Black Hand Wine — Meeting Cumbria’s Honest Wine Evangelist
Defence of the north usually stops at Manchester. Despite Michelin stars and world-class gastropubs, to many people the far northwesterly corner of England is a grey area—blank, and easy to ignore. But keep trucking another 100 miles up the M6 and you’ll find Penrith, on a crossroads between Scotland, Lancashire and North Yorkshire.
It’s a no-nonsense market town minding its own business in the less glamorous part of Cumbria, and easy to overlook due to its position: an all-important five miles outside of the Lake District National Park. Except for one place.
For a long time, demanding the finest wines available to humanity was a local in-joke based on a certain cult film being shot nearby. Now, in a rusting antiques salvage yard five minutes from Market Square, Black Hand Wine—run by biodynamic viticulturist Sam Jary—offers Penrith exactly that. Deciding to set up a cellar of mainly natural wines so far from the major cities seems odd on paper, but step inside the bizarre world of Brunswick Yard and you’ll find yourself immersed in the true, honest oddness of northern England. People travel hundreds of miles for this.
In his tiny shop, Sam shares his passion and frank opinions with people who care about independent producers and local business. From the heart of working class northern obscurity, in-between teetering piles of vintage treasure, he brings what he calls “honest” wine to the dinner tables of Cumbria—whether that’s the unusual wines he imports from the far flung climes of Sicily, Rhone, Alsace or New Zealand, or the wines he vinifies in Burgundy. In his world, where winemakers are farmers and tradespeople, why shouldn’t a passionate and worldly oenologist be at home here?
When we meet he’s wrapped up warm at the entrance, and he reaches for a friendly handshake. Our hellos hang in the air as wintery vapour for a moment before he welcomes me inside.
We don’t have to stoop, but it’s close. The whole of Black Hand Wine is one room clad in wooden wine boxes, and there is a distinct feeling that it is entirely reliant on books—on wine, on France, on food, on living—to prop up the roof. Sam refers to them during our conversation, pointing out passages to underline his perspective with low-key excitement, always respectfully putting them back where he found them.
“The biggest compliment is that locals trust me,” he insists, revealing a Staffordshire accent from behind his scarf. “It takes a lot to win people’s trust. I’m not from Cumbria, and I’d last five minutes if I was a bullshitter.”
He’s keen to stress his sincerity. Natural wine has a reputation to contend with, and he has first hand experience of how vital quality control has to be within this rapidly-growing style.
“I’m a bit wary of natural wines, because I’m seeing more and more crap. I prefer to talk about honest wines.” Moving aside a stack of textbooks, he points out the Grand Crus on a half-hidden map of Burgundy.
“Terroir is a million things, every little detail matters. If you get a Bourgogne by a great grower, somebody who understands and respects their soil, it would be better than a Grand Cru made by someone who doesn’t give a shit.”
Does he think you can really taste the difference when someone cares? “Yeah. Absolutely.”
Although it’s early in the day, he insists now is the perfect time to try some of the wine his skills and feet helped to make – a Chapuis & Chapuis “Bourgogne Aligoté” from 2017.
“You should drink wine when you’re hungry,” he assures me, formally slicing off the foil cap.
He explains Aligoté’s place as Burgundy’s “other” white grape to Chardonnay as he pours, and the sunshine-glossy wine smells ever-so-slightly herbal. It’s crisp and taut, with a bright acidity that shouts to be enjoyed with food. Any food. I want to swipe the bottle, take it home and drink it with a slab of goat’s cheese perched on my lap. It’s this acidity that lends the Aligoté its energy and vibrance, and Sam elaborates that in his opinion, when grown well, it can pull rank against any of its more famous peers.
“It’s a very humble grape, but it’s rather lovely isn’t it?” he says, and it’s not a rhetorical question—he wants to know.
“People get obsessed about the fruit flavours they can taste and that doesn’t really matter,” he says. “It’s finesse, it’s balance, it’s personality.”
The wine we’re drinking begins its life as grapes grown organically in Burgundy. Sam visits his friend and fellow winemaker Romain Chapuis each year to hand-pick, crush and vinify small batches of fruit, making a modest range of unfiltered, unfined Burgundy reds, whites and pétillant-natural (otherwise known as pét-nat”, a traditional style of naturally sparkling wine.)
“Oh, I lied slightly,” he says with a sardonic micro-smile. “It has been filtered. It was passed through Romain’s Mum’s wicker shopping basket to catch any stray grapes.”
Sam’s love for winemaking actually began when he decided on a whim to volunteer as a cellar hand in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. Soon after, he was studying for an oenology and viticulture postgraduate.
“That was the start really, because you know nothing after you’ve qualified,” he deadpans. To Sam, the science of wine was at odds with his emotional connection to it, and gaining his postgrad felt, to him, as though it was pushing him further away from the world he wanted so deeply to be a part of.
“There’s a great book called Adventures on the Wine Route that got me through when I was submerged in all this horrific chemistry, because it was about the beauty of wine, the joy of wine, the pleasure of wine.” He finds his well-read copy and flips through it until he hits the right page and points: “‘If a wine had something to say, he listened.’ I think that’s important.”
According to Sam, there are certain rare qualities you need to make good wine.
“You need to be greedy and humble, a romantic and a rebel, and a bit of a masochist. Winemaking is something you have to want to do. It’s hard work, and,” he laughs dryly, “You’re never going to make good money.”
“I feel like winemakers who started off in wine might not make quite as interesting wine as a guy who was a mechanic. It’s like they have this sort-of hinterland. Plus, you need to know how to fix tractors! Winemaking is all about farming, it’s very little about making wine. As my friend Jean-Yves Bizot says, ‘Wine will make itself.’”
Wine finished, we head into the yard’s café (the coffee is excellent) to warm up. Despite its lonely location, Sam is adamant that Penrith is the right place for him.
“We are rich in fantastic produce up here, and if you’ve got good food, you need good wine. It’s patronising to think that people in the North haven’t got a palate.”
To Sam’s mind, his job is just as much about education as it is about selling wine, and here he can spark interest in people, to help them find out what makes wine pleasurable.
“In this country wine is about getting pissed... or showing off. Yeah, it is! I hate pretentiousness. At the end of the day, wine is just an agricultural product. It’s nothing to be scared of.”
“It gives me a genuine thrill to say “come in, give this a try!” You wanna hug some customers because they come in and they look so nervous, but it doesn’t matter what you may or may not know. Most of what you’ve been told will probably be bullshit anyway.”