“It’s immersive”: Meet England’s youngest vineyard owners
Sussex Modern Stories | 5 minutes read
Wine People: Joe Beckett and Rebecca Dancer, Kinsbrook Vineyard
Joe Beckett and Rebecca Dancer met on the school bus, and now produce wine, food and a whole lot besides at one of Sussex’s most exciting young vineyards. We met them at their idyllic patch of West Sussex to find out more.
Words: Zoë Cook
Photography: Ed Schofield
“I knew the basics. You plant a vineyard and within three years you get fruit. So, I planted 20,000 vines, and I thought I’d probably do some other business on the side: I’d get a job or something. But then the bloody things started growing! And with no staff, I had to start looking after them. Three years later, I hadn’t left the vineyard.”
In 2017, 24-year-old Joe Beckett’s vision to grow grapes on his family’s land was a firm, but far from solid, plan. The third generation of a farming family, he had just returned from his travels in New Zealand where he’d been inspired by their exciting wine tourism scene. He could see the potential for viticulture at home in West Sussex, but he had leapt in with little experience or knowledge. “It’s immersive” Joe explains, “once you start looking after that number of plants for that amount of time – you need to learn everything, and you become fascinated.” This evolving fascination formed the foundations of Kinsbrook vineyard in Thakeham.
Today, Joe leads Kinsbrook alongside partner Rebecca Dancer. The pair are ambitious and firmly focused on creating an authentic, sustainable wine and food destination. Having originally met on the school bus, they share a love for their homeland of West Sussex, and for food, drink and travel – inspiring their creation and curation of Kinsbrook, and their plans for its future.
Meeting them—and their gorgeous Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, Leon—at the vineyard on a crisp September morning, the depth of their connection with what they have created at Kinsbrook is clear. “These fields were completely overgrown”, they explain, “and we had to drain this land to plant vines.” They’ve built a sweeping wooden terrace around the resulting lake, creating a tranquil focal point for visitors, and a great spot for hosting their own family celebrations.
“We had my sister’s 21st birthday lunch here a few weeks ago”, Rebecca explains. It’s a snapshot of the dynamic approach at the heart of everything they do at Kinsbrook – finding ways to enhance their offering with their innovative solutions to each challenge they face.
And there have been significant challenges. They were a very young business when the pandemic hit in 2020. After a year of clearing the fields, digging ditches and learning the soil, they were building the gateway to the site when they realised how many cars were passing by. It made sense, they reasoned, to open to the public with a view to eventually selling their wine directly. So, they converted a horsebox, serving coffee and cakes they made themselves each evening in Joe’s parents’ kitchen.
The coffee trailer quickly became an oasis for locals in the strangeness of the pandemic. Joe and Rebecca opened up the vineyards to people who wanted space or to walk their dogs, and people would bring picnics. “It completely snowballed,” Rebecca says, remembering that they’d thought at first that they would fit a bell to the horsebox and could run down from working in the fields to make a couple of coffees when people showed up. “We ended up serving 300 people that first weekend,” she says.
As Autumn approached and temperatures dropped, they built a polytunnel which became their café and cellar door – inviting people to taste and buy their wine whilst offering more food and, at various points, take away service depending on the latest restrictions. With a small team of staff, they began hosting live music each Sunday and serving small plates and charcuterie boards alongside their wines.
Limited to launching each new phase of the site as they can afford to fund it, Kinsbrook has grown around what is working, and what people want. This agility is reflected in their winemaking too. By 2020 they were producing 13,000 bottles of Bacchus, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir Rose – and 10,000 bottles of sparkling wine. In 2021 yields were low, so for the first time, they blended to create a single white full of interest and complexity, which has proved a hit. They named it ‘21’ to signify the good things that come from hard times. “It has encouraged us to play around and complement each vintage,” Joe says, “we never want to stop reacting to the conditions and the grapes”.
Hospitality is integral to their business, with up to ninety-five percent of their wine selling from their cellar door. “The last thing I wanted to run was an eatery,” Joe laughs, “but the moment we served people wine they wanted something to nibble on… and before you know it, you’re running an eatery.” Fortunately, food is a passion for both Joe and Rebecca who spend their free time cooking and seeking out new restaurants, bakeries and bars in the local area and overseas. This passion has led to the creation of Kinsbrook’s Farmhouse – an impressive building in the heart of the vineyard which will offer a butchery, deli, local produce and a farm-to-table dining space upstairs, overlooking the vines and beyond. Here they are working to create a true foodie destination in their picturesque countryside surroundings.
“Essentially we are creating somewhere we would love to visit,” they explain “and so it draws on all the elements of places we’ve been and loved.” They’ve selected everything from the eclectic vintage furniture to the tiling and light fittings, and painstakingly curated a collection of produce suppliers to create something fresh and authentic in the Farmhouse. Their excitement about opening to the public is palpable.
For both Joe and Rebecca, seeing the tangible results of their efforts is a surreal and wonder-filled experience – not only the bottles of wine but the bustling café, the sun setting on their Sunday music sessions. As Kinsbrook grows, the emphasis on authenticity and hard work remains the underpinning philosophy. “Ultimately, it’s farming,” Joe reflects. “You’re at the mercy of the weather. You are growing 50,000 plants outside and it’s a physical, brutal job. You’re waking up at 3am for the frost or lugging 20-kilo crates at harvest after picking all day. It keeps you very grounded.”
Once the Farmhouse is open, they have plans for a market garden supplying the shop and eatery, their own beehives, orchards and chickens. They hope to start exporting their wines into Europe and further afield, and ultimately would love to bring their winemaking in-house and increase their range. But there will be no frantic rush towards these goals. As has brought Kinsbrook to where it is now, Joe and Rebecca will continue to ride the waves of each season on their beautiful vineyard — and simply see where things lead.
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