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Southern England ‘has potential to be the Napa of the UK’

With its booming wine tourism industry and clement climate, the south of England has the potential to become the Napa Valley of the UK, according to a number of leading producers.

The proximity of Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire to London is helping to lure Londoners to the home counties for weekend winery visits in a similar way that San Francisco serves as the gateway to the Napa Valley.

“Wine tourism in Napa and Sonoma is driven by San Francisco, which is an hour away. It’s the same distance from Kent to London, so that’s my target market. Londoners have high expectations, so we have to be able to offer them a great experience. We can’t cut corners as an industry when it comes to tourism,” Richard Balfour-Lynn of Balfour Winery told db.

“Our industry has a fantastic opportunity when it comes to tourism, but you’ve got to invest in facilities that can compete with the best in the world, and make it fun, as we’re in the entertainment business,” he added.

Chapel Down’s new CEO, Andrew Carter, believes the GB wine industry can learn a lot from Napa and Sonoma when it comes to nailing its tourism offering.

“When you visit estates like Beringer and Stag’s Leap in Napa, they’re cutting the grass with a pair of scissors. They offer a pristine, super-premium luxury experience, which is the kind of brand impression we should be creating for our guests,” he said.

Ian Kellett of Hambledon, meanwhile, believes southern England has the chance to combine the luxury hospitality on offer in South Africa with the sales conversion nous of Napa, but collaboration is key.

“There needs to be three or four flagship wine estates in each county close enough to each other that people can book in a weekend of wine visits – I’d love for others to pick up the gauntlet,” he told db.

Kellett has bold ambitions to create “the best oenotourism facility in the UK,” and has invested a “seven-figure sum” into the project, hiring Heston Blumenthal’s former right hand man, Ashley Palmer-Watts, as a restaurant consultant; the former head chef of Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons to oversee the kitchen; and Fabled Studio to look after the interiors.

Having worked in Silicon Valley, tech entrepreneur Stephen Duckett of Hundred Hills in Henley had the Napa tourism model in his sights long before launching his wine business.

“My vision for English wine is more Napa than Champagne. A Napa Valley model has a lot more to offer England and its wine industry than a Champagne model does in the 21st century.

“While working in the tech industry, I spent a lot of time working in California and have been heavily influenced by the Napa and Sonoma model. At Hundred Hills I’m trying to create something beautiful, entertaining and of its place,” he said.

Cellar door and direct-to-consumer sales have become hugely important to the English and Welsh wine industry, particularly during the pandemic.

The need to pivot to online sales last March has led to a DTC boom within the British wine industry, with WineGB reporting that winery websites and cellar door sales accounted for 50% of English and Welsh wine volume sales last year.

Wine clubs are also proving a profitable sales channel, offering members first dibs on new releases and perks like access to wine dinners and limited releases.

Members of Gusbourne Reserved have been treated to restaurant takeovers at the Kent estate by the teams from The Hand and Flowers, Trinity and The Clove Club, who have weaved ingredients foraged from the estate into their dishes.

“The US model is the gold standard when it comes to wine clubs and how to maximise them as a revenue stream,” said Gusbourne CEO, Charlie Holland, who feels the trend for cutting down on international travel will play into local producers’ hands.

“People are dialling back on international travel but they have a carpe diem mentality, having been couped up for so long. They want to get away for a weekend, and Kent is on Londoners’ doorsteps, so it’s really easy to do.

“Vineyards are beautiful places, so it’s not too hard to give people a lovely, honest, authentic experience,” he said.

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