Vineyard owner overcomes personal tragedy to take business to new heights

Guy and Linda Howard at their vineyard, Giffords Hall, at Hartest, near Bury St Edmunds

Giffords Hall Vineyard owner Linda Howard with her late husband, Guy, who died in 2019 - Credit: Giffords Hall

Vineyard owner Linda Howard believes her late husband would be very proud.

A year and a half after Guy Howard’s untimely death, the vineyard the pair lovingly planted at Giffords Hall, at Hartest, Bury St Edmunds, is still going strong and has been enjoying a remarkable boom — thanks to staycationers and a lot of dedication. Wine sales are through the roof and tour numbers have reached new heights.

English vineyards have also been boosted by a huge surge in the popularity of home-grown wines — possibly brought on by the pandemic and Brexit but more importantly by a big improvement in the quality of wines on offer as UK growers become more adept at cultivating grapes and making good wines.

Linda Howard started her vineyard about 20 years ago with Guy, who died on December 25, 2019, after he was struck down by a brain tumour.

His death followed a bumper grape harvest. Linda says it’s hard to imagine how he got through it with his illness but he struggled through and was able to see the fruits of all their hard work. 

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Guy was dedicated to the East Anglian grape-growing and wine-making sector and for many years was chairman of WineGB East, then known as East Anglian Vineyards Association (EAVA), and was actively involved in the national English wine making scene.

As well as being a personal tragedy, his death was a huge blow to the vineyard business. But Linda — who has been heavily involved from the start — was keen to carry on. She has been helped by her children, Harry and Ellie, who have offered support and advice.

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“I don’t know how but we have managed to survive,” she says. 

But it has not been easy, she admits, and she has questioned herself. “I thought: ‘What am I doing?’”

But she had been deeply committed to the vineyard for two decades — and giving up wasn’t an option. “It would have been letting him down,” she says.

This year the vineyard scooped a gold WineGB East medal for its Giffords Hall Classic Cuvee 2018 — the latest in a string of awards over the last two decades. 

She’s delighted, she says. “It’s a real boost for our team in a difficult year, and the Classic Cuvee is a very special English sparkling.”

Over the last few months the tour side of the business has been going great guns and has seen an increase of nearly 50% year-on-year.

“Our tour business is very busy indeed,” she says. “Given the fact we have been locked down for some of that period is extraordinary.” 

Shop sales are up 31% year-on-year and online customers have soared by 39% since last August. “It was extraordinary,” says Linda. 

Last year when the pandemic struck, businesses pressed the pause button and thought about what they were doing. Linda and her team used the time to assess their own business and decided to build up the retail side.

A new Barrel Hall and visitors’ centre launched last year may be partly behind the rise in visitors as the venue can now stage bigger events and tours, she says — but staycations during the pandemic have also brought more visitors to the local area. “Everyone wants something to do — you don’t want to go to the beach if the weather’s not nice.”

The Barrel Hall at Giffords Hall Vineyard is drawing a host of new visitors

The Barrel Hall at Giffords Hall Vineyard opened after the sad death of Guy Howard, who built up the business with wife, Linda - Credit: Giffords Hall Vineyard

Linda is bottling some promising red wine produced during Guy’s last harvest — a “big English red” with Guy’s date of birth on the label. She is also in the process of turning the vineyard shop/office into a holiday let.

There was some speculation she couldn’t do it alone and move the business on successfully — but she has.

“We seem to be keeping our heads above the water,” she says. 

“It’s been a bit of a challenge since Guy’s death but the children have been amazing and so have the staff.” 

Normally she would have expected the cold summer to deter visitors but that hadn’t been the case this year. “We have been so busy — it’s just been frantic. I think for the vineyards sales have been tremendous.”

But this year’s crop is a different story. She is now hoping that for a warm September to increase sugars in the grapes — but fears yields will be well down following a disappointingly cold August.

“The crop has been harder to manage this year after last year’s benign weather. We have had to be very vigilant and quick to respond to disease pressure. Having survived the frost risk 2021, the colder than average temperatures and the rain make the vines vulnerable to mildew,” she says. 

This year’s harvest won’t be big, she predicts, but increased sales of English wines means stocks are low. Winemakers are competing for what grape crops there are sending prices sky-high.

“There is competition amongst the wineries to buy in from other vineyards to bulk up yields. This is pushing up spot prices of raw grapes with largest prices paid for Bacchus and particularly the Noble varieties for the higher margin sparkling wines,” she says.

“There’s an indecent scrabble for grapes — I have heard of someone paying £2,500 for a tonne of Bacchus last week." That compares to around £1,500 to £1,800 a tonne last year.

Linda now hopes to build on the successes over the last year — and continue Guy’s legacy.

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