Sir Ian Botham goes in to bat for wine
Sir Ian 'Beefy' Botham is best known for his astonishing cricket career, but he's currently enjoying a run as a wine producer. He tells Martin Green he's hoping for a long innings in the game
Sir Ian Botham passed into folklore in 1981 by smashing 149 runs off just 148 balls to inspire England to the most sensational comeback victory ever witnessed. They were priced at 500/1 to win the second Ashes Test against Australia after a first innings meltdown left them trailing by 227 runs. But Beefy stepped up and turned the match on its head with his unbeaten innings, sparking scenes of unprecedented revelry across the nation. Brokers stopped trading in the Stock Exchange so that the City could watch the spellbinding events unfold 240 miles north at Headingley, and a legend was born as England went on to win the series 3-1.
Botham has spoken of his pride at becoming a part of British sporting history on that day, but he seems just as proud as he gazes wistfully at his new range of wines. “It’s really pleasing to see the final product,” he says. “I love turning it all into something you enjoy drinking.” DRN finds him ensconced in an armchair at Lord’s, a glass of his Barossa 81 Shiraz at his side, and he regales us with tales of the effort he put into sourcing these wines. He spent months travelling across Australia, meeting various winemakers, testing hundreds of blends and working hard to create “exceptional varietal examples” that can be enjoyed by cricket fans and wine lovers alike.
The Botham Series is the mid-tier range that takes inspiration from important years in Botham’s career. The 81 Series Barossa Shiraz pays homage to Beefy’s exploits in 1981, when he took five wickets for one run at Edgbaston and went on to produce a magnificent knock at Old Trafford to hand England the initiative in one of the greatest series ever witnessed. The Margaret River 76 Series Chardonnay commemorates the year in which he made his England debut and his first century. The Coonawarra 80 Series Cabernet remembers the year in which Botham produced arguably the greatest performance of all time. He took 13 wickets and hit a century in Mumbai to lead England to a famous victory, completing the match double in style.
The Botham All-Rounder range has an rrp of £8.99 and comprises a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon, sourced from various regions across South Eastern Australia. The team considered calling the range Beefy, but decided this might deter some consumers and felt that All-Rounder was a better reflection of his career. Botham was particularly demanding when it came to the Chardonnay, insisting on adding increasing amounts of Margaret River juice to the blend in order to achieve a level of quality he was happy with. “If we put my name on something and it’s garbage, you’re finished,” he says.
Finally, the top tier is the Sir Ian Botham Collection, which will retail for £30 and will initially be sold exclusively through Berry Bros & Rudd. It includes a single vineyard Barossa Valley Shiraz made in conjunction with Nick Badrice, chief winemaker at Dorrien Estate and Krondorf. The Adelaide Hills Chardonnay was blended with Marty Edwards at his The Lane Vineyard. Botham’s friend Geoff Merrill made the Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. “This was the only wine I didn’t tinker with, because I think it’s the best Cabernet Merrill has ever made,” he says.
It might sound unusual for a cricketer to be great friends with a winemaker, but Botham has always had a passion for vinous delights.
“I was a young player at Somerset and I didn’t really know much about wine,” he says. “I was 16 and trying to make my way in the professional game when I met John Arlott [cricket commentator and journalist, and wine connoisseur]. Many consider him one of the early experts on wine. I took some wine up to the box for him. He said, ‘do you like wine?” I said, ‘no, I don’t really know anything about wine’. He started chatting with me about wine, because we had about half an hour before the game started, which was great.
“Over the years our friendship developed and grew stronger and stronger, and in the last 10 years of his life I spent a lot of time with him. He was a remarkable man. My real education came in there. My job was to take the wine down to the cellar, put it in the appropriate places, and I’d come back up and we’d taste six wines. He’d talk me through the tasting and the process. It started there.
“It developed through my friendship with Geoff Merrill in Australia, and people such as Kevin Judd, and I spent a lot of time in these places. You see different styles and different ways of making it. I learned a lot from Geoff Merrill. I spent a lot of time in wineries, because I was fascinated by it and I wanted to learn more about it.”
Botham’s wines are sourced entirely from Australia, which could be seen as an odd juxtaposition when you consider the intense cricketing rivalry that exists between England and the Aussies. When DRN asks why he chose Australia for his new wines, he says: “Well, I haven’t found much Shiraz, Cabernet and Pinot in England that I actually like. We might do sparkling from England, and some rosé from Provence. But I have a massive affiliation with Australia. I’ve been going there since 1975, and I spend at least two months a year there. I have a great passion for Australian wine. My knowledge has increased all the time, and blending these wines has been the icing on the cake.”
This is not Botham’s first foray into the world of wine production. At the start of the 21st century, he teamed up with Merrill and Bob Willis – another legendary cricketer, who took an astonishing 8-43 to seal victory in that famous Headingley Test in 1981 – to release a brand called Botham Merrill Willis (BMW). The first vintages released under the label were the 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2001 Shiraz and 2002 Chardonnay.
“The BMW has been going for almost 20 years now,” says Botham. “That was just a bit of fun between the three of us, and people still love it and they buy it. But what I’m doing here is what I’ve always wanted to do, and that’s my own wine. It was great fun sourcing it, going round the different vineyards. We now have distinguished wineries approaching us. It has been really interesting for me.
“In 20 years’ time I want to still be doing this, exploring different areas and finding different wines. We might go to Spain or Argentina. It depends on the wines we find. I hate the celebrity wine tag. I think thankfully they’re dying off now. I wouldn’t put my name to something for the sake of it. I’m not looking for a quick buck. I’m looking for something I can be proud of, and something that, when I’m gone, can hopefully be continued by my children and grandchildren.”
The wines are distributed by Benchmark Drinks, and managing director Paul Schaafsma believes they can eventually rival some of the leading Australian brands. He says “the sky is the limit”, but he adds that they will not fight from a price perspective and they will be sensible about distribution. Botham has a somewhat tainted opinion of supermarkets after a previous bad experience.
“£8 for a wine of that quality is a fair price,” he says, pointing to the All-Rounder range. “I’m not going to be bartered down by some supermarket, who will say, ‘we’ll take it all but we’ll give you £3.50 for it’. Not going to happen. We’re in no rush. We want to make sure it’s successful and that people who enjoy good wine will buy it.
“We were badly burnt when we first launched BMW by a supermarket, and I’m just not interested in that. The arrogance of some of those big supermarkets, they think they can do what they want. I lost faith in them. I was really quite disillusioned. You put all the work in and you see the wine down to £4.99, you walk into the shop and you think, oh god. We want a fair price for a fair product.”
But Beefy is relishing his new career as a wine producer and is eager to keep broadening horizons. “It has been great fun and I can’t wait to get back out there and have another crack at it,” he says. “I love it. There’s a lot more to life after cricket and this is how I’d like to spend it.”