Leander Club is one of the oldest rowing clubs in the world and is responsible for nurturing many of Great Britain’s Olympic rowing athletes with an unmatched collection of winning Olympic medals through the years. Leander Club has recently started serving English sparkling rose wine produced by Digby Fine English. This pairing of an award winning institution and English sparkling wine came about after the founders of Digby, Jason Humphreys and Trevor Clough, stepped up to the challenge set by Leander Club to produce a sparkling wine that was 'world beating and pink'.
The following interview is with Paul Budd OBE, FIH, General Manager of Leander Club and he explains how the connection between Digby's English sparkling wine and Leander Club came to reality.
Paul, could you provide some background on yourself and the role you have with Leander club?
I have been the General Manager of Leander Club since 2008 and my role involves running the members' side of the Club and its supporting infrastructure with my team of around 20 staff. I report to the Chairman of the all-volunteer Club Committee.
I have been in catering and hospitality all my life starting at Westminster College in 1973. Following Sandhurst I spent most of my first career as a military caterer. I finished by running Defence Catering Training before I retired early in 2006 to pursue a second career in Club management. I am a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Cooks, Fellow of the Institute of Hospitality and a member of the Reunion of Gastronomes. I was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2002. In my youth I rowed for GB at the World Junior Championships which is one of the qualifying standards for Full (Pink Tie) membership of Leander. As General Manager I wear my Pink Tie with enormous pride.
At 200 years old Leander Club is one of the oldest, if not the oldest rowing club in the world, how did it come into existence?
Leander started when Gentlemen went afloat to follow races between professional Watermen and Lighters in the early 1900’s on the Thames. They pulled six oar cutters from Searle’s Boathouse which was opposite the Houses of Parliament, where St Thomas’s Hospital is today. The boat was called Leander and it wasn’t long before they were themselves racing other gentlemen, for their own prizes. Leander soon became known as ‘The Brilliants’ and as they built into a Club and gradually moved upriver, via Putney to Henley-on-Thames they have always concentrated on the high-performance end of rowing.
Leander Club has often been described as the most successful Olympic sports club in the world with many gold medal and world championship wins. What do you put that success down to?
Leander members have won 124 Olympic medals making it the most successful single sport Olympic club in the world, in any sport. Success is due to many things but the single focus of our resources on a few high-performance athletes is central to our current purple period. That and a high ratio of top-class coaches.
Some of the famous names who are members include Sir Steve Redgrave CBE and Sir Matthew Pinsent CBE, indeed Matthew is quoted as saying “It’s just impossible for me to imagine what my career would have been like without Leander.” What do you think the club gave to him?
Leander is about supporting highly motivated young men and women who put their careers on hold to pursue an Olympic dream. Some of them reach the Olympic podium but all of them start as highly self-motivated raw talent with an attitude of mind that is ‘Team’ not ‘me’. From the top to the bottom of the programme there is a huge sense of sporting fellowship that stays with them for life. There are so many memorable moments from so many talented athletes who have achieved their dreams.
Another famous member is the actor Hugh Laurie, who comes from a family of top rowers. What connection does he have with Leander Club today?
Hugh’s father Ran Laurie was a very distinguished past President of Leander who won a Gold medal in the 1948 Olympics. Hugh followed his father into the sport and competed in the Boat Race. Hugh has retained him membership of Leander.
You are of course based in Henley, where the rowing event, The Henley Royal Regatta, is a pivotal feature of the English Social Season, how much does Leander club have to do with the event?
Leander has been competing at Henley Regatta since 1840 when if first entered and won the Grand Challenge Cp. In 1896 it moved to Henley and purchased what was the old Regatta finishing line (which had moved slightly downstream). This is where our Clubhouse stands in the heart of the Regatta activity. In 2018, in our 200th year we won our 200th event at Henley Royal Regatta. This year we entered 23 crews and were in five winning boats. Henley Royal is the highlight of the Club year welcoming our members and visiting crews to what we consider to be the home of world rowing.
It’s always been known to feature gallons of Champagne being enjoyed by onlookers on the bank. Would English sparkling wines such as the Leander Pink produced by Digby now feature as well?
Henley has always been synonymous with Champagne, Pimms and Pints! What Leander now has, that is very special indeed, is our own English ‘Leander Pink’. It is a premium sparking pink at a premium price but such is its quality and cache that in the first year at Regatta it sold double the quantity of the significantly less expensive Prosecco. We have consistently sold over 1,000 bottles in the Clubhouse at each Regatta since then. You only need one sip to be convinced that there is nothing better to drink to toast Leander’s athletes successes.
It is, as it says in the name, a pink or rosé English sparkling wine which befits Leander Club’s colours, how did you come to choose it?
I have been looking for an English pink fizz to own brand since 2010. Henley is a quintessentially English event – and we should proudly drink English products wherever possible. I tried several English pink fizzes but none matched our ethos. Leander is about sustained quality and attention to detail, not volume and so I rejected approaches from some well-known brands who were not aligned with our thinking. Trevor Clough from Digby approached me in 2013 with the Digby vintage rose and blanc which were excellent. I challenged him to come back with a Digby NV Pink that I could sell at the same price as House Champagne (surely the worst value for money on any wine list).Trevor came back 18 months later with a NV stunning sparkling rose and a production and marketing ethos firmly aligned to our own. It’s about striving for excellence.
How are members reacting to the Leander Pink English sparkling wine?
Right from the start sales of Leander Pink have been buoyant in the Clubhouse. We took NV Champagne off the wine list 3 months later as nobody drank it (and five years later nobody asks for it). Moreover, every bottle sold world-wide sends a royalty back to the Leander Academy, helping to train up our next generation of gold medallists representing Team GB. Club members have really got behind this and are our Ambassadors spreading the word beyond the club’s walls.
We recently did an interview with The Jockey Club who are now featuring English wine at their racecourse venues. Racing and Rowing are home to some of the social highlights of the season. What role do you think English sparkling wine could have in these kinds of settings in the future?
Good English wines get better and better and Digby produce consistently high-quality wines partly because they source from multiple vineyards with a clear focus on the power of blending. The quality is definitely there in many other English sparkling wines so it seems to me that the only factor holding it back is the cache. The name ‘Leander Pink’ overcomes this hurdle so perhaps own label branding will help other prestigious venues promote English wines in a same way.
Thank you Paul for such a great interview. To discover more about Leander Club and the English sparkling wine brand Digby see the links below: