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Renegade Urban Winery: In Conversation With Warwick Smith

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

When most people think of winemaking, romantic visions swim into their periphery; golden hour in front of a chateau overlooking the dramatic vistas of rolling hills full of vines, a glass of red wine

Nestled in an arch down a graffitied alley next door to a used furniture shop sits the tiny winery and bar. It’s a mad scientist’s laboratory of winemaking paraphernalia, full to the brink with an impressive assortment of oak barrels, stainless steel tanks, a large pneumatic press and even a concrete egg.

We arrived in the midst of a flurry of activity, where two lads in jumpsuits were busy sorting through the newly harvested arrival of grapes. Amongst the activity, typing away at a laptop was the head honcho Warwick; in a country predominantly known for sparkling whites, he is making upwards of twenty exciting and experimental wines a year in the most unlikely of locations.

Tell me how you got started?

I had seen big movements in the world of drinks, especially in gin and craft beer, and thought that the biggest drinks market that hadn’t had much disruption and innovation was wine.

For the most part, people still live in this mindset of “sense of place”, thinking of winemaking being situated within a vineyard, when the truth is that an urban winery should be no less normal than an urban brewery. They buy raw ingredients (hops, malt) and make their beer in London… we buy raw ingredients (grapes) and make our wine in London.

Wine as a category is crying out for innovation and disruption. The beauty of London is that there is no winemaking history or tradition, so you can do what you want. We thought “lets get the best fruit from the UK and Europe but use modern and forward thinking techniques and approaches to make new styles of wines.”

Do you consider your wines to be English wines?

When we first started, I was very clear that wines made here from non-English grapes are not English wines. I grew up with the mentality that wines are where the grapes are from, the traditional concept of terroir and the land.

I have almost completely changed my perspective on that. If you look at a London beer - the hops are American, the malt is German, the brewer is Italian, but it is made in London and it is a London beer. The same applies to wine - grapes are grown but wine is made. What makes wines what they are is the making, it’s the people, technique, skin contact, fermentation, yeast… it’s everything that goes from the raw ingredient and turns it into a wine.

The terroir of the grape massively impacts the flavour profile, there’s no getting away from that. However, for me, all of our wines made from non-English grapes are made here, in London, by us, in our style, using our techniques… but there will always be a European part to them. They’re like third culture kids.

But - who really cares?! We are super transparent. Every bottle says where the wines is made and where the grapes are from. I’m not trying to call them all English - at the moment.

It matters more to wine critics than it does to consumers. I’ve been very reassured that a lot of people coming from a traditional wine background have actually been very open and interested in the project. If you can communicate with established knowledgable wine industry people that what you’re doing isn’t crap, you’re not cutting corners, you’re not pretending it’s something it’s not and you’re making something wit love, care and skill. If you’re taking hand harvested really well grown grapes, and making wines where you take care at every step of the process, and the end product is brilliant - what’s not to like?

It’s a new way of making wines, isn’t it? You go back 100 years and we didn’t have the ability to ship much of anything past where it was grown, and now we can eat avocados from Peru in the middle of England.

That’s exactly it. That is where the urban winery concept comes from. It’s happened with lots of foods around the world but wines have typically always been made near-ish to the source. It doesn’t need to be anymore. But there are restrictions. If you want to use only freshly harvested grapes and not frozen, you’re limited to a 30-hour transport window. We only use fresh grapes.

How do you choose your fruit?

We don’t care so much whether the growers’ wines are good - what we look for is whether the fruit they grow has the potential to make great wine. People often don’t realise there’s a big difference between the people that grow the grapes and the people that make the wine. They’re connected for sure, but they are very different skills. You don’t expect a wheat farmer to be a world class baker, or a chicken farmer to be a Michelin starred chef. We shouldn’t expect grape growers to be expert winemakers.

We only agree to buy fruit in June time, after flowering so that we can get a sense of what’s looking good. We look for really good fruit and people that love the fruit they grow. Most growers we buy from adopt organic principles, but the fruit generally isn’t certified as its from very small family vineyards. We don’t own any plots or vineyards, we agree to buy depending on the fruit and we get weekly reports on how the fruit is looking, acidity levels, sugar levels, and then we choose to pick.

So, any plans to grow your own fruit?

Never say never, but I think our skill and passion is in the making and not growing. It would be nice to have a vineyard as it is something people always want to go see, but the beauty of not having a vineyard is that if the fruit is bad that year, you don’t have to buy it. The worry is that if it’s yours, you’re forced to use that fruit just to get the money back. Ideally we want to stay away, but never say never. Maybe… but probably not.

What is your favourite part of the winemaking process?

I love the innovation side of wine - sourcing grapes, researching styles and methods, thinking about what hasn’t been done but would make a good wine… That’s the beauty of not coming from a traditional wine background. You haven’t been indoctrinated with a way you’re “supposed” to do things.

We experiment with all sorts - French Oak, Hungarian Oak, Cherry, Chestnut, ex-bourbon barrels, wild ferments, skin contact…

I love winemaking, just not the manual labour part of it. I spent my 20s and 30s in an office, and I feel happy in that environment, doing the product development side of things such as sales, marketing, distribution, disruption. If you asked our winemaker Andrea to sit at a laptop all day, e would just go mad. You need people with different skills, and luckily we have people that have those skills I don’t have.

How have people received your winery?

It’s unusual to make wine in London, so most people are just surprised. When we first started there was a quite acceptable perspective that what we are doing is gimmicky. That is the thing I still have to remind myself - for me it isn’t a gimmick, but for a lot of people wine made here is gimmicky. We spent the last 5 years trying to break down that perception, convincing people we are obsessed with making quality wine, not just making wine just for the sake of it. We are very fortunate that some incredible restaurants and wine stockists love what we are doing and value the quality and diversity of the wines.

Tell me about your range?

We always make more than we plan to. We separate out the grapes and then try different techniques with them. Or sometimes we are offered really interesting fruit, and we just take it even though we don’t have a plan for it because it’s nice to play. Suddenly what was supposed to be 10 or 12 wines ends up being 20.

At the moment, if you look at our distribution, we make lots of small batches of interesting wines, rather than a core/satellite range. This is sometime a problem because if a restaurant likes something, they like consistency. If it’s matched with their food one year, they will want it the next year.

“Natural” wine has that problem anyway, it’s not always made to a precise formula so even if you do have a core range it might change dramatically between years.

Exactly. We use predominantly wild yeasts, so if we moved our winery from here to a bigger site, we would lose all the yeasts we’ve built up here for 6 years. Our wine might end up being completely different! I get the impression people are quite happy to have inconsistency with wines if they know why.

I guess what you’re probably battling with is people that aren’t so inclined to open their minds?

What we struggle with is price points; people will take a punt on a £7-12 wine, but not necessarily a £20 wine. We simply can’t make wine dirt cheap as we pay growers top price for the grapes, and making it in small volumes, in London, to the quality we want, is expensive. Wine has for a long time, been too cheap. If you think of a £5 bottle of wine, most of that is tax, logistics and packaging. There will always be a lot of cheap wine in the world, but hopefully people are becoming more conscious of what they’re drinking. The pandemic has helped that - people aren’t spending £50 on a meal out so they think “well I’ll buy a bottle of wine for £20”.

How can you compete with supermarkets setting the bar so low?

Wine is a multi-billion pound industry. If you go to a supermarket and a wine LOOKS like it has an old-school French label in a burgundy-style bottle with a cork, people think “ooh this must be a quality bottle of wine”. The reality is that it’s made in a factory, same as everything else but the marketing is very clever. Wine is a lot of smoke and mirrors because the reality of most industrial wine from supermarkets is that it’s made in an industrial setting with people in hi-vis jackets and hard hats. Wine is one of those few products that doesn’t have to list the ingredients, so if people knew how many chemicals were in conventional wines they would be surprised. You are allowed to add tens of thousands of things to wine and still call it a wine. That is why for generations this beautiful illusion of terroir and chateaus has been used to sell wine. Now you can look into the eyes of our labels, and see something new.


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