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The Family Vineyard In The Garden Of England

Kent’s original vineyard, Biddenden, is now run by the second and third generation of the Barnes family, drawing on many years of pioneering activities making wines at Biddenden. Originally home to a 40 acre apple orchard, the family started to consider diversifying the farm in the late 1960’s as apple prices began to decline. In 1969, one third of an acre of vines was planted and Biddenden Vineyards was born. Paul Andrews spoke to Julian and Tom Barnes, the second and third generation, to find out more.

As Julian explains, “Today our single estate vineyard spans 26 acres of gentle, south-facing slopes situated in a sheltered valley, just outside the picturesque Wealden village of Biddenden. We grow 12 different grape varieties that are used to produce our award-winning white, red, rose and sparkling wines. Our first wine was bottled in 1972 and production has grown to around 80,000 bottles a year with all the vine work on the estate still carried out by hand, including pruning, canopy management and picking.”

Julian is passionate about the vineyard and the business that it has grown into, driven by a desire to be sustainable in the long term and to pass it on successfully to the next generation. As he explains, “The journey for the family and the business has been a gradual process and something that we have considered over the past few years. Essentially, we have been putting the next generation at the forefront of the business as a natural succession process where they get to see and experience first hand all aspects of the business and how it operates.”

“As a family we are very lucky as we have three sons, all of whom are very close and I believe very strongly that it is these strong family bonds and the fact that we are all heading in the same direction that sets us in good stead for the next chapter here at Biddenden. We all know what the end goal is and are working towards it.”

As Tom continues, “Ive had a passion for the business from a young age even if I didn’t really know how that would fit into a role as I grew up ive always been involved with the vineyard, turning boliers on and off before and after school to helping on the bottling line at weekends. I like being out in the vineyard a hands on approach which is needed for growing fruit to make wines. I guess it was inevitable that I would end up in the business. My brothers are also involved and it is great that we have complimentary skills too.”

Julian is rightly proud of his sons and their involvement in the business. “I am really proud of what they are doing, even more so from a business perspective as they have come in of their own want. We never put any pressure on them or insisted they get involved and they all went off to college, travelled and then came back after doing their own thing which is fantastic. They are all driven, hard working and live local so their connection as a family and within the business remains strong too. Tom is the eldest and the problem solver, Sam the communicator who also runs his own business in the same sector and Will is meticulous at whatever he sets his mind to so we are fortunate to have three boys with such a broad and complimentary set of skills going forward,” he adds.

The start of the business is also steeped in a great story as it all came about because Julian’s mother had been listening to Woman’s Hour on the radio. As he explains, “We had been growing food crops post World War II to help the country get back on its feet but the returns were dropping and were considering options. There was a piece on the radio that she heard about vines being planted in England and the potential to develop a new source of good business and the family decided to give it a go! The rest is history as the business grew, based on hard work and a desire to succeed which has helped with our story, and the fact that we were the first vineyard in Kent sets the start of the story so well too.”

The foundations were set and the vineyard grew, the wines gained notoriety and won awards and the brand is now well established. There is always a lot to do and each day is different. As Julian explains, “One minute you are planting vines, the next dealing with customers and the day after having wine poured for you by a sommelier at a top London restaurant. It has been quite a journey for us and one that continues and it all started because of Mum and Dad who were just trying to make a living and put food on the table for the family and took an educated and pioneering risk to plant the vines when they did.”

As a family business and an owner that is moving towards stepping back and passing more of the day to day operations to the next generation, Julian is aware that Biddenden is special. “The farm and the surroundings are a beautiful place to run a business and we are blessed with the location but it is so much more than that. During my tenure we have created something special and what is really important to me is the fact that we have been custodians of something that has grown up and become established due to the continued investment into something that was started all those years ago and is now going to passed to the next generation. That is a real legacy and something that I truly value.”

As Tom continues, “Being the next generation to take over a family business like Biddenden is exciting but equally challenging at the same time. Knowledge is crucial to the ongoing success of our business, as is listening to our customers and continued investment and innovation. Stepping back from the coal face and focusing on the business is also important to make sure we deliver our goals and that we do not get entrenched in the day to day operations but not always easy when you work in such a dynamic environment as we do. We are looking forward to custodianship of the business as the next generation and keen to embrace the opportunities and responsibilities that it brings to us as the next chapter in the Biddenden journey unfolds.”

Sustainability and doing business the right way is also integral to the way that the vineyard operates. Plenty of investment has been made to grow the vines in the best way for the environment with initiatives that include:

  • Local labour force

  • Furthest vines from the winery are 600 metres

  • Everything is produced on site at Biddenden

Managing the environmental side of the vineyard habitats, areas for wildlife and staff to enjoy during breaks as Tom concludes, “Sustainability is a word that is used far too easily in the world we operate in. My view is you can only be sustainable once your are profitable and it has to be that way round it is more than just environmental efforts as we are custodians of a business that is embedded in the local community."

"The most important rule as a family business for us is that it is also ‘home’ so any decisions we make need to be considered based around the long term plans for the business, the community and the staff we employ. leading from the front to continue to deliver award winning wines and embracing opportunities that come our way. Whilst there is no fourth generation in the wings currently we are striving to maintain our core values and to stay true to our roots and our story, making sure that Biddenden stays a family business for generations to come.”

Pioneers back in 1969 when they planted those first vines, the pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit remains in the next generation and we are excited to see what the future holds as the next chapter in their journey unfolds.


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