Kenneth McAlpine is 100 on 21st September 2020
Pioneer of English wine and the world’s oldest living Formula One Grand Prix driver
The name of Lamberhurst Vineyards, and its owner Kenneth McAlpine OBE DL, will always, for a whole generation of vineyard owners, winemakers and wine drinkers, be associated with the transition of English and Welsh wine from the amateur to the professional. Kenneth McAlpine, grandson of ‘Concrete Bob’, the original Sir Robert McAlpine who in 1869 founded the firm that still bears his name, was truly one of the pioneers of wine production in the UK. He first planted vines on his farm in Lamberhurst in 1972 and extended it over the years until it was by far and away the largest vineyard in the country, taking grapes both from its own 15-ha (37-acres) and a large number of vineyards who grew grapes under contract. In 1989, in the middle of the three-year period when I was winemaker and general manager, we processed just over 600 tonnes of grapes, a large volume even by today’s standards.
Never someone to do things by halves, and having the good fortune to be able to finance his hobbies from his own resources, in 1976 he embarked upon the building of a winery that was, in its day, as modern and technically equipped as any in the world. He told me that he had financed it from the sale of the Dorchester Hotel (of which he personally owned twenty-five per cent) to the Sultan of Brunei for £25 million, a lot of money in those days. With income tax at 96% he felt it was better to lavish it on his winery than let the taxman take it.
Apart from the first small maiden vintage in 1974, all the winemaking between 1975 and 1988 was in the hands of Karl-Heinz Johner, a young Geisenheim graduate who (almost) on his own upped the quality and changed the style of English and Welsh wines. The use of süss-reserve to soften and balance what were often in those days quite thin, acidic wines found friends in the wine trade and amongst wine drinkers and almost overnight, Lamberhurst gained the reputation for being the best known, the highest quality and the most widely distributed of our home-grown wines. The wines won numerous awards and medals including the Gore-Brown Trophy in 1983, 1985 and 1990. Lamberhurst remained a major force in English and Welsh wine production until 1994 when McAlpine decided he wanted to retire and the vineyard and winery were sold.
In his youth, McAlpine had founded and financed a Formula One team called the Connaught Racing Team, and as a driver himself, he participated in seven F1 races, sadly never gaining a podium position. He then took on the much more important role as team financer and organiser, and left the driving to others. The team’s only F1 success was winning the Syracuse Grand Prix in Sicily in 1955 with Tony Brooks as their driver and a young Stirling Moss in reserve. When Lamberhurst won the Gore-Browne Trophy in 1990 and the local newspaper wanted a photograph of myself and McAlpine holding the cup, I said it wouldn’t be possible as the cup was away at the engravers. McAlpine said not to worry, he had some silverware at home, and after lunch appeared bearing a two-foot-high silver cup, complete with huge side handles. ‘What on earth is that’ I said. ‘Oh, it’s the cup we got for winning the Syracuse Grand Prix in 1955’ said McAlpine. It duly stood in for the much smaller and altogether more tasteful silver rose bowl that is the Gore-Browne, but the Kent & Sussex Courier didn’t seem to mind.
McAlpine was a hugely generous man and without his support and finance, the English Vineyards Association (EVA) would never have been able to run with the efficiency it did. He was its Company Secretary for many years, providing secretarial and book-keeping services completely free of charge, plus a board room and superb lunch in the McAlpine director’s suite off Russell Square for the bi-monthly EVA board meetings. He was awarded the OBE in around 1992 for services to English Wine (he already had the MBE for his charity work). For many years he flew his own helicopter (he founded and owned McAlpine Helicopters Ltd) and sailed and raced a Bembridge Redwing. On winning the Gore-Browne Trophy in 1990, he asked me to come and see him in his office and handed me a cheque for £1,000. To say I was surprised would be an understatement considering that I thought I was being was very well paid at the time. He asked me casually what I was doing on the coming Saturday (it was then a Thursday) and I said that I had to go to my daughter’s sports day. ‘That’s a pity’ he said ‘you and your wife could have used our Centre Court seats as we cannot go’! I could hardly then back-track and say my daughter’s sports day didn’t matter. As it happened it rained most of the day and both tennis and sports day were more or less rained off.
Those early days of English and Welsh wine were huge fun and everyone knew everyone else. We competed like mad to win medals in the annual ‘Gore-Brown’ competition as we called it, and Lamberhurst was certainly the beacon that we all steered for. Its wines, and the many wines it made under contract for others, led the way and helped raise the whole profile of our wines. I am sure we all wish him a very happy 100th birthday.
Stephen Skelton MW
Winemaker and General Manager, Lamberhurst Vineyards, 1988-1992