How to travel the world in a bottle and enjoy good company and tastes
As the nights start to draw in, 30 or so wine enthusiasts are looking forward to nothing better than enjoying a tipple, sampling a number of bottles of wine together.
They are all members of Longridge Wine Club, who meet throughout the winter months... and, unless you are a member, you might never have heard of the club.
How did a farmer, who initially had no interest in wine, end up organising such a successful club, places in which are highly sought after?
What is more, Simon Thompson, of Hothersall Lane, Longridge, says organising the town’s wine club all came about “by accident”.
Simon grew up on a small, tenanted farm in Middleton, Manchester, the youngest of four, and, unusually, he was the one to take over from his elderly father who kept dairy cows, poultry and pigs and had his own milk round.
But the land was always under threat from developers. Also, Simon wanted a bigger farm and more challenges, so, together with wife Cathy, they made the decision to move to Butcher Fold Farm 29 years ago.
Then, around 20 years ago, Simon’s mother-in-law was so enjoying wine appreciation classes in Hurst Green, he decided to go along and see for himself.
“I had no interest in wine, but when I started going I found the wine interesting. I was fascinated by the wide variety of styles and flavours and started getting a lot out of it and could appreciate these wines somehow.
“Eileen seemed to be having such a good time. I think that is why people come to my wine club, because if we didn’t have a good laugh it hasn’t been worthwhile.
“I was also fascinated about the background to these wines, the people and the places and the geography and the geology. What it was all about and how do the people who make the wine live?”
Simon had always been interested in geography and would have liked to teach it. He had also been unable to travel, saying he had been “tied to a cow’s tail”.
“I would taste the wines and then come back and see where they were from and open atlases and books...traditional wine making so influences the landscapes...”
But then then the classes finished.
“And I thought in a rash moment I really enjoy this and I thought I could do that, so I booked a room in the Conservative Club in Longridge and put an advert in the local paper, asking if people wanted to come along to wine appreciation classes and waited for the phone to ring, thinking it would be red hot and then three days before the first session, no-one had rung.
“But then, all of a sudden, the phone began to ring and probably about 12 to 14 people turned up the first night.
“I made it clear from the outset that I was a bit of a fraud and I had no great wine knowledge, but if they put some trust in me we would rub along together and see how it went.
With 10 or so wines of single grape varieties Simon says he approached the first meeting “with trepidation”.
“But such a nice group of people turned up... and I suppose it was a success, because they kept coming back and a few of them are still coming back 18 years later!”
Simon stresses he is an “enthusiast as opposed to a connoisseur” and as news of the club, which is purely a hobby for Simon, spread, it wasn’t long before he found himself with a waiting list for the group which became two within a year and, 17 years later, there are still two groups which now meet once a month during the winter in St Paul’s Centenary Room.
Many friendships have been formed over the years and also along the way, Simon says they decided to call themselves Longridge Wine Club.
“I just wanted to make the most of every bottle of wine, whether it was a simple one or an expensive one and my main aim has been to demistify wine drinking....to dispell the snobbery commonly associated with it.
“Wine is a simple drink, made by farmers somewhere. Because it is alcoholic it gives pleasure, but it has all these interesting flavours and attributes and I am particularly interested in food and wine matching, but above all I just think wine tasting should not be taken too seriously.
And the club works. Club members might suggest a theme for an evening...wines from a country or a grape variety and so I source the wines.”
While Simon has a favourite wine merchants, which he calls “a national treasure”, the 61-year-old grandfather was also enrolled in a co-operative by his three daughters as a present for his 60th; visits wine merchants all the country and does “a little bit over the internet” to find samples for the club which, if members like, they go out and buy for themselves “voting with their wallets”.
When researching, Simon looks for value for money; bottles priced between £6 and £25 and says the beauty of it is, is if you are passing a bottle around and it is horrible, the cost is split between 15 of you!
Members, who are mainly from Longridge range from their 20s through to the 60s.
Neither group is ever provided with the same wines and Simon says there have been plenty of surprises along the way “with some of the real bargains, the real stars, being just £6”.
Since being freed up from daily milking, Simon, now a beef farmer, has also been able to travel and says it is no coincidence wine is made in some of the most beautiful locations in the world, which he has been able to see.
He has been to New Zealand; a cruise on the Moselle, visiting steep, hillside vineyards along the way; to Rioja in Spain by train and to various regions of Northern Italy, forever increasing his knowledge and love of wine and how it is produced.
“When the club was 10 years old we organised a trip to Austria and I am now under pressure to do another, but it might not be as good,” says Simon.
He adds anyone interested in the club, as places do become available from time to time, should ring him on 07837636121.