In this wonderfully in-depth English vineyard interview, we chat to Trevor from Digby and delve into the story behind this English sparkling wine producer. Trevor tells us that 'you’ve got to have world class quality to compete!' which is exactly the plan!
Hi Trevor great to catch up with you. To start, could you provide some background on yourself and the team at Digby?
The founders of Digby are myself, Trevor Cluff and my husband Jason Humphreys. We're in the category of global adventurer, lovers of travel and new experiences. That theme will run through our interview. Whilst Jason and I have very different brains we have very similar values that will align with the topics I just said. I was born in the USA. We brought up in Germany and I have a British passport. Jason, is British and after his PHD had his technology career in the United States and we met in Boston years and years ago and then moved to London. We were both working in London, I was a management consultant and Jason as a scientist working in operations management in the software industry, working very hard and when we had time travelling.
It was on one of these trips when we had time to ourselves that we had a 'lightning bolt moment' that lead to where we're now. For me, as a management consultant it was amazing brain training how to manage a business, how to maintain long term relationships and we really wanted to manage and build our own business. This had to be around hospitality, around entertainment, around professional services and luxury in those sort of spaces. We came up with the most terrible ideas, as one does. We were on a road trip in the USA and we ended going through many of the states, Montana, Utah, we saw the rodeo and ended in wine country between Portland, Oregon, Seattle and Washington on the west coast of the USA.
It was on the drive way of a winery called Domain Saint Michelle, which is now quiet a big wine company. So you can picture the scene, Palm trees on either side, big rental car, vines and the whole lead up to a big fake French Chateau. Which from a tourist point of view looked incredible, I turned to Jason and excitedly I said 'English Sparkling Wine!' at which point he looked at me like I was insane. I said to him 'How come we live in London, we love going out to eat, meeting up with our friends and doing all that stuff, the newspaper whisper that English Sparkling wine is incredible how come we've never seen it. Nobody has ever tried to sell us a bottle. If the product, the wine is as good as the critics say, which as a consumer you don't know whether it is,whether they're trying to con you into it, if it is as good as they say what happen to the strategy, marketing the gliz and the fun? So an idea was born on that spot of an international oriented British luxury brand of English Sparkling wine. So here we are! Last month we celebrated 5 years launching to sale. It's been quiet a ride. We launched for sale in August 2013 in Selfridges, London. That set the tone, set the market, the quality of our English wines, the market and for the position of our wines and the attitude of our wines and was of course the fulfilment of years of work by that point of who we wanted to be, what the wines should be, who we wanted to be in the glass, who we wanted to be on the shelf, who we wanted to be in terms of stories. Since then we have turned into a global exporter. Each time we launch in a new country we have to keep in mind that the sales of English Wine are typically zero. Normally we're the first English Sparkling wine brand to be launching in a nation. So it's all part of our 20 year vision of making England world famous for fizz.
So that's the goal of Digby's?
Yes! The quality is already there but you've got to bring it to people in the right way so it's embraced and after they take it to heart people will fall in love with it. So it forms a little corner in their heart and embraced in the long term corner of their psychology.
Yes I agree. What’s important is the rapport we can have from ‘brand Britain’
From our point of view why wouldn’t we?, there is so many different facets to that, each brand that’s a really serious house should have their own aspects. You can probably tell from looking at our website that while there is an undertone of deep seriousness. We’re here to entertain and that’s what fizz is for.
Well put! Where does Digby’s source it’s grape from?
We’re England’s first ‘negocian’, it was very much a key strategic decision that we made. So, after our lightning bolt moment we came back to London and got a whole bunch of friends around the dining room table and did a bunch of blind taste tests of English wines that were around at the time. From a consumer perspective that’s the high-street champagnes of The Moets, The Verve etc. Between 80 – 90% of the time the English wine was the clear winner, so the quality was clearly there. The design wasn’t, the branding wasn’t. They were kind of ‘knock off’ champagne style. So we thought there’s definitely something here, the newspapers aren’t lying The quality is already incredible. It just needs to be brought to people in the right way. So how do we do this? We clearly need a vineyard, winery, a brand , and a commercial consumer strategy. So we got on a plane and started looking for mentors.
We went to Napa looking for mentors. Before business school, I worked in private equity. It was drilled into me as a young analyst don’t just read reports and think you know the industry. Go and meet and chat to the people who have done it before. So in California they have a built a very well respected sparkling category, starting in the 80’s in the face of the original, from across the channel.
We sort out mentors and I cold called 10 sparkling houses and none of them would attend a meeting with us. So we came home with our plan. The mentors said ‘do not plant a vineyard, you want to be a luxury brand, you want to have an international standard of quality and you want to have a clear house style’. They said ‘you don’t know from picking a field if it’s going to be any good for a long long time. So, if you want to be luxury you’ve got to be genuinely good. It’s not just the label and the packaging.’
You have to maintain that too!
Yes. So they said “taste across the whole nation of vineyards and categorize them as good, amazing and incredible. Then try and do long term contracts with the incredible ones.” So, that’s how we came up with the idea of being England’s first ‘negotiant’. It’s based on actual quality rather than hope.
Secondly they said ‘do not build a winery!’
“So you don’t want us to have our own grapes, you don’t want us to have a winery, are you mad? How do want us to do it?’
They said “Your goal is to be ultimate quality and the guarantee of our brand for quality and style. In England you can definitely buy world class fruit for Sparkling. However, years are going to go up and down. So making wines consistently of excellence is going to take years and years of experience from you and your wine making team. So it would be much better to make your wine under contract if you can find the one wine maker whom you can sufficiently collaborate with.”
So we’ve done exactly what they’ve said. We ‘ve built up a portfolio of growers that are dotted across Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and just into Dorset following the chalky downs.
We work with Dermot Subaru who is a contract wine maker and whispered to be the best winemaker in the country.
The way that it works is Jason and I have selected the terroir and the micro terroir that we want to work with that we think belongs in our house style. He presses each one separately and I am the head blender at the heart of it all. So I am the creative director but I am supported by an incredible team of people who are passionate about getting the best out of every plant and Dermot who is passionate about getting the best out of every single parcel of grapes.
What’s coming across is a sense of seriousness with a slight ‘tongue in cheek approach’ which is brilliant.
It’s bloody cheeky taking on the biggest names in the world and beating them! But, you know this is part of the escapism and the magic and the entertainment of it all.
Absolutely! Why is it that you have chosen to only produce sparkling wines?
For us we always wanted to be very focused on international brand and category development. As an international couple who have lived around the world and love the interplay of cultures that’s also a big part of the wine in ‘arm chair travel’.
To stand up in international markets you’ve got to have world class quality and you’ve got to have a world class value proposition. We think that for some truly world class English still wines they get snapped up here at home in England. The still wine industry is so much bigger than the sparkling industry and the economics are really quite different. We just don’t think that the climate, the yields and the quality are the core of a commercial wine producer in England when it comes to export markets.
You can absolutely make a commercial business of it here in England particularly with cellar door sales. However, our emphasis is on the bigger and full picture, so exporting world class sparkling wines. English Sparkling wine it’s not cheap as everyone will remind us but it is very good value if you compare it to other wines that are much more established names and high prices, we’re much better value than that. It’s not an easy value proposition but that’s our long term gain.
Do you spend much time going to the vineyard for the selection process or do you leave that to Dermot?
No we do that. We’re very much involved. My husband Jason who is the head winemaker and as I mentioned a scientist engineer manages our portfolio of vineyards. I manage the relationship with Cermet and the wine making team and blender. Jason is the one who is reputably out in our vineyards observing and discussing. For example ‘are we going to lighten the load of the fruit, when are we aiming to pick , what is the year going to be looking like.’ Of course, I’m very much involved in the whole process too. I want to be picking berries off the vine and tasting them whilst working on my hypothesis, is it a vintage year or not for example.
Is Jason currently out visiting the vineyards? It’s about time to pick and I’m sure it’s tough deciding when is the right time is to pick the grapes.
Well yes. Every vineyard is unique, even two side by side. You have to continually assess the conditions on the ground and you cannot take precedence as a rule. What we don’t want to do is have a beautiful gorgeous fruit on the vine and pick too soon so it becomes really austere and we have weeks and weeks of additional weather. Or to pick to late and have it to flabby. Which, is no small challenge!
It is very much inline this year, should we be waiting, should we be picking now. As I’m sure all English Vineyards are. Each one of our vineyards are out there every day and we maintain a really good relationship with them, the people factor is really important for us too. It’s an ongoing debate. We could have a really big year but not good enough to declare a vintage, you just never know until you pick.
Yes exactly! I feel that the head wine makers I have spoke to, are all excited at the prospect of this year although until we get to that point of picking the grapes and the juice is in the winery we don’t know. Could you talk me through your wines, what makes them unique to Digby?
I always start tastings with our flagship English sparkling wine. The flagship is our Vintage Reserve Brut. The currently release is 2010.
This wine really defines us. It is at the heart of our house style and attitude to making wine. It defines our plans and ambitions. Certainly, when I’m travelling around the world and sitting down with journalists and wine buyers who have never had English Sparkling before this is what I pull out of my bag first. I want their first sip to be something that is a bit of a sensation. Part of what I’m trying to show is that it’s our current release, it’s had eight years of cellar age and it’s still very young. Age is one of the things that really leads to world class luxury and quality. Part of what this wine is showing is that we have the terroir to do this. In terms of how this then sets the tone for the whole style, I would describe our style as energetic and yet sophisticated. Driven, lively and yet rich. This is the common thread that I see across English terroir. I’m very fortunate that I get to taste across a number of world class vineyards growing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier for sparkling. The energy which comes from the way the fruit grows on chalk in our cool weather. It’s a combination of the scene, the back bone of acidity and the phenolic and the character of the soil that come with the cool weather and the chalk. That energy is at the heart of all of the juice that I taste. The second thing is this warmth, an intrinsic richness. Each site has its own tone but it’s there. It comes from achieving really beautiful phenolic ripeness and having a slow growing season and it comes with the soils.
People who say terroir is dead or it never existed are talking absolute rubbish. I can taste these base wines that are not too far removed from the site and the place. Where of course sparkling you’ve gone through years of bottle age, fermentation, disgorging, dosing, it is a little bit further removed from the original fruit and this is a big part of my philosophy for what our house style is and each of the blends. We are a ‘negotiant obsessed’ with terroir. I am trying to show people what England is about. That is extenuated by and backed up by Dermot’s approach. He is very much a reductive wine maker, he would rather focus on bringing out the unique character of each parcel of fruit than create something to release early and be less appealing. That’s exactly the way it should be. You need to let the fruit guide you.
The flagship is based on Chardonnay, so it’s two thirds Chardonnay and the other third is split equally between Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. I don’t use that as a rule for every year. When I declare a vintage and declare this style it’s when I think the year and fruit has produced the structure to age for a long time. So, this wine is eight years old and still a baby. That’s a good start.
If the wine has a year on it, that’s a sign that it’s special. I declare a vintage, perhaps two years in five.
So far 2009,2010. 2013 and 2014. But for 15, 16, 17 nope! Obviously, my hypothesis for 2018 could well be vintage. Although I won’t know for another 8 months as that’s when we bottle our wines post harvest.
The core Chardonnay in this wine is grown on green sand and that gives a real masculine intensity. I think those are the hall marks of Digby.
It’s on the list at ‘Alina in Chicago’ with three Michelin stars etc etc . This wine follows on from his ‘brother’ which was our first vintage in 2009. The 2009 won Tom Stevens first trophy as the best wine in England. And that’s what put us on the map. That was at the end of 2014.
Very much new kid on the block but serious!
Our vintage reserve Brut you can drink on it’s own. However, all of our wines love to be drunk through the meal and with food. You could start off with something quite delicate, like sushi or you could go into more robust rich flavors as well. Sushi to lobster, a whole range of things you could have it with.
When we’re doing wine tastings at dinner at Cowers park, the Dorchester hotel in Ashcot, the second course would have our non-vintage brut. The non-vintage brut is a rounder, quaffable, little baby brother to the flagship.
When we did our wine tasting at Cowers Park it was roasted carrot with truffle. With carrot, you have this very sweet earthy richness and then of course you have this very overt rich lilt with the truffle.
So for our non-vintage brut they blend it on it’s head, its 2/3 Pinot and 1/3 Chardonnay. It is very much inspired by nature. The weather in England gives us vintage years and non-vintage years. It’s a factor in the structure and age ability of the fruit.
I wanted this wine to be more relaxed and ‘quaffable’. I describe him as the flagships cheeky little brother. He’s quite mysterious, nobody quite knows does he prefer boys or girls, can we just get an invitation to one of his parties because he really likes to have fun!
Our focus with this wine is not to be ‘entry level’. It’s still a sign of Digby excellence. In fact, he has pipped his ‘siblings’ in the wards season, winning platinum in Decanter.
We don’t keep lots of reserve wines in the winery. That is not for me. The reserve wines in the role play are strategic, especially in the blend they’re very important. They’re typically one or one and a quarter years older than the fresh wine. They partially, with the Chardonnay, play a stretching and conditioning role. To take the role of a very lean mean Chardonnay and stretch it out as the basis of the foundation for the blends.
As opposed to adding overt layers of autolysis. In my mind to use lots of reserve wines in autolysis that’s called Champagne. Which is great and it has a very specific flavor, which comes from this wine making approach. I have no interest in making this style in England. We’re blessed with our own terroir. Our none vintage wines are more about creating a more quaffable drink than the other racy energetic house style.
And what about Leander Pink, your Pink sparkling rose?
Yes, so why Leander pink? My husband Jason rowed for his college at Cambridge. He spent quite a long time there as he did undergraduate PHD. Hence we’re a rowing family and adore a day spent at Henly Royal Regatta, who doesn’t? We’ve been to Henley every year and after that ‘lightning bolt’ moment we thought ‘why do we drink imported wine at this quintessentially English experience? We should try and build a new experience of luxury English sparkling flowing down the Thames rather than Champagne. So, that was the concept which I shared with the general manager of The Leander Cub and he said ‘We’ve always wanted our own pink Champagne. The big boys of Champagne never stepped up to the plate. So, if you want to work with us young man. Pink and world class- off you go!’
Why Pink you could ask? Leander clubs colour is pink and their logo is the pink Hippo. They have their own panatone of pink and it’s on everything that they do. The club house in Henley is known as the pink palace and they’re a special sport of British institution. They’re the oldest rowing club on earth founded 200 years ago this year. They’re also about excellence. They’re the most decorated single sport of any club, of any country, when it comes to Olympic and Paralympic medals, they do like to count them.
The job of the development club is to raise money to invest in young men and women from the age of 15. They’re typically handing out 50 -60% of the team GB squad.
So Leander pink is meant to transport the drinker to the banks of the Thames in Henley at the last week in June. Hence it’s meant to be quite lite, ethereal, quite quaffable. A day at Henley people can go through a bit. It’s also meant to be excellent, it’s on numerous Michelin stared restaurants around the world. It’s our non-vintage style in partnership with the Leander Pink club and a little bit of the money from every bottle sold goes to their academy to help train the youngsters.
We have just released a new release of our vintage rose.
Great, tell me about the new Rose.
When we launched five years ago it was with the 2009 vintage reserve brut and the 2009 vintage reserve rose. The vintage Rose has always been slightly controversial which is just how we like it because it’s quite rare anyway. I’ve only ever declared a vintage for it twice, so on average every five years. The 2009 has been allocated for some time as it’s poured by the glass at Hackosan.
Pairing of wines with Cantonese cuisines is known within the industry as quite a challenge. It’s an Umami, sweet, salty flavor.
The vintage Rose I describe it as Sir Kenneth Digby sitting in a library thumbing through one of his thick books in the run up to Christmas. It’s a much richer, more gentlemanly style. That’s driven by the terroir that goes in it and the potential for long lee’s ageing. So at this point the 2014 is quite young but I am disgorging 1000 bottles a year and I’m releasing them in tranches. The first expression of the wine is quite close to the terroir, as we go through the lees development over time it will have developed.
The disgorgement date goes on the back of very bottle of Digby wine. We also have magnum releases of the sparkling rose too.
If we look to the future now, what are the plans for Digby?
We’re very much forging the development and identification of English wine in the international market. This is only going to increase. Here at home in the UK it’s a perpetual focus on excellence and fun. Working hard engaging with our customers and building up a team.
We would like to develop a home for the brand so people can come to touch and taste the wines. So, we have lots of development on the way but lots of work to get there and for the whole category of English wine over the next 10 -20 years.
Anything else you think we should know?
I think you can’t hold your head high and focus on Englishness without caring deeply about the written word and history. It’s a nice way to finish to come onto one of our biggest inspirations. We’re very much inspired by the terroir but we’re also inspired by the history, specifically Sir Kenneth Digby.
We wanted a name and identity for the brand that really captured our values and are seriousness and our playfulness. Wanting to curl up on a sofa and read a book on your own, all those different moods and facets to identify with us quite quirky brits. Sir Kenneth Digby represents those things on many different levels. He had to become a master of reinvention. His father was a gunpowder plotter and executed when Kenneth was only two or three. So, to become ‘cool’ again at court he decided to become a pirate and got a commission from King Charles privateer and did really well stealing boats and swag from the Venetians. He was a great adventurer; in his day he was called the ornament of all England. Everybody wanted to go to his place for dinner, he amassed one of the great libraries of his day which he left to Oxford. So historians of the 17th century have always come on his name. He loved food and wine and conversation. He wrote philosophy, he wrote a fantastical novel, he wrote a cook book. He was the first person to bring Cantonese cuisine to England. The way the world of wine worked back then was the wine would come over in barrels of claret over from France one barrel at a time to your London merchant and the barrel would sit in your wine cellar and your servants would decant it. If you were very wealthy you might have venetian blown glasses to drink from. Glass was not really readily available or up for anything more than that. What he found was that a lot of the wine barrels spoiled. So, he thought ‘I’m going to fix this!’. He opened a glass works on the river and tinkered and tinkered until he had invented the modern wine bottle. His innovation was using the material coal to get the furnace much hotter and then the shape and design of the bottle. His bottle was low and squat with a punt, that’s why our labels are a triangle to mirror that.
Then furthermore he put a lip of glass around the edge so you could put a piece of wood or leather or parchment in to the neck and have something to tie it off against.