What they teach you at college and what you do in real life are two completely different things – especially when you’re making wine. First-time winemaker Chris Wilson ponders this as he tries to work out how to get a tower of glass bottles into his tiny windmill basement, aka Gutter & Stars, Cambridge’s first ever winery. The excellent course he took at Plumpton College has taught him how to make wine, but what about the physical nuts-and-bolts and the workarounds? Part 6 of our continuing series on how a wine journalist puts his money where his mouth is and actually becomes a winemaker.
“I recently re-watched the Factory Records biopic 24 Hour Party People and while Tony Wilson isn’t really ‘business guru’ material some of the ideas that he and Factory came up with have given me food for thought for my own business, certainly when it comes to areas like design, creativity and cataloguing,” says Chris.
Two weeks ago as I stood atop an unsteady step ladder and sliced through the plastic wrapping and metal straps that were holding 1,200 glass bottles in place upon the pallet it dawned on me that I didn’t know exactly what to do next.
The eight-foot tower of glass teetered from side to side as a gust of wind whipped the thick plastic packaging noisily and I gazed skywards at the top of the windmill and let out an equally noisy sigh. It began with an ‘f’.
This was never on the Plumpton course
As I mentioned in my first column last summer, the Gutter & Stars winery is a brilliant space. It has history, character, it’s in a great location and above all it’s housed in the basement of a windmill – but it’s not without its limitations.
I’ve lost count of the number of work-arounds that I’ve had to overcome due to the nature of this partly-subterranean space, accessed via four uneven steps and the kind of heavy wooden door that Rubeus Hagrid dwells behind.
During harvest last year I engineered a crude chute from two scaffold planks so I could single-handedly move 250kg of Pinot Noir grapes at a time down into the winery from the back of a rental van. It was surprisingly effective but you don’t see that at Opus One, and it’s certainly not on the syllabus at Plumpton.
I have a list of such experiences I like to file under ‘Things They Didn’t Teach You At Plumpton’, the latest being how to correctly and safely fill a stillage. That was the destination for the bottles and after a little bit of trial and error we got there with zero breakages, and the glass for the 2020 Bacchus and Pinot Noir is now in the winery just metres away from the wine.
The first bottling and visual iD
The plan is to bottle the Bacchus in late March for release in late April/early May, so it’s not long now until the inaugural Gutter & Stars wine sees the light of day. Following recent blending trials I’m happy with how it’s tasting and I feel that bringing together the parts of the blend aged in oak and stainless steel makes it a rounder and more interesting wine. I need to write a tasting note soon which should be pretty straightforward for me, but I feel that I may agonise over this one for longer than necessary.
Ahead of bottling I’ve been getting things in place so ‘bottling day’ can run as smoothly as possible in the tight space we have. It’s all being done by hand; we are using a four-head gravity filler, which itself will be filled by gravity from a blending tank. Each bottle will be hand-sparged with nitrogen ahead of bottling and corking. The bottled wine will then go back to a stillage and be hand-labelled and the neck dipped in wax at a later date.
It’s safe to say the tunes will be banging on bottling and labelling day, and I’ve already had some suggestions of what to play. Talking Heads mainly, but I’ve got a feeling that Underworld, Joy Division and Blur will make the playlist too.
Away from the cellar the labels for all three 2020 wines have now been designed by the brilliant Ed Wright. They are at ‘final tweaks’ stage and I’m very excited about getting them out there soon when completely finished. The Gutter & Stars logo/wordmark and a ‘G&S’ roundel are ready to go and I’m very pleased with how they look and feel… it’s great to give the winery a visual identity and something to hang things off.
I recently re-watched the Factory Records biopic 24 Hour Party People and while Tony Wilson isn’t really ‘business guru’ material some of the ideas that he and Factory came up with have given me food for thought for my own business, certainly when it comes to areas like design, creativity and cataloguing. Watch this space.
Finally (for now), my hope is that the government’s ‘roadmap’ for reopening the country is realised on its current timescale as I’m keen to open up the cellar door this spring/summer for off-trade sales, tastings and the like. It would also be great to have some sort of launch party in the summer when there’s wine to enjoy with friends and all the people who have helped me out so far. Again, watch this space.