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Friday Interview: Elise Lane on opening the first urban winery in the North East

We caught up with CEO and Head Winemaker at Laneberg Wine to discuss career changes, listening to your gut and not letting any constraints put you off pursuing a career that you're passionate about...

How long have you been in business for?

I set the company up a little over two years ago now. Our first batch of grapes came in September and October of 2018, and the rest of the year was spent planning, getting the premises and equipment in place and finding our grape suppliers and vineyards.

What was your background before winemaking?

I started being interested in wine around the time I was at university – I studied for a chemistry degree at Oxford and was interested in the chemistry of wine; things like what is it about grapes that makes such different wines? You just can’t do that with other fruits, and it’s all to do with the naturally occurring compounds in grapes and the chemical reactions that occur during the winemaking process. The yeast has an impact on them, the oxygen, the wood from the barrels, it all impacts the grapes, so all these different flavours come through from different places.

However, I’d left all that behind, moved to London and got a career with one of the large professional services firms as an assistant director and I worked there for 12 or 13 years. I was doing wine tasting qualifications on the side as an interest but not knowing what I was going to do with it. It just wasn’t clicking for me; I didn’t want to buy wine or sell wine – although that is what I’m doing now, it’s just I’m selling my wine as opposed to other people’s. It was really only during the last part of my second wine tasting qualification, when it touched on the winemaking side of things, that I realised how relevant my degree was. This was around 2010, and it sat in my mind for a good five years. I’d taken some time off to have my first child, Max in 2014 and afterwards I went back to work for about six months and realised that it just wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore. I wasn’t passionate about it in the way I wanted to be passionate about my job. 

In 2015 I decided to take the plunge and pursue winemaking. I went to Plumpton College to retrain and did a post-graduate diploma in Viticulture and Oenology – it’s the only place you can learn to make wine or gain any sort of wine qualification in England. I got a lot of experience working in their commercial winery and once I’d finished my course I continued working there for the best part of a year as their assistant winemaker on a voluntary basis. I realised as soon as I got there that this was what I wanted to do, and I’ve never doubted myself over the last five years.

What made you decide to open your winery in the North East?

We’d initially planned on opening a vineyard and winery in the South – as it’s where you’re more likely to get enough heat to grow good grapes. My husband is from Hampshire, so we considered opening one there, but when we were in London we visited a few urban wineries like London Cru. An urban winery is essentially a winery that’s based away from a vineyard, so you buy your grapes from elsewhere. That’s where we got the idea and as a result, it meant we weren’t restrained by geography, so we moved back up North in 2017. 

What’s been one of your biggest struggles with opening a winery in the North East?

There’s a sense of place and a lot of tradition around winemaking that says your wine has to be made where the grapes are grown, so the idea of the grapes being transported from the place they were grown to produce wine in a different area is a different concept for a lot of people. For our first vintage, our grapes all came from a vineyard in Leicestershire. 2018 was a fantastic growing season in the UK, with lots of sun, so we managed to get some fantastic quality grapes. The great thing is, in the North East a lot of people are just absolutely delighted that there’s wine being made up here. 

It’s one of the best things about the region; people are very accepting and supportive. A lot of people here are also familiar with brewing, and they know you can’t grow all the ingredients needed to make beer or hops in the North, so they’re very supportive about us sourcing our grapes from elsewhere. We’re the first urban winery in the North East – there are some in Yorkshire, but we’re the first one to be located here.

The great thing is, in the North East a lot of people are just absolutely delighted that there’s wine being made up here. It’s one of the best things about the region; people are very accepting and supportive.

How has your past experience helped with the running of your business?

Luckily my husband and I come from similar professional backgrounds. I think that makes us hyper-aware of how much money is coming in and out of the business – we certainly keep the books in order! We both also have big ideas but are cautious about making silly decisions that won’t benefit the company, particularly when we’re just starting out. Maybe in 20-years’ time when Laneberg Wines has a huge brand reputation, we can do something like a really special bottle of red wine that sells for £70 a bottle, but at the moment, we know that no-one is going to buy that! 

What we have to do is make products that are going to appeal to the people that want to buy them, which at the moment is primarily people in the North East who know what they want. We’re really trying to tap into the trend that people now are wanting to drink less but drink higher quality.

What’s your process at an urban winery?

We buy our grapes – it’s important to have a good relationship with your grower as it’s their expertise you’re relying on – and they’re immediately put onto the back of a truck and sent up here, where we process them the very next day. The grapes are put into a piece of machinery called a crusher destemmer which does what it says on the tin – crushes the skin and pulls all the stems off. 

They then go through the pump straight into the tank for red wine, or into a press for white wine. We drain the juice from the press and pump it into a tank, which has a lot of solids in it – think the difference between cloudy apple juice and clear apple juice. At that point, with our whites, we have cloudy grape juice and want it to be clearer. To do this we let the solids settle by cooling it down and leaving it for a couple of days. 

It then gets pumped into a second tank – known as racking – and then we add the yeast to begin fermentation. Fermentation usually takes between 7-20 days and we test the sugar levels to determine the potential alcohol level. If the wine is under the saleable levels of alcohol, we add some sugar to encourage the alcohol content to increase. We try to have a minimal intervention approach with our winemaking, so we try to let the wine do its own thing without doing too much. It does mean there’s a chance our wines are slightly different every time, but it lets us see what different grapes can do and I really like that. 

How do you manage such a long process in terms of investment?

When we moved up here from London, we sold our house and were able to use that money as funding for the company, but there’s a lot of investment needed to get the product – we have to buy the grapes but won’t see any money from the purchase of those grapes for at least six months. 

Last year we were lucky enough to make use of a North East fund, which uses EU funding, which meant we were able to secure the grapes for last year. If we were to expand, we would need to buy more bottles, add more tanks etc, so we’re looking into investors for that. We’re also looking at other funding sources, such as equity and crowdfunding, as options. 

Our main goal, though, is to get sales in. I’m really happy to say that once people try our wines, they usually come back for more.  

What are your future plans?

We’re hoping to expand this year. It’s a tricky thing, as you make your wine once a year, so when you decide to buy 10-tonnes of grapes, that’s it, you’ve committed to it for that year. We’re hoping to secure funding to buy more than that this year.

Further into the future, we’re also planning on bringing in other experiences, such as tours and wine tastings, lunch clubs etc. and to increase our wholesale and trade selling too, so we can start to see Laneberg Wines in more hotels and restaurants. 

What lessons have you learned along the way?

There are always ups and downs. I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn is that I have to do so many roles, including some that I’m not completely comfortable with. I can find it hard to be a salesperson. It’s a completely different skill in itself, and hopefully moving forward we’ll be able to find someone who already has that skill set, but for now, as a new business, we’ve got to do it ourselves. A first, I was really uncomfortable with talking to people and trying to sell them our wine, but I’ve had some great experiences and feedback which has helped me a lot. Other than that, learning about the logistics of running the business and finding how best to run it efficiently is a constant learning curve.  

What advice would you give to someone who is having a niggle that they’re not quite happy with their current career?

If you have any kind of inkling of what it is that you want to do in life, the best thing you can do is try it out. I was lucky enough to have the support of my husband to change my career. It can be challenging but if you’re determined enough then you can always find a way to do it. Don’t let constraints like money, children etc. put you off doing what it is that you’re passionate about; no matter what job you’re in you’ll always have to juggle your life around those constraints, but running your own business has all sorts of benefits.

If you really, really want it, then go for it.

North East Favourites

We don’t get out as much as we would like to, but we did go to St Vincent for our anniversary last year, which we absolutely loved. 

We spent a lot of time trying to find things to do that are child-friendly. Places like Tanfield Railway and Gibside National Trust are ideal for families, so we spend a lot of time there. 

La Cucina on our industrial estate does the most amazing food for lunch, we’re massive fans. We’re on their Facebook every day finding out what the special is!

We also love taking the kids to Sorella Sorella in Sunniside, right by where we live. Lovely Italian food and a real treat! 

https://www.lanebergwine.com/shop

We’re really trying to tap into the trend that people now are wanting to drink less but drink higher quality.

Elise Lane, CEO and Head Winemaker

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