Best Practice at Cornish Gem

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South of France? No, it is Camel Valley Vineyard in CornwallIt is often said that the first generation of modern English winegrowers, in the 1950s and 60s were retired Colonels and Naval Captains who, looking for an amenable and interesting challenge in their semi-retirement, sunk large amounts of enthusiasm and money into creating English vineyards but, who had no formal training or education in viticulture, winemaking or, perhaps most significant of all, business. Their role, perhaps, was to prove that "it could be done". And it was.

In the 70s and 80s many more joined their number - some in the same category of retired or semi-retired, others with the wealth and leisure time to indulge their hobby. Some -but few - knew about business plans, profit and loss accounts and returns on capital invested. Many, unfortunately, did not. This was the time that the "old" adage - the way to make a small fortune from English wine is to start with a large one - came about.

An uncharacteristically dull day at Camel Valley Vineyard - the roses, of course, are to give early warning of disease Only in the 1990s and into the new Millennium, as the number of English vineyards has actually fallen back a little, has there emerged a new breed of technocratic businessman, who, though he may be attracted by the rural lifestyle and the romance of the vine, is hard headed enough to know that the enterprise has to work in commercial terms if it is to survive and to increase his wealth rather than plunder it.

This commercial competence, allied to a scientific and technical understanding of the processes of growing grapes and making wine, has begun to transform the English wine industry as it did first in California and Australia/New Zealand and, more recently, has begun to do so in France.

Assistant vineyard manager Alex Davidson shows visitors the state-of-the-art winery at Camel Valley WineIn the pleasant sylvan surroundings of the Camel Valley in deepest Cornwall, just a few miles from Bodmin this latest stage in the evolution of the English wine industry can be clearly seen. Camel Valley vineyard is about as far from the sea as it is possible to get when you are halfway down the narrow peninsula which is Cornwall. That, and the steep slope of the vineyard towards the south, ensure that the maximum heat is extracted from the sun. The day I visited Camel Valley vineyard was a dull one - but the first for more than 3 weeks, and at a time when Cornwall's coasts had been steeped in thick sea mists for days at a time - so owner Bob Lindo and his wife had clearly chosen the location for their vineyard well.

Camel Valley Vineyard grows 8000 vines - the main varieties being Seyval, Reichensteiner, Bacchus, Triomphe, Dornfelder and Pinot Noir. Production varies, of course, from year to year but a good year sees 15000 bottles or around 2 bottles per vine. 40% of the production is still white, 40 % is sparkling wine (white) and 20 % is red wine. Even these proportions confound the traditional expectation of an English vineyard's production, which most people expect to be still white wines, with floral bouquets and high acidity. Here, at Camel Valley, we find that still white wines account for well less than half of production, whilst sparkling wine produced by the traditional methode champenoise is of the same quantity - and, of course, in value terms is much more. And, with 20% of production being red wines Camel Valley is again mirroring the trends amongst the most progressive of English vineyards.

Here then is a case study of the modern trends in English wine production; high quality, award winning wines; quality as well as quantity (not quality rather than quantity); and high added value up-market wines rather than bottom-end, trying-to-compete with cheap mass-production continental wines. This is the way for English winegrowers/makers to survive, afford investment in high quality buildings and equipment, to make tolerable returns on capital and to make a good enough living to make the vast effort all worth while.

Bob Lindo is every inch the modern English winegrower and maker. He has a flair for marketing and publicity as can be seen from the many column inches of free press coverage he has managedAssistant vineyard manager Alex Davidson shows how the methode champenoise works just as well in Cornwall to generate for his Camel Valley vineyard displayed on the high standard display boards in his Visitor Centre and Shop at the vineyard. Bob has been equally successful in gaining broadcast media coverage including many appearances on Food and Drink programmes. Last year 10,000 visitors made the well signposted detour to his vineyard and winery to see for themselves what an English vineyard is like and how wine is made.

Gleaming stainless steel vats in Camel Valley's smart new wineryMany took the charged-for conducted tour in which proprietor Bob Lindo or his employees Steve Allsop and Alex Davidson explain how the grapes are grown and the wine made. The tour visits of Camel Valley's new state-of-the-art winery where every vat and every piece of equipment is in gleaming stainless steel - over £100,000 has been invested here in the last couple of years - the quality of the winery is clear - more like a hospital - and the results in terms of wine quality and consistency and hence profitability are what justify such levels of investment. The tour also includes an explanation of the ancient art of making sparkling wine as in the Champagne region of France - an excellent sparkling wine made by this traditional method is one of Camel Valley's most popular products. No scruffy tumble-down buildings here - everything's  as  smart as a fighter base at Camel Valley vineyard

Most folk expect that English wines will be all whites and are some are no doubt surprised to learn that Camel Valley is now making - and selling - a very satisfactory red wine, made from the Dornfelder grape. Gentle and soft in character, it is no robust Spanish red, but none the worse for that.

Camel Valley and Bob Lindo are probably best known in English wine circles for his success in winning awards with his wines and the display of certificates and trophies in the Camel Valley vineyard visitor centre is truly impressive - in June this year (2001) Camel Valley Vineyard Cornwall Brut 1999 won the trophy for "The best wine produced in excess of 10,000 litres" at the prestigious English and Welsh Wine of the Year Competition in Leeds. Just in the last year the vineyard has won the EWP (English Wine Producers) Trophy for most outstanding comercial wine plus the UKVA (United Kingdom Vineyards Association) Silver, Bronze and Highly Commended awards plus 3 West Country Food Award Golds plus one Silver. It has also won the SWVA (South West Vineyards Association) Gold and Trophy for best sparkling plus the International Wine Challenge award. Bob clearly has no time for those vineyards which feign contempt for awards and believes that submitting to these tough competitions is an important element in his marketing strategy, giving potential customers confidence that his wines have been highly rated in blind tastings by those who know a thing or two about good wines.

All too often the local vineyards' wines are nowhere to be seen on the shelves of local supermarkets - but this is certainly not true in Cornwall, where Safeway make a feature of local produce and Camel Valley wines - both sparkling and still - are very prominent. In the run up to the Millennium, Bob's "Cornwall" sparkling wine outsold champagne by 30 to 1, and around Valentine's Day around 300 bottles were sold there in one week. Hardly surprising perhaps when at £13.95 a bottle Camel Valley sparkling wine has been described by Christies as better than champagne. Safeway also sell one of Camel Valley's still white wines at £6.99 a bottle, well above the average price of a bottle of wine on their shelves, which shows that an English vineyard can sell against other cheaper wines once it has established a reputation for quality. Bob's marketing flair makes sure that neck stickers on every bottle clearly communicate the top awards the wine has won - and bottle labelling compares favourably with the smartest, trendiest labels on any wines - ensure that customers perceive that quality from the moment they see the bottles on the shelf. An EU marketing grant enabled Camel Valley to engage expert help in developing their labelling to present this quality image.

An idyllic spot to stay - and not just for the owners - there's accommodation for holiday guests as wellDiversification is the name of the game these days - especially in rural affairs - and Bob Lindo and his wife, Annie, who is also his business partner, with their small team know all about this and have both adapted to and have exploited the possibilities. The vineyard stands adjacent to the Camel Valley trail and it offers not only an interesting stop-off for the walkers and cyclists who use this attractive tourist route following the course of a disused railway line, but also accommodation for visitors in an attractive annex to the main buildings.

Not surprisingly, considering his success in winning awards for his winemaking, and his state-of-the-art winery, Bob Lindo makes wine for other vineyards in Devon and Cornwall who do not have the same equipment and/or expertise. He and his team also look after the vineyard at Golant owned by famous yactsman Chay Blyth. So successful has Bob become in adapting his business to the diversification possibilities that he is now beginning to be called in as a consultant by other English vineyards - not only on grapegrowing and winemaking, but actually in how to diversify into such things as tourism - which is itself yet a further form of diversification.

Here then, at Camel Valley, is a case study of the modern trends in English wine production; high quality, award winning wines; quality as well as quantity (not quality rather than quantity); and high added value up-market wines rather than bottom-end, trying-to-compete with cheap mass-production continental wines. This is surely the way for English winegrowers/makers to survive, afford investment in high quality buildings and equipment, make tolerable returns on capital and make good enough livings to make the vast effort all worth while.

A final twist in the tale about backgrounds and training of modern vignerons is that Bob Lindo is himself an ex-military man - an R.A.F. fighter pilot who used to fly Jaguars and Vulcans. But it is clear that Bob has approached the task of developing and running his vineyard as he no doubt did flying his fast jets - with a steely professionalism, leaving as little to chance as possible.

Facilities: Visitor centre with displays, shop, toilets, picnic area, vineyard and winery tours (charge - includings tasting), holiday cottages to rent. NB - There is no café or restaurant at the vineyard.

Rating: If you are anywhere within reasonably easy reach of this vineyard it's a "must-visit". They don't get a lot better than this either in Cornwall or, indeed, in the rest of England.

Bob Tarr, August 2001

To find Camel Valley Vineyards: The vineyard is near the village of Nanstallon, to the west north-west of Bodmin in Cornwall - Take the Wadebridge road from Bodmin and look out for brown tourist signs after about 2 miles (on the left). Alternatively, walk or cycle the Camel Trail and you will pass the vineyard. Check opening times on the Camel Valley website - and telephone if travelling a distance to be sure.

Camel Valley Vineyards have a website - www.camelvalley.com - which you can visit and you can order their wines via an on-line shop or by telephone.

© English-Wine.com 2001

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