I HAVE NOT visited very many wineries. Until recently I left no great need to: My father made his first bottles of wine the year I was born, and by the time I was 10 I was mumbling about bouquet, vinifera and downy mildew, and helping my parents lable and bottle their own commercial wine in Maryland. At 17 I was giving tours of the winery, and watching the number of visitors and patrons increase, summer by summer. Many of them, stopping by chance on a Sunday afternoon, would stay for dinner and discuss with my father, often until past midnight, this or that beaugolais, present success, past harvests, possible blends. I'd got to bed, baffled by such singlemindedness, long before they'd finished.
To me, brought up in such an atmosphere, the wine industry has always seemed a sort of cult and wineries the temples where its dedicated followers observe certain rituals, receive guidance and encouragement, and discuss matters of enological importance. Tourists -- curious outsiders with little or no faith in the cult, and no intentions of joining it -- are welcomed but not courted; beer drinkers are virtually ignored. The center of attention is the wine: How it is made, how long it is aged, how it is different from last year's. The winery I know is primarily a productive operation, a factory of a sort, but it is also a forum, where the exchange of ideas, information and experience is constant.
When I cane to England I brought with me an innocent and almost unconscious view of what a small winery should be. In spite of what I knew of England after having lived there for over a year, it did not occur to me, on my first visit to an English winery, that it might be vastly different from my father's.
I expected to meet the winemaker, taste his wine, perhaps discuss the difficulties that plague all small wineries, and come away with a sense of belonging and a feeling of having touched familiar territory. When a notice appeared in the local paper advertising a bus trip to Hambledon Vineyards in Hampshire, I booked seats immediately, and looked forward to the day almost as if it were a trip home.
The countryside around Hambledon looked much like home to me. The road we traveled on was narrow, the hills softly rolling and divided into pastures by treelines and hedges. We passed a field brilliant with mustard and poppies, and drove down a hill into Hambledon, the village from which the vineyard takes its name. It was little more than a small group of low houses -- many thatched -- tucked beneath a range of hills, and seemed the ideal place for a family winery.
The first hint that this family winery might not be quite what I expected came at the end of the driveway up to Hambledon Vineyards, in the form of a set of traffic lights. Nestled into the greenery, but standing out unmistakably in a village that barely warranted a post office, they seemed to guard the entrance like stone lions. Stone lions, however, would not have been such a shock.
At the top of the hill was the second surprise: the grass field beside the road was covered with cars, and three other buses were already parked neatly side by side. At our winery there were a few Saturdays or Sundays when as many as six or seven cars lined our driveway, and occasionally a bus lurched through the ruts and puddles carrying a group of startled Rotary Glub members and a nervous driver up to the winery door, but not even the annual joint meeting of the Baltimore-Washington area American Wine Society could match, car for car, the collection on that hillside at Hambledon.
A woman in a little ticket booth took in the 80 pence per person (about $1.75) fee and gave us each a blue stub good for a glass of wine in the tasting area. Every 50 feet or so there were signs stuck in the grass, with helpful suggestions like: "We recommend that you see the vineyards before going to the winery," "Please retain your ticket for a sample," and best of all, "Teas and samples this way." Teas? It must be some sort of joke. Obediently we headed for the vineyards.
"There is nothing formal about Hambledon," a man, smiling and casually dressed, was saying. He was standing above the vineyards addressing a small group of visitors. "Ah," I thought, "here is the winemaker, or the cellarmaster or someone of authority. Now we'll get a feel for the place, have a tour, ask some questions." The man gave a brief history of the area, described how Hambledon began -- after the war, since sugar rationing put the earlier wineries out of business -- in 1951 with 4,000 French vines planted in a semicircle on the slope below the house. He went on, in his relaxed and affable manner, to mention a few of the varieties they planted (pinot, noir, chardonnay and meunier, muller-thurgau and seyval blanc) and to give some basic statistics as to how many bottles Hambledon -- now a 5.2 acre vineyard -- produces each year, how many tons of grapes they get from the vines, and which years were best in terms of productivity. He invited his audience to look around for themselves, taste the wine in the tasting area and to have a pleasant visit. That was all.
We caught his eye as he was moving away and went up to speak to him. When we told him who we were and that my father grew many of the same varieties that Hambledon did, he smiled broadly and got quite animated. "I shall have to introduce you to my father," he said excitedly. "You see, I'm not actually very much involved in the vineyards, because you see," he lowered his voice, "I'm actually president of a company which imports aircraft -- here's my card -- and I'm only here on weekends to give my little speeches." Behind the man -- Raymond Salisbury Jones, as I read on the card -- a much older gentleman in tweed coat and cap was standing staring out over the vineyards. "Raymond," he said without looking toward us, "are you ready for tea?" "Yes, of course, Father," said Raymond, somewhat flustered, "but it's so terribly exciting -- these two young people have come all the way from -- where was it? -- from Maryland just to see our place, and they grow the same vines that we do! You really must meet them." The father, who by then had set up a camp stool, stuck it into the ground and sat on it. He glanced at us, nodded, and said wearily, "Are you coming in for tea Raymond, or shall we go on without you?" That was the closest we came to the winemaker, Raymond's father, whose nod was as close as we got to conversation. The rest of the tour was conducted by signs. The vineyard's wrought iron gates were hund with large wooden boards carefully painted and printed with explanations of pruning and cultivation, and a short history of the Hambledon Valley. The vineyard itself was evidence as to why, as Raymond has put it, "winemaking is not a blue-chip business": In late September the bunches were painfully small and still very green.
No one was there to explain why Hambledon does not age its wine in oak for longer than a few weeks, nor why they use fiberglass vats for nearly every stage of their winemaking. In fact, without a human spokesman to animate the whole process, the winery was just a group of dim, vaguely recognizable objects gathered in a cool room.
The "Teas" sign was not a joke. A large airy room was filled with tables and, from a long counter, people were buying cookies, scones and tea, and eating and drinking in small groups. The tasting room was empty. Our "sample," for which we had carefully saved our blue tickets, was disappearing: a single sherry glass full of Hambledon 1978 white, characterless and high in alsohol. No other vintages were available for tasting. We brought two bottles of 1977 -- which turned out to be better but not brilliant -- got on our bus and wound back down the narrow lane past the traffic lights and out of Hambledon. I didn't feel that I'd touched familiar territory.
Hambledon, I learned later, is open only 14 days a year -- hence the crowds on days it does open. Its proprietor, Maj. Gen. Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones (Raymond's father), is a retired military man, "highly respected and a pionerr" in the British wine world. A small winery in England is often, of necessity, a hobby, since it seldom pays its way; the kind of enthusiasm and idealism that prompts an American businessman to "get out of the rat race and grow grapes" would not last very long here. England is not known for its wine. The cool, often rainy summers retard the ripening of most varieties and encourage mildew; taxes push the price of a finished English wine -- often higher than most already because of high production costs and small harvests -- out of the reach of the average consumer.
Thus England has Hambledon, a winery that simplifies winemaking for those to whom it is merely a curiosity, and links it to cricket and Nelson's Monument (also in the Hambledon Valley and mentioned on the tour) for those to whom it is a bore. The winery provides a country setting suitable for walks in the fresh air (a national pastime), a chance for an undisturbed peek into the rudiments of grapegrowing and winemaking (complete with expensive French and Swiss equipment) . . . and a tea room.