Community vineyards

The ownership model that’s ripe with possibility


Many of us take comfort in the idea that wine is somehow good for us. Drinking it might well be – you’ll hear doctors talking about anti-inflammatory properties and health-boosting antioxidants – but if you really want wine to improve your health, your best course of action is to get involved in making it. 

That’s the thinking behind Forty Hall Vineyard, a social enterprise in Enfield, North London, whose 10 acres of grape vines have been lovingly tended by dozens of local volunteers from all walks of life since they were planted by hand in 2009.

Some of the 60 or so regular volunteers were referred to Forty Hall by mental health professionals, but most are self-referrals, whether retired people looking for their next challenge, parents hoping to gain confidence ahead of a return to the workplace or those simply seeking community and companionship.

“People come for all sorts of different reasons,” says Emma Lundie, head of operations at Forty Hall. “The beauty of it is you don’t really know who’s who and why they’ve come here, or their backgrounds. Nobody’s labelled.”

What they all share, says Emma, is a desire to “do things that realise the benefits of the outdoors. They’re looking for nice activities that have a bit of a purpose”.

Underpinning it all is an approach called ‘ecotherapy’, a therapeutic treatment involving physical activity in a green environment as a means of improving mental wellbeing. Ecotherapy can be employed in a wide variety of different contexts (hiking, horse-riding and gardening are just some of the examples you’ll find on the website of the mental health charity Mind). At Forty Hall, explains Emma, ecotherapists trained in mental health first aid attend volunteering sessions and serve as a ‘listening ear’ for those in need of support. Tasks at the vineyard range from the hard slog of weeding to the jubilation of the harvest and from leading vineyard tours to staffing stalls at farmers’ markets – it’s a year-round endeavour but one that offers significant rewards.

The ‘purpose’ of all this hard work is the production of Forty Hall’s award-winning organic wines, which are created in collaboration with Will Davenport of Davenport Vineyards in Sussex. Yields vary considerably from year to year, depending on factors including the weather, volunteer hours and pests (a real headache for organic winemakers) but Forty Hall can usually expect to produce around 12,000 bottles annually. The fruit of the vineyard’s Bacchus and Ortega vines go on to become single varietal still whites, while its Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir grapes end up as London Sparkling Brut, a blended wine in the Champagne style. 

Sales of the wine are an important revenue stream for the vineyard, helping to fund the outreach work and wellbeing activities it runs alongside the regular volunteering programme. But it’s not just about the money, explains Emma. 

“A lot of our volunteers really care about the work that they do and the wine that we make. And it was always really important that the wine wasn’t just a novelty; it was actually a serious wine. If you’re going to produce wine, you might as well make it as good as it can be and make it something to be proud of.” 

While Forty Hall’s vines were planted with the social enterprise’s volunteer activities in mind, those at Warden Abbey community vineyard in Bedfordshire have a rather more convoluted history. Volunteer at Warden Abbey today (as at Forty Hall, all are welcome, and there’s no previous experience required), and you’ll find yourself walking in the footsteps of the Cistercian monks who cultivated grapes here from the 12th century until the monastery was surrendered to the crown during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. 

The abbey and the original vines planted by the monks are long gone but in 1986, the Whitbread family (who bought the land in 1786 following enormous success in the brewing trade) replanted part of the vineyard and began producing wine commercially. After the Whitbreads stopped making wine in 2008, Bedfordshire Rural Communities Charity took over the lease on the vineyard and have been running it as a resource for the local community since 2010.

A lot has changed in that time, says vineyard manager Jane Markham, who has been leading the project since the very beginning. 

“That first year we closed the gate after harvest and then didn’t go back again until January when we started the pruning. We were rather naïve about it really,” she remembers. “It has been a learning process for all of us.”

These days the vineyard is open for volunteering nearly all year round, with winter tasks like trellis repairs and grubbing up unwanted vines all part of “putting the vineyard to bed [for the winter]”, Jane explains. Warden Abbey produces an average of 4,000 bottles a year, working with Litmus Wines in Surrey and Halfpenny Green Winery in Staffordshire to produce both blended white wines (both still and sparkling) and single varietals, as yields allow.  

Since the start of the pandemic volunteering has been limited to the 40 or so people who come along to the twice-weekly drop-in sessions at the vineyard, but in the normal course of things, Warden Abbey does outreach work with groups too. From those recovering from brain injuries, to ex-offenders, to those experiencing homelessness, to young people with learning disabilities, to school children, working with the vines offers a route to gaining confidence, new skills (viticultural and beyond) and work experience. 

Jane is looking forward to being able to get all this rolling again, whenever that may be. “It’s been a frustrating couple of years, not being able to go forward with some of these projects,” she admits. 

Frustration is par for the course with small-scale viticulture – a couple of years ago, Warden Abbey produced only 650 bottles after frost wiped out a lot of the harvest. In 2011, the second year of the project, it was even worse. 

“We knew that we weren’t going to be producing wine that year at all and yet you’ve still got the slog of looking after everything and nurturing as if that wasn’t the case,” Jane recalls. Just a couple of weeks later, however, they learned that they had received an International Wine Challenge commendation for their first ever vintage, a blend of Bacchus and Reichensteiner grapes called The Reformer (named after the 18th-century prison reformer John Howard, who grew up partly in Bedfordshire). 

“That was an absolute boost,” says Jane. “It makes you very proud that the wines are standing up to external scrutiny. Although it’s a community vineyard and it’s a volunteer project and we’ve got all these other things that we’re trying to do, we want people to really enjoy the wines.”

Political Wine Across the Pond

Christopher Renfro and Jannea Tschirch, co-founders of the Two Eighty Project, a community vineyard in San Francisco, California, are not yet at the stage of having people enjoy their wines. Not very many people, that is. Last year, their first harvest yielded two and a half bottles. This year they’re on track for four. 

The low yield is partly due to the fact that their vineyard is tiny, occupying less than half an acre on Alemany Farm, a community project just off Interstate 280, one of the highways that bisects the city. They also lose a lot of their grapes to farm visitors, who are encouraged to take its fruit and vegetables home with them.

“It’s kind of hard to distinguish this one area as the only fruit you’re not supposed to pick,” says Jannea. 

At this stage, however, they’re not too fussed; wine production is way down their list of priorities. For Christopher, working this land, tending these vines and inviting local people in to learn about viticulture, is a political act, a way of bringing about change, within the wine industry but also in society more broadly. 

“These grapes are just a vehicle to talk about all the fucked-up stuff that’s happening to people of colour that people don’t want to talk about. When you put it in a glass of wine, all of a sudden people feel really woke, they feel really gung-ho about representing for queer people or black people or migrant workers,” he says. 

“For some reason, the wine industry is a perfect space to talk about how unopen it is, and who really grows the grapes and who’s really the one that gets to celebrate.”

In practical terms, this means getting local young people involved with the vines at Alemeny Farm, from residents of the nearby housing project to members of local youth groups. It also means running a paid apprenticeship scheme that aims to improve access to viticulture and the wine industry for underrepresented groups including people of colour, women and LGBTQI people. 

“Volunteer work and apprenticeships and internships happen a lot in the white communities because they have the resources to be able to take that time off. This is why we wanted to make it an actual paid apprenticeship. It’s for everyone to be able to have a living wage while they’re learning,” explains Christopher. 

“The hope is that the interns that go through the programme will gain enough exposure and experience to be able to work harvest jobs come that time of the season.”

But all this is just the beginning. Christopher and Jannea know that for the Two Eighty Project to make an impact with its wine one day, a few dozen vines in the city aren’t going to cut it. With that in mind, they’re asking winemakers in Napa, Sonama and Lodi to do their bit and donate land to the project. 

“When you start driving through those places, you realise how big some of these land holdings are: hundreds of acres,” Christopher explains. “For what we’re trying to do, even two or three acres on a few farms could be life changing.”

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