Last November, a woman approached the Sir Ian Botham Wines stand at the BBC Good Food Show in Birmingham. Catching the eye of one of the reps pouring samples, she asked, ‘I’m just interested: is Ian Botham really involved in the winemaking?’ ‘Oh, I can assure you,’ replied the rep, ‘my husband is very much involved in the winemaking. But if you have any technical questions about the wines, I’ll grab our daughter. She knows a bit more about that side of things.’
Sir Ian Botham Wines is less a celebrity wine brand than a family-run négociant business. A month earlier, I’d spent the day with Botham and his ‘rep’ Kath, Lady Botham, at the wine bar in Darlington that their daughter Sarah owns with husband Darren. (In the interests of full disclosure, l’ve sold some of the top-tier Sir Ian Botham wines as head of sales at Fields, Morris & Verdin.) Downstairs, Botham enthuses about the wines, while Sarah and Kath are upstairs shifting tables, putting up banners and polishing glasses. Darren is filling shelves with bottles. Botham is frustrating him by taking them off the shelf and opening them. He talks about winemaking methods and hidden parcels of fruit he’s found, arguments he’s had with his UK agent about blending components, pricing issues. A crowd of salespeople troops through the bar and upstairs; as soon as they’re settled, Botham’s off to taste the wines with them and talk through sales strategies. If you choose to ignore one of the greatest English cricket careers of the modern era, the extraordinary charity fundraising and the eye-opening autobiography (subtitled Don’t Tell Kath), this is a family-run négociant wine business.
Genuinely, I think of my first career as a winemaker
‘This is my first career,’ says Botham over lunch at Lord’s a few weeks later. It’s an absurd thing to say. But to prove it, he pulls out a business card: sir ian botham, winemaker. ‘Can you believe it, this is the first business card I’ve ever had?’ he says. Over glasses of wine – always plural with Botham – he unpicks his relationship with cricket, wine, careers and doing what he really loves. ‘Genuinely, I think of my first career as a winemaker. It’s just I spent some time playing cricket beforehand.’ The strands of cricket and wine run together: he fell in love with wine as his cricket career began; he was introduced to Beaujolais Nouveau as a teenager by legendary commentator John Arlott, who gradually introduced him to the great wines of France; they then shared the wines of the world as Ian’s ‘pre-career’ blossomed and as they both retired to the Channel Islands.
Someone comes over and asks Botham about the state of modern cricket. He obliges with talk of ‘the problem of the white-ball game’, but he’s uncomfortable. ‘Ian can get frustrated when people ask him about cricket,’ says his UK agent Paul Schaafsma. You can tell part of Schaafsma’s job is to manage the wine-to-cricket question ratio. Preferably about 10 to 1.
I tentatively ask about the Adelaide Hills Chardonnay in our glass. Marty Edwards at The Lane produced the fruit for the blend, and he told me they fell out over the time it spent in barrel. Few would stand up to Edwards, a renowned winemaker and former Special Forces operator. But if it’s going to have Botham’s name on it, he wants it his way. ‘Yeah, he wasn’t keen,’ says Botham. ‘But I love it. What do you reckon?’