English wine has a problem of taste and image. Few people want to drink the stuff; even fewer want to be seen drinking it. In extreme cases, the enthusiasts who continue to make it resemble members of an obscure religious cult: fanatical, often bearded, and deeply mistrusted.
To paraphrase Dr Johnson, making wine in England is like a dog walking on his hind legs: "It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all." With the enormous and varied output of wine from France, Italy and Spain, not to mention Australia, the United States, Chile, Argentina, Germany and even Mexico, why bother to make wine in a climate where the grapes don't ripen until November?
But less than 20 years ago Antipodean wine was a joke. Now Australia is the second biggest supplier of wine sold in this country. And two businessmen based on the Sussex and Kent borders are hoping similarly to rejuvenate the English wine industry.
Adrian Drewe is the chairman of Stenoak Associated Services, a pounds 100m company listed on the AIM market. When he started running it in the late Seventies it was a small fencing company based in Uckfield, East Sussex. Now it has offices in Oxfordshire, Mansfield and Lamberhurst, Kent. His partner in the wine business, Simon Hume Kendall, is a private investor.
In February this year they acquired control of Lamberhurst vineyard from the receivers. Lamberhurst was once one of the proudest names in English wine-making, but its last owners were unable to run it profitably and it languished for 18 months. It boasts 26 acres of vines, a shop, an oast house, a pub (which also serves one of England's best regarded beers, the Sussex-brewed Harveys) and a number of houses and offices, as well as a further 25 acres of land.
Mr Drewe and Mr Kendall already own 66 per cent of Carr-Taylor, a vineyard based near Hastings, and are bidding for a 50 per cent stake in Chapel Down vineyard at Tenterden, Kent. Their plan is to switch all production to Chapel Down and specialise primarily in sparkling wine. "We produce an excellent fizzy wine, Lamberhurst Brut," says Mr Drewe. "It is already the sixth best-selling sparkling wine at Majestic Warehouses."
Mr Drewe says that he is a businessman, not a wine-maker, even though he has been making wine from a small vineyard in his walled garden for more than 20 years. He makes around 1,500 bottles of white wine a year, which he distributes to friends and family. "It probably costs me around pounds 10 a bottle to make, after I have paid somebody to spray the vines," he says. …