A Sussex winery's merry ambience is helping to expand the market for meads.
As if there were not troubles enough in the poor girl's life. Now another misfortune appears to be brewing for HRH The Princess of Wales. I can exclusively reveal that, for the first time in nearly a decade, the unhappy royal consort did not receive a bottle of gooseberry wine on her birthday in July. Nor of Christmas Mead ('the celebration liquor of kings', but not, it would seem, of estranged princesses); nor even of Old Jenny ('a secret blend of herbs and spices to a 16th-century recipe beloved of Elizabeth I').
'She's off the list,' snaps Jerry Schooler, inventor of the Lurgashall Winery and purveyor of all the imbibables listed above. The cause of Schooler's displeasure? Moral lassitude? Lese-majesty? Neither apparently. The answer would appear to lie in a framed letter, typed on Kensington Palace writing paper, thanking Mr Schooler for his last birthday offering but pointing out that its acceptance should not be used 'for purposes of advertising or of publicity'. 'I think that's just awful,' says Lurgashall's chairman. 'The Queen Mum doesn't say that sort of thing, and her equerry writes back in 24 hours - longhand.'
Whether it is the slack manners of the royal young or the interdict on royal advertising that bothers Schooler is debatable. In either case, the last laugh is his. The offending letter hangs in the tasting room at Lurgashall, visible 'to all of the 35,000 visitors who come here every year', he delightedly points out. 'Is that advertising? Well, is it?' he demands. Beside it are polite (if vaguely mystified) thank yous from half-a-dozen other royal equerries.
Beneath it are (ahem) 'medieval' benches hewn from bits of tree. There is a whole forest of beams, and banks of shelves proffering such cutting-edge produce as jars of mead and bees-wax polish. 'We've just got to keep these traditions going,' says Schooler, from deep inside a jacket of herringbone tweed. 'Otherwise they will just die out and be gone for ever.'
It perhaps need not be pointed out that Mr Schooler - Royalist, traditionalist and Briton to the tips of his well-shod shoes - is an American. Or, as he prefers to put it, 'an English gentleman with an American accent'.
Nevertheless, one should guard against thinking of the story of Lurgashall Winery as merely a touching tale of transatlantic nostalgia for corn dollies and tugged forelocks. Last year the company's West Sussex bottling plant produced and sold around 200,000 bottles of its assorted meads and 'English country wines' (including gooseberry, elderflower and silver birch). It turned over a heady £557,355 (excluding VAT) in the process. This year, the company expects to sell in excess of 300,000 bottles and turn over an estimated £705,763. Sales receipts are up 5% on last year's, which were, in their turn, 20% up on the previous year's.
These are impressive figures considering that 21 other English vineyards are currently seeking buyers. Schooler believes that, with increased bottling capacity, 1.5 million bottles per annum is not an unreasonable target for the company. It would be an unwise business journalist indeed who ventured to disagree with this formidable American.
The man who masterminded Lurgashall is certainly no sentimentalist. He was, for one thing, senior lecturer in corporate planning at London Guildhall University (previously the City of London Polytechnic) for 17 years. Moreover, he has run a lucrative consultancy. He has a natural eye for marketing opportunities that seems, dare one say it, distinctly transpontine. Lurgashall's carefully-contrived ambience, like its owner's tweeds or views on royal letter writing, is not just English, but over-English. It is an England viewed through the optic of Tess and Hollywood central casting. Indeed, you could easily imagine the place as a Thomas Hardy theme park. The lady behind the winery's (humming) cash register does not quite address customers as 'my dearie-oh', but one feels that she might if provoked.
Her employer is in no doubt as to the value-addedness of all of this, and not just in terms of patriotic warmth. 'I was lecturing the staff of the South East England Tourist Board recently,' says Schooler. 'I said to them, "You godda have a programme that's very high-class and very Briddish."' Schooler takes his own dictum an apocalyptic step further. 'A friend of mine says we should ban all post-1940 cars in Britain and offer a 10% reduction to anyone wearing a uniform in a pub,' he says. 'OK, maybe he's being slightly tongue-in-cheek, but I think he's basically right. Industry's done here. Pretty soon, all we are going to have left here is tourism. That is why we have got to rally behind the monarchy. That's what we've got to do. We godda have a British Lego-land here.'
Churlish would-be citizens of this future Lego-kingdom may take issue with his view, but Schooler's bottom line tells its own story. When he bought the Malmesbury Mead and Wine Company for £20,000 in 1985, it had a dozen customers and a puny turnover of under £40,000. The extra £660,000-plus and 400-odd customers to which it can now lay claim is testimony to Schooler's vision of what must count as one the world's least probable niche markets.
For improbable it was. Schooler's retro-active reasoning is that mead was simply a market waiting to be re-exploited. It is, he points out, mentioned in Beowulf and was the favoured tipple of Tudor monarchs; thus, he reasons, the tendency of modern Britons not to drink it was a national aberration pure and simple. This aberrant piece of thinking belittles Schooler's true gifts as a salesman. Lurgashall's handsome market is not re-created but new.
What is more, it was won at a time when newly sophisticated British gents were busy learning to pronounce Pinot Noir and Pouilly Fuisse. That they should have been persuaded of the potability of wines made in Sussex from plums and gooseberries owes everything to Schooler's American recognition of nostalgia as a potent British marketing tool.
When the Domesday Book celebrated its 900th birthday in 1986, the year after Schooler's debut as a meadiste, he arranged that Lurgashall be appointed official mead-brewer to the festivities. The winery has subsequently produced, among many others, Mary Rose and Glorious Revolution meads. It has its eye on supplying the Civil War celebrations, too. Lurgashall has also recently bottled a wine made with grapes from the Great Vine at Hampton Court, and is official purveyor of fruit wines to such 'prestigious venues' as Blenheim, Althorp and, strangely, the Design Centre. All this activity has been transmitted to the press through a relentless flow of weekly press releases: 'I guess we're on TV maybe four times a year and on the radio once a month,' says Schooler, cheerily.
Persistence and chutzpah have also resulted in Lurgashall's whereabouts being indicated by no fewer than 13 little brown official heritage signs dotted about the lanes of West Sussex: 'I mean, you just don't get 13 signs in Britain,' enthuses Schooler. 'It's all a matter of strategy. My competitor up the road gets 8,000 visitors a year on a much bigger property. We get 35,000. How come, huh?'
And these visitors are important. Lurgashall's computer files suggest that 15-20% of annual sales are made direct to callers at the winery's shop. This in turn implies that a fair percentage of the firm's trade and wholesale custom may also come from ex-visitors. This brings us back to Lurgashall's ambience, or 'essence', as he prefers to call it - all important for the shaping of his planned toy town Britain.
Bottling, for example, takes place in an original 17th-century, timber-framed barn. Original, that is, in the sense that it is 17th century, timber-framed and a barn; Schooler discovered it in Horsham and had it moved bodily 20 miles down the road. The one next door is an emigre from Billingshurst.
Sussex barns are not necessarily the optimum structures for producing the aseptic conditions necessary for uncontaminated fermentation. However, any process drawbacks are more than compensated for by the fact that the barns are old and pretty. 'We deal in beauty here,' notes Schooler. Still, it is clearly a form of comeliness that can also be spelt profit.
Managing to expand Lurgashall into Megamead plc, while still retaining its HQ's all-important ooh-arr quaintness, seems a tall order. Schooler, however, thinks otherwise. 'We have got another 17th-century barn lined up for the new bottling plant,' he says, breezily. He also has bespoke machinery to go inside it. This, following Schooler's avowed buy-British policy, is all manufactured in the UK. 'We,' says Lurgashall's chairman, regally, 'are going to save this country.'
The country, meanwhile, is doing its best to return the compliment. 'We've just picked up the Tower of London,' Schooler beams. 'Our biggest previous venue was Hampton Court, and that only has 500,000 visitors. The Tower of London has 2.5 million.' Lurgashall's admirable software translates this new custom alone into an envisaged 7-8% sales hike, lending a certain credence to its chairman's bullishness.
Plans are afoot to acquire a neighbouring vinery (it of the mere 8,000 visitors, indeed), which will allow Schooler, who is a respected sommelier, to move further into grape wines. So far, only one per cent of production goes in exports, which is why Lurgashall also has its eye fixed beadily on the vast US market. 'I can sell to Americans,' says Schooler, plausibly enough. 'But I want to get our fermentation just right first. I know the American mind. One bad case can put you out of business in the US.'
But back in the gentler climes of Lego-land all is not unalloyed sweetness. Even the unstoppable Schooler has not been able to deal with one British trait - the obduracy of British banks. Thanks to an incipient divorce chez Schooler, his bank has frozen Lurgashall's overdraft at £35,000. Given the firm's acute sales seasonality, this is serious.
Inventories have been cut to a third, suppliers are paid interest and Schooler has found a new product ('But I'm not telling') to fill in the bleak January to March period. But things look bad even so. 'I've advertised in the Financial Times for people to buy us,' says Schooler, 'but the 80 replies we got were either from asset-strippers, Japanese or people who wanted to run the company without me. I want someone British and who is as courageous as I was.' Defenders of Lego-land, forward please.