PIONEER IN THE UK WINE INDUSTRY
Increasing range of services on offer from long-established VineWorks
While studying for his BSc (Hons) in Viticulture and Oenology at Plumpton College, James Dodson saw a growing need for vineyard services to support the rapidly expanding UK wine industry. While his fellow classmates dreamed of becoming winemakers, he focused his attention on understanding soil, climate, rootstock, trellising, pruning and harvesting – everything that goes into growing quality grapes.
Before graduating, James set up VineWorks in 2006, operating from his kitchen table and drafting in fellow students to install trellising systems for local vineyards. VineWorks quickly became a pioneer in the UK wine industry, branching out into consulting, offering preliminary studies and suitability reports for potential vineyards while continuing with the practical vineyard work.
When the recession occurred in 2009, James admits he thought “the game was up”, but was proved wrong. “I thought that, like plenty of other new ventures, the financial crash would put me out of business,” he recalled. “Instead, everything took off and I soon found myself busier than ever.”
The reason? “High wealth individuals decided to pull their money out of the stock market and invest instead in more reliable assets like land or, fortunately for me, vineyards,” James explained. “It makes sense looking back, but at the time I was surprised.”
The huge switch to land-based investments in 2010 saw VineWorks’ turnover leap from around £70,000 to £1.5m as James was brought in to advise on, establish and manage vineyards across the South East and further afield. At this time, the company became incorporated as VineWorks Ltd and a business partner, Darcy Gander, joined.
VineWorks also expanded into vineyard management, prompted in part by the fact that increasing numbers of landowners for whom he had established a vineyard then asked him if he would carry on managing their new crop. The vineyard services department grew to employ around 100 overseas workers year-round, with many more joining for harvest.
In 2018, VineWorks launched an online retail department, providing the full range of products required to install and maintain the highest quality vineyard, from planting to trellising, harvest to pruning and all annual tasks in between.
Sixteen years on, VineWorks has grown exponentially and is now refocusing its approach after a partner buyout, broadening its services and positioning itself as the ultimate go-to company for vineyards of all sizes.
The UK wine industry has changed dramatically since James started, not least over the past few years, with Brexit and Covid-19 altering the overseas labour availability overnight, not just for vineyards but for the whole soft and top fruit industries and horticulture.
2021 saw VineWorks expand its warehouse to cope with the increasing demand within the retail department and move to adjacent, purpose-built, comfortable units complete with a meeting room, which James described as “a luxury compared to the kitchen table and caravan offices of the past”.
The remodelled VineWorks will continue to provide full establishment and vineyard services while offering a more bespoke choice of packages, allowing growers to choose whether they require occasional advice, tuition or a full, hands-on service. VineWorks is also rolling out an education service to help growers train their own teams.
James and his team will continue to provide vineyard staff for intensive jobs, such as pruning and hand harvesting, with this valuable labour resource being prioritised to vineyard services customers.
VineWorks, which helped its vineyard staff apply for EU Settled Status, is a Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) licensed member and a member of both Stronger Together and the Association of Labour Providers (ALP). “We have an unwavering focus on achieving the highest ethical standards,” James stressed. “We are still offering a full establishment service that includes vineyard design, vine plant sourcing and importing, GPS guided planting and trellising,” he added.
“We also have four experienced, dedicated trellising teams that can install any type of trellis culture system, but our approach to vineyard services is shifting towards training on-site teams rather than promising to bring in a team of workers once a year – because we simply can’t guarantee being able to find them in future.
“Our consultancy service remains a core part of our offering, but we have made it more flexible, with packages focusing on imparting skills and knowledge to help growers train their own teams. We can’t manage everybody and not everyone needs that service, but within the team we have such a depth of knowledge that it makes sense to share.”
James continued: “Our new approach is all about sustainability. We aim to help growers and winemakers produce fantastic quality wines as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. That’s what our consultancy service has always aimed to achieve and that’s the goal our new services will support.”
James is also expanding VineWorks’ fruit brokering service, bringing together growers and winemakers. This is an area he believes has potential to grow, with wineries increasingly looking for quality grapes to satisfy the demand for UK wines.
“This year I could have sold 1,200 tonnes of grapes, but I could only get hold of 250 tonnes,” he explained. “That is tending to keep the price at an unsustainably high level, so we need more vineyards to help meet the demand.”
The new offerings are being launched by VineWorks at the Vineyard & Winery Show on 23 November at the Kent Event Centre, Detling, where the company’s new branding will also be unveiled. The team will also be displaying the benefits of using VineWorks’ well-stocked online shop, which offers a complete range of posts, wires and accessories for growers.
Members of the team will be joined by key partners, some of whom the company has worked with for more than 10 years, such as Gripple, Bekaert and Hadley, while they will also be highlighting new partnerships with Mapman, a topographical and climate data supplier, and with Metos, a multifunctional weather station manufacturer.
Specialist agriculture insurance company NFU Mutual and two of VineWorks' oldest nursery partners, Pépinières Tourette and Volker Freytag, will also be attending.
“We are looking forward to talking to existing customers about our revamped services as well as making lots of new friends,” said James. Those existing customers include around 30 customers subscribed to VineWorks’ vineyard services packages, a further 70 who receive additional support and upwards of 35 customers for whom the team will be planting in 2023. “There will be plenty of faces to see!” James added.
As VineWorks has developed, so has the team, with employees now numbering close to 100. “It’s a great team, many of whom have been with me for many years and have contributed hugely to the growth of VineWorks,” James commented. We are confident that VineWorks will continue to grow in tandem with the incredible boom we are currently seeing in viticulture in the UK.”