Regenerative farming, natural wine making and tourism

Features Posted 17/08/20
This month Nigel visits Tillingham at Dew Farm in Peasmarsh, East Sussex to meet co-founder and wine maker Ben Walgate to learn more about his unique offering of natural wines and tourism.

Tillingham Estate is unlike any vineyard I’ve visited before. Think East London members’ club meets idyllic 14th century Sussex farmstead. It is located at Dew farm, a 70-acre holding that is just one of a number of farms that make up the Peasmarsh Estate, owned by Viscount Devonport Terence Kearley.

In 2016, Wine Maker Ben Walgate had heard that Terence was looking for consultants and wine growers with a view to planting a vineyard on his East Sussex estate. The venture then came about when they met on site, identifying Dew Farm as suitable for viticulture and perfect for wine tourism. They named the brand after river valley which the land overlooks.

“Terence is visionary. He inherited this estate but converted the family home – Peasmarsh Place – into a care home. He created a wind farm on his estate in Northumberland. He’s constantly looking at new ideas. When we met, I came here in 2016 and realised this was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Ben said. “It couldn’t have happened without his help and he left me to get on with it,” he continued.

Ben and his family moved into the farm house and set about working with local architects based in Rye to develop the collection of old and modern farm buildings into a winery, shop, restaurant and boutique hotel.

Farming background and getting into wine

Ben grew up with his brother on their father’s estate on the Lincolnshire Wolds. He helped out corn carting and on their pig unit during holidays, though admits he never thought he would end up a farmer.

“I went to a grammar school and like many of my friends thought I’d go and do something different to what you were used to. Go make my mark on the world.

“As much as I respected what my father did it’s partly the legacy – you see your grandfather at the top of the hill, your father at the middle of the hill and you trying to get in – so when are you going to get any control? I always wanted to be my own boss – so I went off to uni and studied humanities,” he said. Ben never really looked back apart from the occasional bit of work during summer holidays.

“Wine was always something I was interested in – hospitality, too. My mother had a wine bar with my step father and they were natural hosts. So that was a big influence. I’d worked in restaurants and wine shops at University; Majestic, Oddbins… and that’s when I got interested in wines and new wines like biodynamic first caught my attention. So I started to read around that,” he explained.

He got to the end of university and didn’t have a clear idea of what he wanted to do, so bought a one-way ticket to Athens and spent four months travelling around Europe, visiting vineyards mainly.

“I did all sorts. I went to a big conventional vineyard in Burgundy producing millions of bottles and to the exact opposite, a small family domain where the father had passed away and the son had come in to take over the estate, but also coming at it from a different background and interest, cottoning on to biodynamic and a more sensitive approach to production,” he said.

These experiences were transformative and inspired Ben to return to the UK to study the two-year wine making foundation course at Plumpton College.

Ben left with the intention of going straight into production but with little experience decided to set up a business importing the wines he loved instead.

“I persuaded a few of the growers that I had heard of from my time at Oddbins to let me sell their wine,” he said.

He supplied restaurants and had his own shop and a few employees. He loved learning about wines, visiting vineyards and communicating about wine but didn’t enjoy the sales targets side of the business. In 2008-9 the credit crunch wiped out the margin on all the imported wines and he ended up running out of money and being forced to wind the business up.

Fortunately he managed to get a job for another company doing the same thing, so he managed to keep his customers and pay back what producers he could. “It was a stressful time but a great learning experience,” he said.

A job offer came up on the Isle of Wight to run a vineyard and make the wine. He jumped at it and moved his wife and young baby out to Bembridge. He was out there for three years, rejuvenating, replanting and starting up the winery.

“It was a great way to cut my teeth but ultimately wasn’t going anywhere as the couple that owned it were in the process of selling and I couldn’t afford to buy it,” he said.

After his time on the Isle of Wight Ben spent four years as chief executive officer at award-winning English sparkling wine makers Gusbourne in Kent before leaving to set up Tillingham.

Planting vines, regenerative and biodynamic farming

Ben believes passionately in taking a more regenerative approach to farming and wine making.

“We’ve been ruining the soil for decades through persistent cultivation, salt-based fertilisers and not putting organic matter back in. The soil biology and structure is going downhill, so the plants are reliant on being propped up with chemical fertilisers and pesticides,” he said.

“By rebuilding our soils and restoring the fungi in the soils, we are providing the conditions for a plant to be able to defend itself and access the nutrition it needs. Most crops in conventional systems aren’t able to operate at the optimum levels of photosynthetic potential and the quality of the crop is reduced as a result. “Furthermore, the industrial approach to agriculture is a dead end. The rate we are destroying top soil and soil structure in large scale, broad acre farming is alarming.”

Ben planted 10,000 vines in 2018 and an additional 30,000 in 2019 to bring the total area of vines to 25 acres.

He tells me that the site is perfect for wine making, with a low elevation, coastal proximity and mostly good interesting soil on the slopes over an Ashdown sandstone bedrock.

“Though, like a lot of the Weald, there are big slabs of clay so where it’s flat it’s not much good for anything as vines do not like having wet feet,” he added.

Before planting they applied 50 tonnes of compost per hectare and in the first year he choose to do zero cultivation, planting 10,000 vines down the back of a spade and drilling cover crops alongside the vines to increase biodiversity and improve soil health.

This approach yielded mixed results, which he puts down to some of the land being too compacted. Tellingly he notes that in areas where they didn’t manage to drill cover crops, due to bad weather, the vines are twice the size.

In 2019 he planted a further 30,000 vines, using all the same preparations but this time employing the use of a subsoiler to carry out a small amount of cultivation.

This year will be his first harvest of the 2018 vines. Ben has also recently started working with Abby Rose, of Sectormentor software, to help monitor his vines above and below ground.

Though Ben admits he hasn’t made life easy for himself.

“We planted 43 distinct blocks with 32 variations of grape varieties and clones. Management wise it’s a lot, but then I like making lots of small batch wines with bags of character, so it suits that,” he said.

Ben has also been focusing on implementing some biodynamic practices on the land, although he doesn’t envisage certifying for a few years partly due to the additional administrative burden.

Alongside their vines, they have their own chickens and cattle and sheep supplied by James, a fellow tenant farmer on the estate, to graze the 35 acres of pasture. Ben has a reciprocal agreement in place enabling him to buy beef and lamb for his restaurant at a good price.

They are also able to grow all manner of things in their kitchen garden in the walled garden at nearby Peasmarsh Place.

Ben also sources English flour to use in sourdough pizzas and would like the farm to grow heritage wheat so that it could make its own flour one day.

Natural wine making and branding

Keen to build the Tillingham brand while waiting for his own vines to come into production, Ben has been buying in grapes from vineyards in the South East to start experimenting with different natural wine making techniques; using carbonic maceration, skin contact and pét-nats.

His first wine was a pink pét-nat which he labelled PN17 and was released last year.

Ben decided to screen print the label directly onto the bottle; a neon blue on a pink wine which created something quite impactful.

“The reaction to it was huge – the wine sold out just like that. Now most of our wines sell out like that,” he said.

Good branding was something Ben wanted to get right from the start.

“The guys who do my labels have a fine art background, Royal College of Art graduates who have a design studio - do publishing, events but not drinks. I wanted my labels to be representative of what I do. I’m not alone in what I do, there are thousands of people doing regenerative farming and low intervention wine making, but there aren’t many people doing it in England,” he said.

Instagram has been key to telling the Tillingham story, with a dedicated following of over 12,000 fans with whom Ben is able to communicate directly.

“Instagram has been great. We wouldn’t have had the success without it. But that’s true of a lot of businesses,” he added.

I ask Ben why he thinks there aren’t more natural wine makers in the UK.

“In places like Melbourne, the Adelaide hills, Beaujolais, the Loire, even Germany – the industry is really well established, loads of grapes, loads of wineries, communities around wine. We don’t have that; the barriers to entry are significant. Getting access – the price of grapes is a lot more expensive.”

Ben said that was one of the reasons why he didn’t go straight into producing wine after Plumpton and he questions the longer-term sustainability of the UK industry.

With a limited market for wine at £30 or more, he believes that investors continuing to pile into English wine may be disappointed.

“The middle-of-the-road guys who are making 30-40,000 bottles, selling some of it to the big houses. They’ll be getting under £10 a bottle and if you’re investing a few million quid, it will take a long time to get your money back,” he said.

“There’s also that old adage: ‘How do you make a small fortune in wine? Start with a much bigger one’,” he added.

That’s not to say Ben isn’t thankful to his visionary forebears.

“Mike Roberts in particular, who started Ridgeview, and Bob Lindo at Camel Valley. They realised the future of English wine 30 years ago, I’ve just been lucky enough to be riding on the wave. If it wasn’t for some of these people coming in with vast fortunes like Lord Ashcroft, English wine wouldn’t be on the map,” he said.

Falling grape prices and Covid-19

Ben points to falling prices this year. “Previously growers were receiving between £2,500 and £3,000 a tonne. This year it’s looking more like £1,500 due to a lot of vineyards not being able to sell much wine, and exports have shut down.”

“Direct to consumer sales have been good, but if you’ve been making a million bottles of English sparking it’s not going to touch the sides,” he added.

On the flip side Ben believes it’s possibly a good time to get in so long as you’ve got a route to market sorted.

Longer term he believes that as grapes become more accessible, people will start making wine on industrial estates in small commercial properties, rather than going for the castle with the big wine estate.

He intends to produce 100,000 bottles per year but the winery is capable of producing 250,000. To support other local organic producers and local growers he is offering a wine contract.

I ask Ben what the impact of Covid-19 had been on his business.

“We had to furlough nearly all our staff and I thought there might not be a business in six months when lockdown first happened,” he said.

“As things went on I got to see the advantages to lockdown; the fact that we got to reset. There were things that were making me very unhappy and we’re now able to reopen as a totally different business.”

Wine sales

Ben explained that roughly a third of the wine was sold via a UK wholesaler, another third exported and the rest sold direct to consumers.

“We’re in Michelin star fine dining restaurants and in new wave cooler stuff in the UK. Our wines are big in Scandinavia, too - you can find our wines in places like Noma in Copenhagen,” he said.

He explained that UK wholesale and export are loosely the same price per bottle but added they are ceding quite a bit of margin.

“The wines need to be in Noma to help build the brand. Then over time the wine will improve, they’ll become more expensive and the business will get better and better.”

During lockdown the direct to consumer sales went from around £1,000 per month to more than £12,000.

I ask him how he works out his pricing.

“We’re already fortunate enough to be significantly above the average English still wine. I look at my competition, which isn’t necessarily English wine. I go into wine shops where retailers are selling low intervention wines and benchmark against those. So if a Pét Nat from a cool producer that tastes delicious is £30, then there is no reason why mine shouldn’t be £30, especially now I’m three years in,” he replied.

He thinks it’s a shame we’re taxed so heavily to sell to our fellow countrymen.

“It’s around £2.73 a bottle. In France the growers pay 5 cents; you can drink amazing wines for far less than you can here,” he said.

Wine tourism

Adding to the mix, hospitality is key to Ben’s thriving business model. Tillingham has an on-site restaurant, wine bar, bottle shop and a boutique hotel offering 11 rooms.

“There’s a lot of London people coming to Rye and Dungeness. Hastings is cool, too. We’re another reason to visit.”

Tillingham also offers tours and tastings at £35 a head on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tours are currently limited to groups of six people at a time due to social distancing and take approximately one and half hours, followed by a tasting.

Ben is excited about the reopening of his restaurant from early August with a new chef joining from St. John restaurant in London. It will be offering a dinner service Wednesday through to Saturday at £40 per head for a set menu to both residents and non-residents, but booking via the website is essential.

A recent addition has been the conversion of an old Dutch barn into an outdoor kitchen with a wood fired pizza oven and plenty of outdoor tables and seating. This is open Friday to Saturday from midday to 7pm and Sunday midday to 6pm.

Business model and future plans

I ask Ben what the business split is and about his plans for the future.

“By the end of 2021, we’ll be fifty-fifty wine to hospitality,” he said.

He tells me he wants the business to be big enough so everyone gets their money back and enjoys a good lifestyle.

“We could get bigger by planting more vines, or make the wines more special, but I don’t want to make it inaccessible,” he said.

“I need to slow down a bit - enjoy life and take some time off. As it is already modelled it’s a good model.”

Ben tries to do a couple of days a week on hospitality, a couple of days in the winery and a couple of days on production and the farm and takes one day off if he’s lucky.

“This is a critical phase in the establishment of the business, so for the next couple of years I’m expecting to be flat out,” he said.

I’ve no doubt it will be an exciting couple of years. What Ben and Terence have created at Tillingham is an inspiring showcase of what’s possible on a small farm given the right set of ingredients.

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