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From wine book editor to Winemaker of the Year – 5-minute Q&A with Emma Rice

I first met Emma Rice when she was the editor of the second edition of my book Discovering Wine. She went on to become one of the UK's first graduates of the new BSc (Hons) in Viticulture & Oenology at Plumpton College, Sussex in 2006. Now she's head winemaker of English sparkling wine producer Hattingley Valley and was UK Winemaker of the Year in both 2014 and 2016.

This article first appeared in Waitrose Drinks magazine.

Emma Rice, winemaker

Q: How old were you when you went to Plumpton?

A: 28.

Q: What had you been doing?

A: I was working as a wine book editor and read about Plumpton College in Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book while updating the entries.

Q: Had you always wanted to be a winemaker, secretly or not?

A: I’d always worked in wine in some way. I’d done a harvest in New Zealand and worked at a specialist Burgundy importer, so I was fascinated, but I didn’t even know that you could study winemaking in the UK.

Q: What was the best part of the course?

A: The practical parts were the most fun: tractor driving, working in the vineyards and cellar, and tasting the fruits of our labour at the end of the year.

Q: Why would you recommend it as a first degree to school leavers?

A: It’s a full academic BSc with a great mix of theory and practical and there are opportunities to attend tastings and gain additional qualifications alongside your degree. A Plumpton degree gives you the chance to travel the world working and earning money: Plumpton’s graduates are valued everywhere because they have great practical and tasting skills.

Q: What do you look for now when you’re recruiting for harvest cellar workers?

A: Harvest jobs are extremely competitive. I’m keen to see a degree and practical experience, as well as a forklift licence!

Q: Did you decide early on to specialise in English sparkling wine, or did you have ambitions to make wine in some famous region?

A: No, I didn’t expect to be working in England. From Plumpton I went to do a harvest in Napa Valley, California and ended up staying two years as oenologist and lab manager at Cuvaison Estate. Then I went to Australia. It was when I returned to the UK to regroup that I realised how fast growing and vibrant the English sparkling wine industry was.

Q: What's your biggest achievement so far?

A: Without question, seeing Hattingley Valley go from a derelict site in 2008 to one of the largest and best-equipped, modern wineries in England. To win UK Winemaker of the Year in 2014 and 2016 for the first vintages was fantastic and those early vintages garnered us other top international awards too. To have our wines judged alongside the best in the world and not found be wanting is very gratifying.

Q: Where do you think you'll be in ten years' time?

A: I don’t know! I can’t imagine being anywhere other than here, doing what I do now, but 10 years ago I couldn’t have imagined this! It’s exciting and fast-moving and things change quickly.

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