Brown tourist signs and opening hours – we want the truth!
One of the absolute delights of visiting English vineyards has been discovering wonderful countryside that is only just off the beaten track. Like most of us, I’m guessing, I have to fit my wine trips around the day job, visits to friends and family, and so on. That’s why I always try to highlight when I find somewhere great near to a motorway, for example. So as I travelled from a family event in the Midlands home to Hampshire on a recent Friday, I got out my trusty English wine map and realised that Brightwell Vineyard was only just off my route.
Despite being very familiar with the major roads in that area, I hadn’t previously travelled through the lovely villages and scenery of that part of Oxfordshire. I timed my journey to arrive just in time for the well-published opening time of midday. There was no-one in sight at the smart looking tasting room, so I wandered and had a look at the nicely ripening grapes… Half an hour later, no-one had turned up, so I left.
Yes, the sign said to call at the house outside opening hours, and yes again, a nice girl taking her lunch break from pruning said that I should call at the house, too. Of course, I could have telephoned in advance and said that I was visiting and would like to blog about the vineyard and I am certain that the people would have appeared and been very welcoming. However, that’s not really the point, is it? Most English people in my experience would have called in advance or gone up to the house if they had previously tried the wine and come to collect an order, but how many of us would risk the bad feeling of getting someone to come out especially, tasting the wine but not being quite certain enough to make a purchase there and then?
I realise that a few years of working in the tourism business and some time spent living in Cornwall out of season have left me with a particular aversion (some might say, obsession!) to opening hours that are not adhered to. I also realise that people running vineyards are busy. All I ask is that people set opening hours that suit themselves, publicise them and stick to them! The best I’ve seen it working is when the tasting area or a room off it is used as an office, so that wholesale orders can be fulfilled, invoices chased, websites updated or whatever and an interested visitor can provide a welcome interruption. That’s what happens at Astley Vineyard, for example, and last time I popped into Camel Valley a charming girl appeared with a smile as soon as I reached the car park and although she had to open up the tasting room for me, I didn’t feel like an inconvenience or under pressure to buy at all.
As for brown tourist signs that lead nowhere, don’t get me started! Suffice it to say that if you see the smart sign to Northbrook Springs Vineyard just outside Bishop’s Waltham in Hampshire, don’t bother to follow it – unless you want to have a look around someone’s back garden and their old shop now used as a family store room…
Update Autumn 2013: Who should I end up next to at a bar recently, but Brian & Susan Cable, formerly of Northbrook Springs Vineyard. It was a great opportunity to catch up on the story behind the sign that’s been irritating me so much. Brian and Susan owned the vineyard from 1991 to 2010. They worked incredibly hard renovating the house together, and while Brian grew grapes and made wine, Susan worked as teacher. The combined demands of agriculture and farm gate sales meant they were effectively “open all hours” and as they were beginning to feel that they had done their time working at this pace, they received an offer to buy the property. While grapes are still grown at Northbrook Springs, wine is no longer made there and the grapes are sold to other producers. Brian agreed with me that it was a shame the brown sign is standing there redundant – not least because it cost him a fortune to have it put there in the first place!
Update February 2014: A new English sparkling wine was recommended as being particularly good a week before I was running a blind tasting, so I took a detour of about an hour to go and pick up a bottle. My arrival was within the hours that I had seen advertised both on a big board at the vineyard entrance and online. When I arrived there was just a sign saying “Closed”. No apologies or anything. I was cross with myself for not having checked properly, but when I looked at their website it clearly said open every Friday and Saturday all year. I put a polite note on their Facebook page saying how disappointed I was but several days later there has been no reply. All that effort planting, pruning, wine-making, bottling and then you can’t be bothered to sell it. Go figure!
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