There’s a new sheriff in town and it’s called the urban winery. There are no panoramas of lush green vines to gush over, no rolling hills to serve as the backdrop of a smug selfie with wine glass in hand, no rays of sunshine at that magic hour of the morning where different corners of the vineyard are lit up, bit by bit. These are places in cities that make wine, usually in concrete warehouses. They bring the grapes to them, grapes that might be pressed and fermented thousands of miles away from the vines they grew on. Are you OK with that? Is the wine world OK with that? Sounds like we’ve got a renegade on our hands who’s here to f*ck shit up.
Renegade is the apt name of an urban winery in Bethnal Green in east London, founded and run by Warwick Smith. Urban wineries are still a relatively new concept in the UK, compared to elsewhere in the world – they’re huge in the States (see New York, Portland, Austin, Denver, San Francisco and San Diego), there’s a few in Australia and there’s even some in France (Paris is home to two of them). It’s not a new concept but London has been behind the curve on this one until recently – there are now six urban wineries in the city and this is no doubt a growing scene.
‘The whole definition of an urban winery is grey,’ says Warwick, ‘and it comes back to this whole definition of wine. People associate it with where the grapes come from, not where it’s made. That’s one thing about wine that’s often different from other products – if you think about Brixton Brewery, everyone would call that a London-made beer or an English beer, but the malts are all from Germany, the hops are from America and the brewer is Italian. Some people – we don’t – but some people argue that all our wines should be called English wines because they are made in England and it doesn’t matter where the raw ingredients come from. It’s the same with bread – if you make bread in London and you use Swedish flour, is that a Swedish bread or is that a London bread? I view it as “grapes are grown and wines are made”, so our wines are made in London, but our grapes are grown in… wherever they are.’
This ‘greyness’ is why Renegade make sure that they have been absolutely transparent from the beginning, stating on the bottle that their wine is made in London from grapes from X, Y and Z. ‘One thing we’re trying to do is not pretend that these are supposedly English wines. One of the biggest fears of the English wine world was that we were going to call everything English – we’re not. We’re all about transparency – I think modern consumers want full transparency on what’s in their wines and how they’re made.’
Wine is one of the few EU products that doesn’t have to list ingredients, Warwick tells me. ‘So if you look on a bottle of wine, it might say “Contains sulphites” or “Suitable for vegetarians” – it doesn’t say “Contains egg protein”, “Contains isenglass” (fish swim bladders), “Contains egg white” for finings, “Ventinite additions”, which is a clay – you know, all this stuff you don’t have to put on a bottle. So, if we’re doing anything we’re trying to make the world of wine more transparent and less bullshitty than it currently is.’
Until four years ago Warwick was working in finance in the West End, a sector he’d been in for fifteen years. After knowing for a while that he didn’t care about finance, in 2015 he decided to pack it all in and set something up that would be more fulfilling. Although he wasn’t from a wine background, he looked at the craft beer model and thought that he could do that with wine – and he really liked the idea of flipping an old industry on its head and interrupting the wine space.
I find this kind of rebellion quite appealing and refreshing – we should probably toast to it. He’s organised a wine flight for us and so we start with the Bethnal Bubbles.
‘So, this is the most leftfield of our wines and legally it’s not actually even a wine, even though it’s 100% grapes. It’s not a wine because it’s been aromatised with beer hops, so it’s legally now gone from being a wine to an aromatised wine-based product. Funnily enough, when it goes into that category, you have to put ingredients on and so on this bottle it says, ‘sugar, yeast, wine and hops’. And again, this is using American hops but the grapes are English, so people regard this as an English wine – even though it’s no longer a wine and it’s got American hops in it!’
Seyval Blanc grapes from Hertfordshire were whole bunch pressed and fermented in chilled tanks, before being gently dry hopped and then going through a secondary fermentation in bottle. It’s cloudy in appearance (as it’s unfiltered) and is a light, greenish-kind-of-amber colour. It’s got a lovely hoppy, floral aroma and tastes fresh and citrusy on the palate. It’s really nice and I feel like having a picnic.
The core of the business is Warwick and the winemaker, Andrea. Then, they have a winery bar manager and a small team that run the bar. ‘It’s not a fancy wine bar, it’s a bit rough and ready,’ Warwick explains. ‘We don’t hire wine people because we don’t want the place to be a snobby wine place for people to come. I just don’t want it to be intimidating.’
The wine world is a place filled with regulation, tradition and a fair degree of snobbery, so I wanted to know how Renegade interacts with the industry. Does Warwick court the critics (I already think I know the answer to that)? Does he send out bottles of wines to be reviewed? Does he enter competitions? Warwick tells me that he doesn’t come from a place where it’s normal to do this kind of stuff, because he comes from the place of a consumer.
‘I think if I was a punter, what do I want to drink and what do I want to know from the producer? I’m always trying to think as a drinker, rather than a wine industry person. So, what we really care about is what our customers think – we care about will people like it, would they buy it, is it filling a gap in the market that they want filled and will they pay the price that it takes us to make the product? And so, as a rule, we don’t enter competitions because people don’t realise that wine competitions are ‘pay to play’ – it costs a fortune to enter wine competitions and it seems like you get a participation medal anyway for the wine being not faulty, which doesn’t say much. Also, our customers like our products and are buying them, so why do we have to try and big ourselves up by entering a competition – surely just making a good product and selling it is the winning goal?
‘We’ve never sent wine to critics to review or to get scores from because if you came in here on a Wednesday night and asked our customers who the wine reviewer is for The Independent or The Telegraph or if you ask anyone here who Jancis Robinson is, only the people who work in wine will know her, so I just think we’re talking to the wrong people – we should be talking to our customers. I always try to look at this industry with a fresh set of eyes, not ‘It’s-always-been-done-that-way-so-let’s-do-it kind of eyes.’ And we question everything – so we haven’t done competitions, we haven’t done big trade fairs, we haven’t gone through distribution channels – we’re just trying to question everything to say ‘Is that right for us, is that right for the way we think wine is moving, going forwards?’
Although they haven’t courted the wine world per se, Renegade has made its way onto some very highly regarded wine lists, such as those of Sketch, Som Saa and Caprice Holdings restaurants (The Ivy etc). Perhaps their two worlds are merging, after all – whether they like it or not.
‘I’ve been really surprised at how open-minded and forward-thinking a lot of people are in the commercially-driven wine world,’ says Warwick, ‘and that’s where I think they realise that there is an appetite for this kind of innovation and forward-thinking in wine. They think that their customers will like it, and so they taste it, they like it and they put it on. I think that the people who are critical or closed-minded are the people that don’t have to have a commercial head or they just have a purist view of wine, which is wine has to be made in the vineyard and if it’s not, it’s crap.
‘I’ve been really pleased and surprised that places like Sketch, Caprice, Harvey Nichols and all these guys have said, ‘We think that this is an interesting movement in wine and we want to see where it goes, so we’ll support you and the business.’ He adds, ‘As long as the wines are good. If they were crap, they wouldn’t buy them.’
The biggest worry of urban wineries is that they can be gimmicky. In the first year people want to try them and so they sell out, but no one buys them again after that. But things are looking good for Renegade – people who bought the 2016 vintage have now bought the 2017. ‘The most reassuring thing that lets me sleep at night is that we sold out of ‘16 quite quickly, we sold out of ‘17 quite quickly and we have an allocation list for a lot of our 2018 wines. The demand is still there and I think people have decided that it’s something they want to continue with, not just that it was a fly by night idea.’
Taking this into consideration, the concept of Renegade has evolved already from when they started in 2016. In the beginning, they made wines quite classically – until they realised they were bound by no rules. ‘When we went to buy fruit from the vineyards around Europe and the UK, we asked people what we should do with the fruit and they told us, so we made wine the way they made it. It soon became very clear that it was a complete waste of time, because we were making nice wines, but I call them copy-cat wines. I think most urban wineries and a lot of producers who buy grapes rather than grow their own grapes make copy-cat wines. It became very clear, from having a customer interface, that people were like, ‘Why don’t you just do something a bit more interesting?’ Like, ‘Why don’t you do skin contact with your English fruit? Why don’t you do country blends? Why don’t you do hopped? Why don’t you do unfiltered? Why don’t you do natural ferments?’ And we thought, ‘Why not?’ Because we have no appellation rules in London – London doesn’t have an AOC or DOC or DOCG, so actually we can – we can do anything we want.’
They didn’t change 180 degrees overnight; the reality is that even if they wanted to make really crazy, funky wines, the world isn’t quite ready for it. So, of their 28,000 bottle production, they still make half of their wines in a very approachable, clean style and about 30% are a bit different and the remaining 20% are really challenging, off the wall wines that might or might not work. Warwick imagines that is how they’ll stay for the forseable future, as they still have to sell the wines and even if they think the crazy wines are amazing, but restaurants don’t want to buy them, it doesn’t work. They’ve also upped the English component from about 15% to 50%, although they don’t make much Traditional Method sparkling – only around 800 bottles a year. Warwick is happy to leave Nyetimber, Chapel Down and Camel Valley to it: ‘They’re good at it, they’ve been doing it a long time and they’ve got a channel, so they should do it.’
Building a brand around quality, innovation and democratising wine is a key part of the business. The Renegade brand is as important as making the wine itself – wine is a very difficult business financially and if they can develop a brand that can be monetised either through merchandise, partnerships, development or expansion overseas, then it allows them to hopefully succeed. ‘From looking around the world at urban wineries, one thing that hasn’t worked is when you just try and be a producer, not breaking ground but just making wines – it’s just almost impossible unless you’re making a million bottles a year plus.’
It feels like there is a whole movement in London based upon people doing it themselves – a whole bunch of renegades together, sticking their fingers up to the man. But, lone soldiers can be an army if they work together, which is why Renegade value collaborations with other small producers. ‘We do a Gerwurztraminer and Tempranillo skin-fermented cider in London with Hawkes and we do beer collaborations – we give them our skins or we give them barrels. We make a brandy or a grappa with East London Liqour Company, too.’ Collaborations work well because they keep everyone interested, there’s access to another customer base and it’s fun for the brewers, it’s fun for the distillers and it’s fun for the winemakers.
They like to support other small brands and sell wines from urban wineries from around the world and other English wines which aren’t already well-represented. They also sell a cider from the Gospel Green Cyder Company – ‘a really interesting, really well-made cider.’
It’s time for the second wine and we taste the Riesling. ‘This is a Riesling from the Pfalz in Germany, 75% on granite and 25% on sandstone. This is one of the very few wines we add yeast to because we wanted to make a German wine more New Worldy, so we add a yeast often used in Australia to try and bring out a bit more of a limeyness.’ I like it – you’ve got the powerfully aromatic Rieslingy nose, with a pleasant tang on the palate. ‘Winemakers who’ve tried this love it,’ says Warwick.
‘The yeast in wine is very important and most of our wines are natural ferment but we do use added yeast on two of them – the Sauvignon and the Riesling – because we want to actively bring out a different flavour profile than where the fruit comes from. Again, we ask the question, ‘If you had this fruit, if you had all of this equipment, all the yeast and all the methods in the world, what would you do with this fruit?’ Not what’s always been done in that region but what would you do now? And I think a little bit of a limier and more citrusy style of Riesling is nice.’
Warwick’s favourite wine is their London Sparkling, Champagne Method because of how interesting and special it is. ‘I’m really, really, really, really happy with it.’ But his favourite one to drink more often is their Chardonnay. ‘The Chardonnay, made in ‘17, is grapes from Northern Italy and it’s barrel fermented with 20% skin contact, all natural ferment and a bit of French oak.’
It’s our third wine and it’s delicious – much more in the fresh, mineral Chablis style, though Warwick tells me that it sells less well than the Bacchus and the Sauvignon, just because it’s called Chardonnay.
So, what have they done to tackle perceptions and get their great wines out there? Well, for all the wines from 2018, they’ve taken all the varietals and vintages off the bottles and, instead, the Chardonnay is called Sarah, the Sauvignon is Michael and the Riesling is Mark. No kidding. All of the labels for the 2018 vintage are faces of Londoners who answered an ad in one of their newsletters. So, Sarah will be an English Chardonnay from Essex. ‘Maybe people will like and try Sarah without knowing she’s a Chardonnay,’ Warwick shrugs. ‘I just like the fact that you can go in and say, ‘Can I have two glasses of Mark and a glass of Ebony.’
This is the kind of stuff that happens when you take away all of the rules – and it’s pretty exciting. The tastes and habits of younger drinkers have changed – they are drinking less but they are spending more on what they value – and they are also supporting brands that they can relate to, like Renegade. So, with the Millenials and Gen Z in mind, will Renegade be doing vegan wines, natural wines and biodynamic wines? Renegade isn’t one to pander: ‘We don’t want to pigeon-hole ourselves – we just want to make nice wine, hopefully.’
‘There’s an urban winery in Portland called Bow & Arrow – no one knows they’re an urban winery – their wines are just really good. I would like people to go, ‘Oh yeah – Renegade. These are really good wines.’ The fact that we make them in London is irrelevant to the story – I think that’s what success is.’
Follow Renegade on Instagram here: @renegadelondonwine
Oh and bring your dog if you visit – Warwick loves them.