On a Mission. In Conversation with Emma Lundie, the Inspirational Figure Behind London’s Only Commercial Vineyard.
Emma Lundie is a social entrepreneur and local food sustainability champion, based in the London Borough of Enfield, North London. She is also Head of Operations at Forty Hall Vineyard, London’s only commercial scale vineyard since the middle ages, a pioneering social enterprise that benefits local people, and produces acclaimed, organic wines.
Tales of the City sat down with her and listened to the incredible story of an award-winning wine producer on our doorstep in London. Here’s what she told us.
Emma Lundie. Photo credit Felicity Crawshaw
When I moved out of Islington, heading up Green Lanes to Winchmore Hill, my first thought was “Where’s the food?” I made it my mission to find good places that I could source great food from. What I discovered was people making incredible stuff and selling it themselves. I decided I was going to connect all these people and got funding to start a delivery service, marketing local food producers and running food events and a farmers’ market.
Doing all this, I discovered there was an organic farm in Enfield, on the Forty Hall estate. I knocked on their door one day, discovered they had a vineyard but no shop or marketing to speak of. But there was a community side to the vineyard that appealed to me because of my dual professional life – as well as my work in local food sustainability I come from a charity background, working in human rights.
The vineyard was the brainchild of the inspirational Sarah Vaughan Roberts, who had the idea of setting up a vineyard run along the lines of a community orchard. She came from a social enterprise background, and had worked in the charity sector, but also had an interest in viticulture. She had seen vineyards in Paris and New York and had a vision of creating one in London.
“This is not a hard sell. This is a dream.”
I came in to help Sarah market the project and soon after I did, fate, in the shape of the British weather, intervened. 2018 was a bumper year for English wine and suddenly Forty Hall vineyard went from a small, growing community project with not much wine to sell, to a serious commercially sustainable proposition with a huge amount of wine. Sarah asked me to market it properly, but was concerned it was a hard sell, with the vineyard seen as a novelty and English wine not yet taken seriously.
“This is not a hard sell,” I told her. “This is seriously good wine. We are London’s only vineyard. This is a dream.”
Photo credit Felicity Crawshaw
Forty Hall Vineyard is now ten acres of land with 14,000 vines. Sarah started it as one acre of land that was kindly donated to her by Capel Manor College, London’s only specialist environmental college. It was, and still is, a not-for-profit labour of love for a group of volunteers and a skeleton team, and all about bringing people together around food and drink and the community that arises from that.
If you’re going to make wine, you’ve got to make it superlatively. The focus from the very beginning was the grapes. Really good wine starts with the grapes. We could have bought a winery, made the wines ourselves here, but we made the decision to focus on the vines and the people. So, we work in partnership with Will Davenport, a pioneering organic winemaker based in Kent and Sussex. It means that we can focus on the vineyard and being organic. We’re certified organic, so that not only makes for exceptionally good grapes, and award-winning wine, but it also creates an environment of full biodiversity that we’re always trying to improve within the vineyard. If we were shoving a load of chemicals on our vines, we’d have a more guaranteed crop, but it would be detracting from the local environment, and that’s at odds with our mission for people. You can’t pick and choose your commitment to sustainability.
That’s why I use the word “pioneering” to describe Forty Hall. When Sarah Vaughan Roberts said we’re going to be organic, she was laughed at by some of the most well-known wine producers and agricultural colleges at the time. Running a commercially successful vineyard in the way that we do as a social enterprise is, again, completely alien to the rest of the industry. We really are an anomaly.
“Ecotherapy wasn’t really a thing when we started doing it…”
The vineyard is a community project that’s there to benefit people from all walks of life. I don’t think the impact of working outdoors, being connected with people, working towards creating a high-end product together – all those things – were fully understood at that time. Ecotherapy wasn’t really a thing when we started doing it.
Working with grapes is a real leveler that brings together people with hugely different lives and sensibilities. Some of the tasks have that repetitive quality that relaxes your mind and brings a new perspective to your life. And, because you’re working alongside each other in the vines, you can talk a little bit more easily or you can lose yourself.
What’s special about working on a vineyard is that it’s one crop and you are working towards one goal at harvest. The whole year is geared towards that, and it can go either way.
The year before the bumper harvest of 2018, a frost decimated the crop here and there was nothing to pick. The crop that followed that disastrous one is what made us as a vineyard. Therein lies the parallel with the challenge of life, its highs and lows. We nurture the vineyard while it’s dormant and that’s when a lot of the hard work happens, pruning and preparing the vines for the year ahead. Then, suddenly it comes back to life, grasping the opportunity to grow again. This is a social mission with a strong element of jeopardy.
Photo credit Pablo Antolí
People will always get the benefit of working here but when it comes to the actual harvest, because this is farming, we are going to have some disasters. People who work at Forty Hall Vineyard get very invested in that, they feel that producing wine is something they really do, and really care about.
And they love the fact that the single estate wine they are helping to produce is of a seriously high quality. We are winners of the Independent English Wine Award Gold Medal. Our award-winning Sparkling London Brut is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir grapes in the traditional Champagne method, with all the fermentation taking place naturally in the bottle. The two single variety still dry white wines are produced from Bacchus and Ortega grapes.
And because of growing our grapes naturally, with as little intervention as possible, the wine truly reflects the unique characteristics of the soil and its microclimate – no synthetic fungicides, herbicides or fertilisers. Forty Hall Farm bring their sheep on to the vineyard in winter to graze and fertilise the soil.
“Escape into the orchard or fields and just get a bit lost…”
We run wine-tasting sessions which always tie in with the farmers’ market, which is also my baby. There’s an hour-long tasting and afterwards, you go and eat in the farmers’ market which is, again, the only farmers’ market on a working organic farm in London.
Our wine tastings are a really different, unique experience. We have so many people coming to us who say they’ve done vineyard tours all over the place but love Forty Hall Vineyard because it’s completely different. There’s no fancy restaurant, there’s no high-end tasting room, nothing corporate. It’s all done in our shelter, and Londoners find that just being right in the vineyard feels very natural, low-key, and unintimidating. It’s a working vineyard on a working farm and for the wine tasting days we just open the curtains for a day; wine lovers come because of the quality and a lot of families come along because it’s an amazing resource for Londoners to be able to walk around, see the animals and the farm. This is a shockingly large area of farmland in London, and people take their food and escape into the orchard or fields or meadows and just get a bit lost.
To buy wines from Forty Hall Vineyards, see their full list of stockists, or book a wine tasting tour, go to https://www.fortyhallvineyard.com/