Emma Rice is the only woman to have won two winemaker of the year awards in national competitions.
In 2014 and again this year, she was the United Kingdom Vineyards Association’s winemaker of the year, beating tough competition from women winemakers at other renowned English vineyards.
Ms Rice is also a director at Hattingley Valley Wines, which is owned by former City lawyer Simon Robinson and is part of Kings Farm, which the Robinson family have made by buying up pieces of land. The farm’s arable operation is contracted out to a neighbouring farmer under a share farming arrangement. Mr Robinson’s eldest son Ben has just come back into the family business and is building up a beef and sheep operation on the farm.
Hattingley Valley’s grapes were planted in 2008 and Ms Rice joined towards the end of that year when the vineyard had yet to produce any wine. She helped Mr Robinson build a brand new winery on what had been a derelict site for chicken sheds. Mr Robinson bought the site because it had light industrial use and he did not want it turned into something unattractive. “We knocked everything down and pretty much rebuilt from scratch,” Ms Rice remembered. The winery was the first to install solar panels and has an aerobic treatment plant which takes all the waste from the site – including the winery – and turns it into clean water.
“I came on board as a consultant to help Mr Robinson build the winery with a view to being the winemaker, but initially there was not much for me to do other than to ensure the drainage, electricity and water supplies were right,” said Ms Rice. “It was part time consultancy work to start with.”
From the age of 18, Ms Rice was in the wine trade, working for Oddbins, at various restaurants as a wine waiter and in London for a merchant. She went into publishing and became editor of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book where she read about Plumpton College in East Sussex. Aged 29, she embarked on a degree course at the college and was among the first group of students taught by Chris Foss doing a full BSc in viticulture and oenology. She spent two years in California working in the Napa Valley vineyards before moving on to Tasmania and returning to the UK, where she established a consultancy and met Mr Robinson.
Setting up a winery straight away required a huge investment, but the UK is running out of winery space, so Mr Robinson decided something had to be done. “One thing that became very clear when we first started building the winery was that I was being asked all the time by people asking if we could make their wine,” Ms Rice remembered.
The original plan was to divide up the old chicken shed site into units and rent them out to local businesses, with one unit containing a winery which was appropriate for the size of Hattingley Valley’s vineyard. But the demand was such that Mr Robinson made the winery bigger than was necessary for Hattingley Valley. “Since the first year, we have grown exponentially on that basis,” Ms Rice said. “We are approached all the time.”
When the investment was needed for the winery, Mr Robinson was doing well still working full time as a lawyer and senior partner in Slaughter and May concentrating on mergers and acquisitions. Now Mr Robinson has retired, the winery needs to start making a profit.
Present and future customers are those who want to plant vineyards, those who have already planted, those who have grapes and want to sell them or those who want Ms Rice and her team to make their wine for them. They will pay for the investment already made in the winery without the risk of Hattingley Valley having to pay for it by acquiring more vineyards. “We have been able to grow the winery and our production without having to plant vineyards,” Ms Rice explained. “Any vineyard is actually a very risky operation in the UK because we are growing a marginal crop in a marginal climate.”