex. It is tucked just inside the South Downs National Park and nestled below the stunning vantage point of Kingley Vale and the Great Sussex Way. The land with a sheltered position and loam, over chalk, soils, was planted in 2018 with 10 acres of Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Meunier, as well as Bacchus. Another 23-acre vineyard at Petworth is leased. The vines are in experienced hands with Peter Crabtree, who was vineyard manager at Hambledon for many years. Peter is also an old school friend of Barrie’s. “I managed to persuade him out of retirement to oversee the management of the vineyards,” smiled Barrie.
The vineyard site is sheltered and has so far escaped spring frost – even the late frosts of May 2020 when many vineyards were hit hard. “We are not too far from the influences of the sea, we have the lake, and are surrounded by woodland, and that seems to offer some protection and shelter for our vines,” commented Gail.
The vines produce a range of still and traditional method sparkling wines. Not being from a farming background Gail is quick to realise the benefits of expertise. “Our wines are made by the highly acclaimed winemaker Dermot Sugrue, at Wiston Estate, in West Sussex,” said Gail. “We are aiming for a long six years on lees and we were so excited that in last year’s WineGB Awards Ashling Park swept the board winning Best Classic Cuvée NV and Best Sparkling Rosé, we also won Best Sparkling Wine in the South East,” she added.
Like many vineyards during the pandemic sales were mainly online. However, Ashling Park supplies some world-renowned exclusive hotels and restaurants including Cliveden House in Berkshire, Chewton Glen in Hampshire and the Three Chimneys restaurant on the Isle of Skye. “We also supply local independents and farm shops. Exports are taking off and we have shipped wine to Canada and Japan so far. These are interesting additional routes to market – but not without the challenges of paperwork. However our business model really focusses on cellar door and visitor sales,” commented Gail. Along with the wines are a gin and a rum, both made from the second pressings by a well-known distillery. “The rum is called ‘Beagle Juice’, after our naughty beagle, and the gin is called ‘Pointers Pour’ – after our pointer. I like the sustainability of this project; using what is essentially a waste product.”
The wine experience
The wines are already winning awards, a testament to their quality but the business focus is not so much about the wine, but more about the experience. “Vineyards and wine are an experience,” explains Gail, “and we want all our visitors to encounter that experience – here there is something for everyone.” Gail is very much a people person, engaging and friendly. “We want to focus on people coming here to have an amazing time,” she said. Gail is also a talented, but realistic marketeer, and this has led to an inspirational business model, and seizing opportunities to create a multi-stream income.
The vineyard project is about a year behind, mostly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Gail explains: “It has taken four long years of planning because we are in the South Downs National Park. We have had to carry out many different surveys of local wildlife, such as newts and bird species to ensure we avoid impact but we are now close to finishing and although we still look like a building site, everything is coming along well. We plan to open fully in early May. The launch will not be a grand affair but, more likely, several smaller more intimate events – as I prefer to have a chance to welcome and speak to everyone.”
The newly built stunning two storey tasting room’s highlight is its panoramic view across the vines from the glass fronted gallery. “The space in the tasting rooms is versatile, so that during the week we have a great venue for corporate events, conferences and meetings. The conference space is full of, what I call, ‘IT dongles and dingles’ – fast broadband and everything needed to make for a professional conference facility. At the weekends we can focus on our tourists and other visitors, offering tours followed by tastings from the super-sleek infinity terrace – which will be like floating on the edge of the vineyard.
“We have just employed two top chefs that can create a wide range of menus ranging from corporate events and business breakfasts, to pop-ups in the vines and dining for the lodges, as well as food and wine pairing experiences. They will use the kitchen garden and local produce – even the wine yeast for the breadmaking.
“The gin room with its copper stills and the botanicals will be an alchemist’s haven, “This is a space dedicated to the gin making experience – a gift with a difference, a fun group activity, or the perfect end to corporate meetings or a conference,” smiled Gail.
As the wines are made off-site, and Ashling Park is not planning a winery, Gail has an ingenious plan to bring the winery experience to visitors. The new tasting centre contains a unique 360-degree room set up with a projector to provide visitors with a narrated visual journey through the winemaking process – including a guest appearance by the eloquent Dermot. “I am so excited about the 360-degree room and can’t wait to see it in action. As well as providing a winery experience for visitors, the 360-degree room has concealed hanger-style doors and reinforced flooring so that we can offer the space for corporate events, such as launches of super-cars. Video or film can be projected around the room creating an engaging and unique promotional experience for the companies.”
Always on the lookout for ideas, when Gail was contacted by a beekeeper looking for somewhere to keep his hives, Gail saw the opportunity to have hives, sell honey – and to hold beekeeper experience days with an in-house beekeeper. “Very soon 50 hives will be delivered, with their queens, to a dedicated area of the estate along with a purpose built ‘bee room’ with all the facilities for making honey and other beeswax products, such as soaps and scented candles. With a kitchen garden to be planted nearby, lavender and other bee-friendly plants around the estate along with surrounding fields of oil seed rape – the bees will be busy.”
The luxury lodges
The five charming lodges set in the grounds at Ashling Park are designed and built by Will Hardie of TV’s Amazing Spaces. They are one or two bedrooms, including a specially designed wheelchair accessible lodge. Appropriately, all are named and decorated after vine seasonal growth stages such as ‘Bud burst’, ‘Flowering and ‘Veraison’. “They may look like lodges on the outside, but inside the space is amazing, with roll-top baths, kitchenettes, cosy living areas with log burning stoves and top-quality handmade beds. They are sumptuously furnished, with silks and fabrics to reflect the seasons – my mother and I really enjoyed creating the interiors and adding the final touches – but I think the builders got fed up with us changing paint colours!”
Ashling Park is close to the famous sporting destinations of Goodwood and Cowdray Park, with motor sport, golf, horseracing, polo and other events. “There is so much activity in this region and we are perfectly placed, so we think that the lodges will be popular,” stated Gail.
The Portal Wine Club
Ashling Park’s wine club honours history and is dedicated to Viscount Lord Portal. Gail said: “Lord Portal was Marshal of the Royal Air Force and second in command to Churchill. Our vineyard is planted on the land which once belonged to his family estate and his crest, a proud feature of the house, also adorns our neck labels. The new tasting room will have a private dining room called The Portal Room, which will be decorated with framed letters from Churchill and Roosevelt, along with historic photographs. We currently have the Commander Club and Squadron Club, both with lots of benefits. But we will soon add a prestige level to the wine club, with exclusive offers, which I think we will call the Air Chief Marshal Club.”
Ashling Park is very much a family business, with a job for everyone – even Gail’s youngest son earns some extra pocket money weeding, while his older sisters welcome visitors and serve the wines. Gail is the Managing Director, but is supported by her father Barrie. “He is a marvellous mentor with unparalleled business acumen, he also has the honour of being the Estate’s chief tractor driver,” exclaimed Gail. “My mother Janet is a crucial part of the team and with her fine attention to detail she makes sure everything operates smoothly. My husband Matthew is our computer and IT guru, and is the brains behind our 360-degree room and high spec conference area – as I wouldn’t have a clue apart from switching it on and off again,” Gail added.
Along with the family, full-time and part-time members of staff and enthusiastic volunteers complete the team to ensure the business runs efficiently. “Chris Delves is our Business Development Manager, qualified to WSET level 3, so he knows his wines and vines. He looks after the trade customers, keeping them up to date with our news and awards, as well as sharing his knowledge with the visitors when running the tours and tastings.”
The wine labels, with their distinctive copper brushstroke are designed by Gail’s long term friend Sarah Partridge, who is now Ashling Park’s Creative Director. “Sarah and I met at a mother and baby group 18 years ago. When I was discussing our project a while ago at the London Wine Fair, I mentioned that a friend was designing our label and you could see their horrified expressions and raised eyebrows – what they did not know is that Sarah is a graphic designer by profession.”
During the 2020 lockdowns Ashling Park came to WineGB’s rescue when the national awards needed a Covid-19 secure venue to host the judges and conduct the blind tastings. “We were able to offer well ventilated space, ideal for social distancing, and separate facilities for the judges. It was a pleasure to host the judging – and we will be delighted to host the event again this year while restrictions are still in place,” said Gail.
Gail continues to buzz with ideas for future development of the visitor experiences. “We would like to add jazz or opera in the vines – and bring in electric bikes for wine trails. We will develop our corporate business to offer the tasting rooms, lodges and other facilities for conferences and sponsorship events, especially as we are so close to Goodwood or Cowdray Park – and we even have a helicopter landing pad if needed.
“We will continue to encourage visitors to our local area and we are now part of Sussex Modern, a collaborative group promoting contemporary art, ancient landscapes and innovative winemaking all here in Sussex. We want to champion our region and we are one of the first wines to qualify for the new Sussex PDO.”
Spare time is in short supply for the busy family at Ashling Park. Gail concluded: “We all love to ski and luckily this falls during winter, a slightly quieter time of the year – we will be in Verbier when we can. If we find the time to get together for a drink, then what can I say – we enjoy any of the wines made by Dermot.”