Renegade Urban Winery Interview
Renegade Urban Winery is no ordinary winery. Its founder Warwick Smith has set out to craft unique wines from its London base that are driven by his enthusiasm to constantly push his wine knowledge forward. In the below in-depth interview Warwick provides great detail on his ideas and how he constantly strives to move forward.
Warwick, welcome to The English Wine Collection’s Vineyard focus. Can you provide some background on how you got into the wine world?
I have always loved wine. I used to drink wine as a child with a little added lemonade. I can’t remember when this vibe started, maybe when I was six or seven yrs old, from memory. I moved to a boarding school in France when I was 12, and drank wine there (it is legal to drink fermented alcohol when you’re 14 in France or at least it was then). I drank anything and everything through my teens and 20s and then started to really get more into wine in my late 20s. I went to university in London (LSE) and then worked in financial services up until I started the winery (in 2016). I really got into ‘nice’ wine when I lived in Asia. I had some money in my late 20s and early 30s (I was based in Singapore and was doing quite well) and could spend to learn/taste. On returning from Asia and after a couple of years back in London working for an investment firm run by one of the UK’s biggest ar*eholes, I quit and decided to take a different path. A path down the long wine road.
Choosing to have a winery in London is quite a commitment. Where did the idea come from?
I had seen from afar the burgeoning urban wine scene developing in the USA and investigated it further. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t an urban wine scene in London and wanted to do something about it. There are brilliant grapes grown in the UK and most of Europe is only a stone’s throw away. Hand harvested grapes travel well if picked and transported with care.
Did you face many obstacles to get the winery and wines into production?
I knew nothing about winemaking when I started. I had done some sommelier qualifications with The Court Of Master Sommeliers and thought I knew quite a lot (how little did I know!). I could tell my varietals and knew a bit about identifying styles, oak and other aspects of tasting the tasting side of wine. Most sommelier courses don’t teach you anything about the making, they teach you to taste, pair, wine service and storage. So, I went on a massive learning curve to do just that, learn. I spent time in Denver, Colorado with The Infinite Monkey Theorem and spoke to almost all of the better known urban wineries around the world.
I decided though that the only way to really learn and progress was to do. So in the summer of 2016 I hired a young, skilled, energetic Kiwi winemaker and we ventured on our first urban vintage. In terms of obstacles, there were millions. To name a few; money, licenses, government connections, experience, industry connections, grape contracts and sourcing, cold chain logistics, equipment sourcing, barrel making contacts, winemaking knowledge, lack of staff, lack of knowledge, no drinks industry experience and the list goes on…. This list could be 10 pages long.
What challenges do urban wineries face?
The same as non-urban wineries but with the added extra issues of high rent, difficult vehicle access, storage issues, licensing issues, lack of industry support, lack of industry infrastructure locally, lack of awareness of the concept and a huge amount of consumer scepticism! There are lots more, but I won’t bore you.
The question you didn’t ask, was what are the advantages of urban winemaking? These outway the obstacles a million times over. They are having an openminded, international, interested 10 million or so people on your doorstep.
Where do you source your grapes from? What is the process of securing the grapes?
A key benefit of being a winery and not owning vineyards is that we don’t need to make wine from sh*t grapes. We are not forced to make out of our own fruit in bad years. We can cherry pick the best of the UK and Europe every year to ensure we only use the best grapes available. We source grapes from small, family owned vineyards in the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Around 50% of the fruit is English, the other 50% is from Europe. We know the vineyards and the vineyard managers like family. We know the fruit and their grape growing methods well. We need to. The quality of grapes is hugely important in the final product. We have strict quality parameters with regard to the grapes in terms of ripeness, phenolics, acidity, sugar content etc. If they don’t meet our standards, we don’t pick and take the fruit. Everything is hand harvested. We have our own picking bins, we send them to the vineyards and they pick directly and place in our contracted refrigerated trucks and transported at 2 degrees C. The shortest journey is 45mins (Essex), the longest is nearer 40 hours (Puglia).
How are you involved with the English wine making?
When we first started, our first winemaker and I did everything, literally everything. I needed to get involved in everything to learn, everything. This was a need and a necessity, it was just us two. This remained the way until the 2019 harvest really. The business has grown a lot over the last 4yrs and I just can’t get as involved in the winemaking on a day to day basic anymore. I’m still very hands on especially during the harvest, but we now have another winemaker and support in the winery from people younger and stronger than me!
What is an average day like in an English winery?
As I’m sure every winery will tell you, there is no average day. At this time of the year, we’re bottling all the time. Getting all the 2019s into bottle so we have tank, qvevri and barrel space for the 2020 harvest.
Talk me through your wines. What do you like about each of them?
To be honest, this would take forever. We don’t make two wines. We make around 17 each year. We also don’t generally make the same wine twice. So we’ve made around 35 different wines over 4 vintages. It may be more useful to tell you a little bit more about the winemaking philosophy and our approach. So, when we started in 2016 our wines were good but not amazing. Mainly because we were urban winery beginners but also because we were copycats. We would ask vineyards how we should make the wines from their grapes. We ended up with wines that were similar to theirs. That was pointless. We soon realised this in 2017 when we released our first wines. A huge benefit of making wines in the UK and in London is that there is no history of winemaking and there are no traditions to uphold, or appellation rules to stick to. You are free! So we changed. From 2017 onwards, we made a clear point of making differentiated, innovative wine. What does this mean in reality? Wild ferments, country blends, skin contact whites, hopped sparkling, can fermented wines, whole bunch ferments, experimental yeast strains, no filtration, qvevri, hungarian oak, chestnut, carbonic, no fining etc. We changed to be innovative, creative, disruptive but not gimmicky. There is no point us making wines like the ones people are used to and can buy in the supermarket.
You have an English Sparkling wine, the London Sparkling 2016 Blanc de Noirs, what's the story behind this English sparkling wine?
So, we don’t really make traditional method English sparkling wines. Mainly because we think the French, Italians, Spanish and others make enough good fizz, not to mention other big English wineries. We can’t compete on price or scale and it’s hard to make significantly better and differentiated wines than these large players at a low and approachable price point. So we didn’t. Instead, and mainly for our own pleasure and enjoyment, we decided to make a very small amount of vintage English sparkling wine, but by our own rules and without any corners being cut on price or quality. We wanted to make a wine that made no sense. A wine made with love and care and without a budget. So in 2016 we bought 1,000kgs of super premium Suffolk grown Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and made our first sparkling. We whole bunch pressed the grapes by hand in a wooden basket press, fermented the juice using only wild yeasts in French oak barrels (made by our cooper in Champagne), added no yeast, no sulphur, no nutrients, no sugar, no anything and let the wine ferment over a long cool ferment. It went through malolactic and was battonaged daily by the rumble of the overhead trains as well as us stirring the barrels weekly. After a period in barrel we bottled the wine for secondary ferment and placed it in the undercroft of Christ Chrurch Spitalfields for ageing on the lees. The undercroft of the church is actually under the crypt. Every bottle was hand carried down and placed in our cages to age. Just to mention, every aspect of this wine was done by hand. No machinery at all was used in the making. It was riddled by hand in wooden riddling racks and was disgorged by hand, corked by hand, caged by hand and boxed up. It was a real labour of love. We added only a very small dosage into the wine pre corking, 5g/L so it is uber dry. It’s distinctive, it’s not a Champagne or pretending to be. It’s uniquely what it is. We only made 800 bottles of the wine in 2016. We sold almost all of them before release. We have made London Sparkling again every vintage but we change it each year. In 2016 is was a Suffolk grown Blanc de Noirs aged in Hawsmoor’s flagship church. In 2017 we made a Sparkling Pinot Noir Rosé that is still on lees in the bottle in the cellars of the Freemasons Hall in Covent Garden and the 2018 is a Blanc de Blancs currently on lees in the cellars of Somerset House on the sides of the Thames. The 2019 has just gone into bottle and it is, like 2016 a Blanc de Noirs but made from only Essex grown Pinot Noir. London Sparkling is a wine for wine lovers and people who appreciate a little excess, extravagance, the finer things in life, rare treats and are happy to throw caution to the wind in the pursuit of an exceptional glass of wine. It isn’t for everyone and we have our haters, but sod them. If we cared about those people, we’d have never started an urban winery.
What are the plans for the future of Renegade Urban Winery?
We will grow the business. At the moment, we only make around 35,000 bottles a year across 17 different wines. Our wines all sell out quite quickly, so we need to make more. Not only to satisfy demand but also to make the business more stable. We are too small. At our volume, we can’t make enough revenue to make the business a real success. We had planned to build a new winery in London in June this year to triple production. This has been put on hold until next year now. There are no plans to become farmers/plant vines. Making wine is a completely different skill to growing grapes. Our skill is in the making, not the growing. Most Michelin starred chefs don’t rear their own cattle or grow their own wheat. They focus on the making/cooking. Most world class breweries don’t grow their own hops or malt. They work with farmers and buy the best. Snap with Renegade.
What are your personal favourite wines of choice. Do you make sure that your wines compliment food too?
So we are not sommeliers, they can tell you about wine pairing and food, we just make the best wines we can. I personally have always liked (like many) Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as individual varieties. I like new oak, I like skin contact and punchy aromatics. I like clean wines, I like unfiltered wines but mainly I like all wines if they’re well made. Personally, since being involved in the making side of wine, I appreciate the making. You can tell if a wine is well made, and made with care. That for me has become more important than just the grape/region/style. I am not that into bubbles, but they have their place. I like white more than red. Like many this answer will depend on my mood, the time of year and what phase of life I’m in.
Where do you see and think the English wine industry should be going?
My opinion here may not be very welcome, so I’m happy to share it…. LOL. Where do I see it going? Probably more of the same. Traditional method sparkling wine, made to look and taste like Champagne. Where do I think it should be going? I think we should be the innovators of the ‘new old’ wine world. What has this country done so well for generations? Innovate! Experiment! Challenge! We have no winemaking history in this country (despite what a few old men will tell you) so we can do what the hell we want. We should be creating wines for a new palate, a new generation of wine drinkers and challenging the status quo.
Is there anything else that you think we should know?
Nah, I just think that the wine industry has placed an incredible marketing spell on consumers over the last 100yrs or so. People have been hoodwinked into thinking that ‘terroir’ is everything and it’s all about the grapes when it comes to wine. They sell the story of rolling vineyards but don’t educate people about the making. This will all change when winemakers and winemaking transparency come to the fore and enlightens people about the process of making wine. Wine is not grown, it’s made. It’s made by people, using chemistry, knowledge, skill and a big slug of hard work. What has happened in craft beer is coming to wine. The awakening is coming. The opening of the kimono is coming. If you want to learn about cooking, you don’t ask the farmer or food critic, you ask the chef. If you want to lean about beer, you don’t ask hop farmer or pub owner, you ask the brewer. If you want to learn about wine, talk to winemakers…. unfortunately, many of them just want to make wine, and leave the marketing and communication to the silly PR companies their bosses hire!