Nicholas Owen meets Denbies' owner Adrian White
PUBLISHED: 21:31 11 April 2012 | UPDATED: 06:17 20 May 2014
The owner of Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking, Adrian White has brought Surrey wine to the world stage. NICHOLAS OWEN went to meet him
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine June 2010
From the terrace of Adrian White’s large garden, high up on the North Downs, he can see some, though not quite all, of the land he owns, rolling down towards Dorking and the Mole Valley. It is a view unlike anywhere else in Surrey; you really could be in rural France.
And that is because, scattered over 630 acres, Denbies is the biggest vineyard in Britain, with some 300,000 vines. It’s no understatement to say that they have transformed the scenery. The original owner of the estate, the Victorian builder Thomas Cubitt, would no doubt be amazed. I also think he would be highly impressed. He and Adrian White are two characters who would have got on well – two visionaries who have helped change the world we live in.
A Surrey wine baron
In Adrian’s case, he didn’t set out to be a wine baron. By trade, he is a water scientist, entrepreneur and inventor.
“Once I do one thing, I just can’t wait to get on to the next challenge,” he explains. “I can’t seem to stop. My family will tell you, I never relax.”
There are essentially three strands to the 67-year-old’s own life. Denbies Vineyard is one. Then there is Biwater, an international water treatment business with its headquarters beside Dorking North station, an unmissable local landmark. In recognition of his contribution to the water industry worldwide, Adrian received a CBE in 1993. Finally, there is his busy charity work, from being chairman of The Children’s Trust at Tadworth to involvement in the expansion and modernisation of Epsom Hospital.
Amazingly, though, it all began with just £1,000, scraped together when the young Adrian decided he wanted to be his own boss. Brought up in Orpington, Kent, he was one of six brothers, and although his father was a City stockbroker, money was always tight. After technical high school, Adrian went to work first for Barclays Bank.
“I always wanted to make things and sell them,” he says. “But my father said the only secure jobs for his sons should be in banking or insurance.”
It was a religious family, and a strict one, with the Presbyterian church playing a big part. In fact, it was through a church youth group that Adrian got to know a water engineer. As a result of this, in spite of his father’s unease, he left Barclays and joined a modest water treatment company based in Putney. Much later, it would be absorbed into his Biwater empire.
In 1968, the 25-year-old Adrian White decided that working for someone else “was silly… I could do it for myself.” So he sold his flat in Sutton for a profit of £600, adding £400 by cashing in an insurance policy. Then he moved back home and started his own water treatment firm from there.
His mother looked after the administration and an Orpington neighbour, who was a businessman, backed the venture. Adrian was on the road to the huge operation he chairs now.
Making a splash
Today, Biwater has interests in more than 60 countries. Much of the key design work, from new swimming pools to big water supply and sewage treatment plants, has been Adrian’s own. On the day we meet, talking in the upstairs restaurant in the Denbies winery overlooking those thousands of vines, he demonstrates with a wine glass how he got the idea for new water storage towers in Africa. During a long plane flight, it occurred to him that a wine glass was just the shape for the tall towers eventually constructed.
His latest invention, still being perfected, is for static bikes that, as they are pedalled, take in sea water and pump it out purified. His eyes light up as he explains the technicalities, and speaks of his dream of having ‘Biwater cycles’ in beachside places around the globe vulnerable to disasters like tsunamis.
Building up the business, though, he had to work frantically hard. In his twenties, he recalls, he had a part in a play staged by his church youth group. But he found it impossible to get the lines learned, then “lost” a whole weekend.
“On a Friday night, a friend realised I was actually ill,” says Adrian. “He took me home and put me to bed. I carried on, apparently quite normally, through the Saturday, Sunday, to the Monday. Except on the Tuesday morning, I didn’t remember anything of what I did those three days. I went to a doctor who said: ‘You’ve had the biggest single warning of your life.’”
It was a close shave with what could have been a breakdown. Fortunately, though, he soon had something else apart from work to think about. Thanks to the sport of hockey, he fell in love.
“I met Gillian at a mixed hockey match,” he explains. “I was on the left wing, she was left half. It was a dangerous game to play. The men were a bit careful, as you can imagine. The women were, well, quite ruthless.”
His parents were no doubt pleased that he married Gillian, although his devout father disapproved of the hockey as it had been played on a Sunday. The couple went on to have five children, three boys and two girls, and the youngest, Christopher, is now in charge of Denbies and its wine.
It is Chris’s firm management, explains Adrian, that has ensured the success of Denbies. Along with the winery, there are two restaurants, a shop, an art gallery, and a cinema experience – outlining how the wine goes from grape to bottle – which have helped to attract well over a quarter of a million visitors every year. Adrian, 30, gets his father’s seal of approval for being “a good engineer and very commercial.”
But why get into the wine business at all? Well, back in the early 1980s, Adrian, restless as usual to find a new activity, decided he wanted to own a farm. Having bought the Denbies estate, however, he found it rather a struggle, as the hilly landscape wasn’t really suited to the cattle and pigs he acquired.
Then a neighbour suggested radical change. “Professor Richard Selling, who was professor of geology at Imperial College in London, said to me, do you realise that the bowl shape of the land is the same as the Champagne country of France?” recalls Adrian. Assured that the soil and weather on the south-facing slopes could sustain the production of wine, Adrian decided to have a go.
A lot of bottle
“We started with 30 acres in 1986,” he recalls. “And we were reasonably successful right from the beginning.”
As well as the huge expansion of the vineyard itself, the visitor centre that was to prove so popular was put up at a cost of £3.3 million.
“There was of course initial scepticism about doing it here in England, because of our climate,” he says. “Global warming has certainly helped us. Frost is the biggest enemy. We did install lots of windmills, because if the air is still, that’s when you get frost, but there were local objections. Now we put out about 800 oil heaters if it gets too cold.”
Adrian confesses he is not a great drinker of wine himself, though he was thrilled when their sparkling white cuvee beat labels like Dom Perignon in an international competition two years ago. “And ours is £19.95 a bottle, rather than £50 or more. Our reds are very drinkable, too. They are getting better every year.”
June is when the buds start to form on the vines, and Chris White and his staff hope fervently there is no heavy rain or hail to do damage at the critical growing time. For Adrian, what does he think now as he surveys the family vineyard, half a mile or so up the road from his Biwater HQ?
“There is great contentment for me,” he says. “Especially when I see the visitors’ car park is full! The greatest thrill, I must say, is to drive in later in the summer and just see the bunches of grapes on either side of you.”
As we wander together, inspecting some of the vines just before the buds appear, he mentions that his father, a teetotaller, would probably not have been enthusiastic. He died before Denbies wine began. “No, father didn’t know it,” says Adrian. “But my mother loved it. She liked coming here for lunch.”
- For more information about visiting Denbies, see www.denbiesvineyard.co.uk