We spoke to Lorna and Graham Wilkes, owners of Rooms at the Winery and Terlingham Vineyard. Having moved to Kent from South Africa, they have worked over the last three years to cultivate their 5,500 vines, and earlier this year decided to open a cosy, boutique hotel to create a full wine experience for English wine tourists.
Tell me a bit about yourselves – how did you develop your passion for wine?
Graham: We always had a great interest in wine as consumers and this chance came up to get involved in the challenging production side of it. We thought at our stage in life it was a wonderful opportunity to grab.
Did you have to learn as you went along?
Lorna: Graham went to Plumpton College [offers the premium winemaking course in the country] three years ago – we’d seen the property and then realised there were 5,500 vines to tend and before we’d even signed the deal Graham had gone off to school.
How was that?
Graham: It was fun. Obviously a very concentrated course, but there’s so much interesting stuff to learn.
Your background was in law – that must have been a bit of a change?
Graham: Yes, a bit! From behind the desk to behind the tractor. It’s so different and exciting. How often do you get an opportunity to change your life and do something that is really energising while making a product that everyone loves? If you’re going to have a change then what a change!
Were you looking for a place in Kent?
Graham: The opportunity came along at the right time and Lorna loved the property: we drove in, it was for sale and she fell in love with everything.
Lorna: Graham’s family actually came from Kent before moving to South Africa, so he’s come home in a way. We love the sea – to run along the beachfront is such a privilege – but then we’ve got the high-speed rail to London so you can have the best of both worlds!
What made you want to open the hotel?
Lorna: I actually went to hotel school years ago so it was always an ambition and a passion of mine. I love travelling and have stayed in many hotels, so I always wanted to try it. We also wanted to help people understand more about English vineyards by having the chance to stay here.
Do you consider the hotel being for a younger demographic?
Lorna: For the weekends we thought it would be really nice for Londoners to have an escape that’s really tranquil.
Graham: The idea is that you come here, try the wines, think about winemaking, and really get a full experience as well as having a luxury night away. We thought staying in a city and walking out of your hotel straight into the busy street is something you can do anywhere, but here you’re coming away with a different intention – the intention to experience the vineyard and farmyard lifestyle plus you can enjoy the great country walks, the seafront and fresh seafood all nearby.
How long would you recommend guests stay and what should they do?
Graham: A two night stay is great for relaxing and enjoying the vineyard and countryside and three nights is perfect if you’ve got a car and want to explore the surrounding area. Nearby we’ve got Dover castle which has been fully restored so you see a living castle not a ruin. There’s also Canterbury and its cathedral; if you’re lucky enough to be there for any of the evening services it’s stunning.
Your history knowledge is pretty impressive – where did you learn it all?
Graham: I’m not a history buff at all, but it’s so in your face here. We’ve been swept away by the relevance of this particular property that you can’t help but explore it.
Lorna: Every time we plant a tree we dig up bullets. You can’t do anything without history staring at you and you have to find out about it.
Graham: So many major events have happened along this stretch of coast here – it provided England’s exposure to invasions from William the Conqueror, Julius Caesar, Napoleon and during the World Wars.
Which is your favourite wine that you produce here?
Lorna: I love the sparkling rosé, it’s very aromatic of strawberries.
And generally what is favourite wine?
Lorna: I like lighter wines. Chablis is probably my favourite wine in the whole world.
Graham: I’m similar, but I do enjoy the heavier reds as well.
Lorna: We’ve set ourselves a challenge to drink every wine that’s ever been made!
How are you doing?
Graham: We’re doing far too well!
Lorna: We’re enjoying Chilean wines at the moment and the New Zealand wines and Australian wines are superb… what we haven’t had yet are the Canadian wines – they don’t export them, so we’ve got to take a trip.
What’s your favourite wine destination?
Lorna: Italy – Barbarossa: their wines are crisp and white and it’s very romantic there. I think how you enjoy a wine holiday is mixed in with the environment as well, so you go to some of the big, commercial vineyards and you’re made to move along quickly and can’t really enjoy it.
Graham: We had a couple of great tastings where people would spend lots of time with us and we think, “Oh, we love this place!”
Find out more about Rooms at the Winery here.