Published in The Financial Times
If you drive down the B4176 from Wolverhampton to Dudley you’ll eventually pass a small brown sign – a small brown sign you’d be forgiven for dismissing as some kind of prank, for it is labelled “Halfpenny Green Vineyard” and the Black Country, as this part of the West Midlands is known, is hardly famous for its fine wine production.
It is famous for its fine beer, its fine roast pork sandwiches, its fine curries. It is also famous for its not-so-fine industrial decline, unemployment, and racial tensions. But, having grown up in the area, I can report with some authority that the Black Country does not have very much in common with Bordeaux or Burgundy.
However, if you continue in the direction of the sign, as I did a while ago, you’ll discover that Halfpenny Green Vineyard is no prank. It is very real. And it is full of surprises – the first being the estate itself. I don’t know what I expected: maybe a few vines struggling for breath in a clearing between derelict factories – but Halfpenny Green Vineyard turned out to be set in a rather lovely patch of English countryside.
Second surprise: the proprietor isn’t loopy. Again, I don’t know what I expected – maybe someone who looked as eccentric as the very idea of a vineyard in the British West Midlands – but 38-year-old Clive Vickers, who runs Halfpenny Green with his father and wife, was as presentable as your average actuary.
After bidding me a warm local welcome (“alroight?”) and offering me an equally warm beverage (“kipper tie?”), he talked me through the curious history of Halfpenny Green (“Hay-p-knee Green”) in an entirely sober manner, beginning by admitting that a vineyard in this part of the world was a “strange concept”.
Yes, the area didn’t enjoy the kind of sunshine that the world’s most famous wine-making regions did, but, actually, the land was “perfectly suitable” for wine production. The soil was light and sandy, as required, and lay in a frost-free micro-climate.
The next surprise was yet more striking: the world’s unlikeliest vineyard, which produces what Vickers tentatively describes as “the most northern commercial red wine in the world”, is a prosperous business. This financial year they expect a turnover of around £800,000 and profits of some £100,000.
This was a lot to take in, not least because the one review I had read was hardly complimentary: a writer on the Birmingham Evening Mail had remarked that he once used a bottle of Halfpenny Green to “cleanse the sink”. But maybe the comment was unfair. After bidding Vickers a local farewell (“ta ra!”), I contacted the FT’s authoritative wine critic, Jancis Robinson, to find out.
She invited me over to her home in north London for a wine tasting, at 9:30 one cold weekday morning. We began with a £12.50 bottle of “Halfpenny Green Sparkling”, which Jancis poured into a glass, sniffed, swilled, sipped and spat out. I did the same, without the spitting.
“It smells clean,” she declared as I gulped. “It doesn’t smell chemical or off-putting, so that’s a plus.” Another sniff. “It smells as if the fruit has been mashed about a bit, not treated quite as gently as some champagne.” Another sip. “But it’s not bad at all. And a fair price… for a curiosity.”
It was, as they say in the Black Country, a bostin’ start for the vineyard. Unfortunately, it was also as bostin’ as it was going to get. Jancis pronounced the next bottle, a £6.50 bottle of Reichensteiner, “rather sour” and the one after that, a £5.80 bottle of Penny Black, too expensive. “When you compare it to how much fruit you can get in bottles priced between £4 and £5, it is too much.”
Meanwhile, it was obvious even to my unsophisticated palette that the £6.50 bottle Penny Red, described by the maker as “medium-bodied with ripe fruits and a long lingering aftertaste” was bad. Jancis was as polite as she could be: after swirling and spitting and grimacing, she remarked: “The aftertaste perhaps isn’t a pleasant one. You wouldn’t want to drink a whole glass.”
Which probably leaves you wondering: how on earth does Halfpenny Green make so much money when the standard of its wine is, well, so mixed? Could it be that the people of the West Midlands don’t know good wine from bad? Is Halfpenny Green extraordinarily good at marketing? The answer to both questions is: no.
The vineyard’s unlikely success, it transpires, has little to do with the quality of its wine. “If we had just put some vines in a field and tried to sell the resulting wine, we would have gone under,” revealed Vickers, who added that most of his turnover came not from wine sales, but through the spinoffs bolted on to the business: everything from guided tours to an on-site gift shop, a craft centre, a tea room, a coarse fishing lake, an “adopt a vine” scheme, bottling services for other producers and the creation of special giftpacks emblazoned with the logos of local football teams.
They are the most energetic entrepreneurs I have ever met. Not only have they managed the extremely difficult task of diversifying away from arable farming, but they have done so by diversifying into the most difficult of industries (English wine). I started by thinking that the idea of a Wolverhampton vineyard was a business as oxymoronic as a mineral water plant in Chernobyl. But by the end of my visit I was very impressed (and also a little bit drunk).
Published: Apr 02, 2005