Floating on Cloud Nine

PUBLISHED: 15:25 30 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:13 20 February 2013

Keith and Esther Willingale

Keith and Esther Willingale

Bow-in-the-Cloud vineyard sits on a unique piece of growing land in North Wiltshire.<br/>The name of the vineyard derives from a competition run in a national newspaper, to name a house in the Wiltshire hamlet of Noah's Ark. The names of wines pro...

From Royal Navy engineering officer to wine producer is a bit of a step, but one that a lot of people are taking all over the country, because the UK is now a wine-producing nation of some stature. Even the French are considering buying land on the south coast to establish vineyards.

Wiltshire is no exception to the general trend, with a number of vineyards operating in the county, and when Keith Willingale exchanged his Navy blues for civvy-street for plain clothes in 1994, he soon found himself operating the only vineyard in North Wiltshire, despite his only experience of wine up to that time being the fruits of other people's labours.

It was a serendipitous turn of events that took the Willingales along the route of wine producing. Just at the time when Keith retired from the Navy, fields adjoining his house came up for sale. He was looking for something to occupy his free time so bought five acres, purely for investment and security purposes. Only then did he find that the soil and situation were well suited to growing vines, one of the few places in North Wiltshire that is - and ideal for grapes that ripen in a cool climate.

"I had absolutely no experience of vine growing, but I believe that engineers have experience that enables them to turn their hands to most things," Keith says, "so I saw no reason not to give it a try. It was just a question of reading a few books and picking the brains of some very helpful growers."

It was the location itself that was one of the determining factors. The hamlet where Keith lives is called Noah's Ark, so-called after Noah Stoneham who built it in 1769.

"As Noah had the first vineyard, it seemed appropriate," he said, "and anyway there was a clear marketing theme emerging in that we had, some years earlier, renamed our house Bow-in-the-Cloud (a quote from Genesis) with the help of readers of the Godfrey Smith column in the Sunday Times. Godfrey Smith is a neighbour and ran a competition in his column to choose an appropriate name for a house located in a hamlet called Noah's Ark."

So, he bought the land in 1991, planted over the next two years, and with the help of Three Choirs vineyard at Newent (who vinify the grape juice he provides), produced his first wines in 1995. Over the next ten years he improved the quality to such an extent that by 2004 the Schönburger 04 gained a bronze award at the annual Taste of the West competition, followed the next year by the Cloud Nine quality sparkling wine, which gained a silver. One of the highlights of Keith's winegrowing career was when two of his wines were specially chosen to complement the spring lamb on the menu served at the reception held to commemorate the Queen's Jubilee visit to Malmesbury in 2001.

Local farmers' markets and food fairs provide much of the vineyard's general retail business, but hotels, quality pubs and restaurants throughout Wiltshire form the bulk of sales, with Whatley Manor, The Pear Tree, The Old Bell, The Priory Inn and The Rectory being just some on a long list of establishments that feature the vineyard's produce.

It is the social context of English wines that Keith finds interesting. "We firmly believe that the future for English wine is very promising," he says."It is different from the mainstream of, mainly, Chardonnay, which is a good start in itself. It is also eminently quaffable - a 'social' wine, complementing conversation and food rather than being an overpowering presence. We have sought to build on this characteristic through high quality labelling."

The vineyard produces six wines: four dry whites (Arkadian Bacchus, Arkadian Schönburger, Arkadian Seyval and Cloud Nine blended) and two quality sparkling (Cloud Nine Brut and Cloud Nine Pink Brut), and the names play uniquely on the biblical connotations surrounding the name of the hamlet - names again devised through a similar competition to that which generated the name of the vineyard itself. 'Cloud Nine' for instance emanated from an allegorical story about the ninth set of creatures to enter Noah's Ark being a pair of crows who liked to boast that 'a day spent on the.grape' was like being 'on wing in the clouds', allegedly giving rise to the saying 'being on cloud nine'.

Cloud Nine is certainly what Bow-in-the-Cloud Vineyard has been on since Keith Willingale swapped a life on the ocean wave for a life on the rolling plain, and the future can only look better because not all of the land that he bought is yet planted out - there's plenty of room for more.

The vineyard is open to the general public only by special arrangement but pre-booked groups are always welcome. Quite apart from its uniquely biblical connotations, the vineyard forms part of a heritage trail, which has particular relevance for American tourists, for Garsdon Manor and church are visible from the vineyard some half-a-mile distant. The significance being that Garsdon Manor is the ancestral seat of the Washington family, from whom George Washington, the first president of the USA was descended.

Inside the church there is a memorial dedicated to Sir Lawrence Washington and his wife, who purchased Garsdon Manor in 1641. The Washington arms, shown on the memorial in the church, contain the stars and stripes later used in the American flag. A mere upstart in the scheme of things, because you can't get much further back in heritage than Noah's Ark.

For further information about Bow-in-the-Cloud Vineyard, check out the website at www.bowinthecloud.co.uk, (01666) 823040.

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