During the lockdown, I have had time to think about the crazy idea that Stephen and I had a dozen years ago. How did it all come about? The truth is I shared a school run with another mum who lived in Coggeshall and five times a week I would drive past this neglected, run downfield overgrown with weeds adjacent to an equally overgrown vineyard. One day a For Sale sign went up and it sparked my interest, but after initial enquiries, it seemed like too much money, so the idea was put on hold. A couple of years went by and periodically I would enquire of the agent how the sale was progressing until one afternoon the agent said: “Make us an offer”.
We made the offer and within a few weeks that little plot of neglected wasteland was ours. The start of West Street Vineyard. I set about reading as much as I could find on looking after vines and enrolled at Plumpton (the only college where you could learn about viticulture in English) – I had fancied a uni course down under at Roseworthy but only fleetingly entertained it as when I had suggested it to the other half it was met with a chilly silence.
This may seem bizarre; why not just drink it? It is not essential to make it. I had always enjoyed wine. At 17 my lovely parents - in a vain attempt to improve my terrible ability to learn a language - had sent me to live in Southern France. My language ”school” happened to be a vineyard growing Cot (better known as Malbec, but still called Cot in that part of France) working the vines and conversing in terrible French at first. My language skills got better and better over the months; needs must – no one spoke English - until I had developed a thick southern French accent and a love of Rosé which has never left.
Plumpton was great. I had always enjoyed drinking wine, but Plumpton gave me an insight and a fascination into the growing of vines. Every great wine starts in a vineyard! For 1000s of years, mankind has been making wine in all cultures from the ancient world to the modern. Wine is central to the ritual in two of the world’s religions, but viticulture predates the old testament. Egypt’s Pharaohs stored wine in their tombs to take with them to the afterlife and the ancient Greeks drank wine as it brought a new dimension to a social occasion – the Ancient Greeks knew how to party. From the ancients to today, the fascination of growing vines to make wine is continuous. It is a direct link with our ancestors. In the strange times of this pandemic, working the vines day after day has grounded me, in a world which seems at times to be descending into chaos – a dose of reality in an increasingly surreal world. Hence the fascination with not just drinking wine and working each vintage; aiming to develop a wine that is better than the year before.
Vines require dedication and hard work, and yet, that work can be pointless if a frost comes at the wrong time, or if a hailstorm or heavy shower coincides with when the vines are flowering. The more I learnt about vines at Plumpton, the more I realised how little I knew and that what we had taken on was huge – and that was just the vines. Having been lucky enough to visit vineyards all over the world, we wanted to recreate that lovely laid back approach to wine and food that we had experienced in Italy and Spain as well in the New World – Australia in particular, where half my family originate from. Local food and local wine! Enjoyed together, overlooking loved and well-tended vines. There is nothing like turning up at a small vineyard and enjoying a taste of last year’s vintage and some locally produced food, prepared and served by people who care. The philosophy behind West Street was born. All we had to do was build a restaurant!