Wildflowers Long To Be Free: Stanlake Park

When I feature a wine on my Socials (otherwise known as The Socials) I always try to pair a song that I can just about play on my guitar. I do this not to show off any form of guitar skill, for in that arena I am clearly lacking, but merely because it’s a fun way to talk about the wine. Also; wine and music are inextricably linked in the way we enjoy them. They both profoundly affect our emotions and they’re also totally subjective (unless it’s Pink Floyd, because we all know they are the GREATEST)

Yeah, are you going to argue with them? Image: Rolling Stone

When I was contacted by Natalia from Stanlake Park and asked if I would like to taste a couple of the wines I jumped at the chance. Natalia and her husband Nico had not long ago taken over running the estate and have rebranded quite significantly. The new labels feature beautiful artwork of various summer flowers. So, it was obvious I needed to find a song about flowers, ideally one that isn’t difficult to play. Before doing any further research on the wines or estate I quickly came up with Wildflowers by Tom Petty. I hadn’t heard the song for an age, it sadly doesn’t get the airplay it thoroughly deserves. Yeah…you lot playing Justin Sheeran and Ed Bieber, knock it off and put some real music on…

The Rebrand

As I set about getting the song down, thankfully a rather straightforward acoustic affair, I really took in the lyrics…

“You belong among the wildflowers / You belong in a boat out at sea / Sail away, kill off the hours / You belong somewhere you feel free”

Tom petty was a superb songwriter and these lyrics struck me as simple yet profoundly beautiful. Especially during the Covid Crisis. It was then I needed to head off to do some in depth research into Stanlake Park and the story of Natalia & Nico. It struck me upon doing so that this is probably the most appropriate music and wine match I will ever make.

We miss you Tom. Image: NBC

Natalia Pezzone and Nico Centonze first met in Piemonte in 2009. Nico had just completed his viticulture & oenology degree, and Natalia was working on projects in veterinary school in Turin. Let me point out here though that Natalia is not Italian, as her name might suggest. Natalia is from Santa Fe in Argentina (being a well known fan of both Italy and Argentina, this story was already pretty strong). They travelled together back to Argentina and Nico got work as a winemaker in La Rioja.

Nico’s family have a vineyard in Puglia and soon it was time to return to Europe. Nico to his family’s vines and Natalia to veterinary university in Madrid, where she had gained a scholarship. Very quickly Natalia decided she did not wish to return to Argentina but also that she wasn’t quite where she wanted to be. We’ve all been there (not necessarily the first part as I love returning, although maybe not to live so…)

Natalia and Nico. Nicer to look at than Pink Floyd at least…

At the end of 2010 Natalia moved to Puglia to be with Nico. Nico had taken a job with a local winery and Natalia became a creator of web content for Italian businesses. Luckily her Italian name made this easier in a time and environment where work was reasonably scarce. Over time Nico realised that his skills were not being used in the winery and he was little more than a bottle and box mover. They decided it was time for a change.

In 2013 they filled some backpacks and headed to the UK. Nico did not speak any English and so they volunteered with families around England and Scotland and he soon picked up the language. Nico then got a job for harvest at Nyetimber. You may have heard of them. winks

Yes…that’s them…

Unfortunately Natalia did not have an EU passport and due to visa stipulations she had to leave the UK. I won’t comment too much here other than to say I know what this is like. La Patrona is herself an Argentine and we’ve experienced the ‘hostile environment’ the Tory party seem rather proud of. But, now is not the time to get on my soapbox. Natalia and Nico left for France and again travelled round and volunteered. Nico was working at a winery in Bordeaux when he was offered the head winemaker position at a boutique winery in Romania. These two really do get around don’t they? Nico further honed his already considerable winemaking skills and realised that he loved the thrill of making the big decisions without the weight of hundreds of years of laws, rules and restrictions around him. It was then that Natalia and Nico decided they wanted to work for themselves and start their own production.

Natalia & Nico in Romania.

The obvious choice was to head to Nico’s family vineyard in Puglia, use a friend’s winery to produce and the dream could come to life. Now, if anyone has ever worked with Italian businesses, you’ll know that what Italians do so well (outside of bringing huge value to every day things) is bureaucracy. The Germans do bureaucracy too, however in Germany it actually works. What should have been a straightforward process became increasingly complicated, time consuming and expensive. There was much hand waving. All Natalia and Nico wanted was to be the wildflowers, to belong somewhere they felt free. Surely that’s something most of us want? To do something meaningful and be happy in doing so. Their hopes of this dream were fading, the prospect of being Wildflowers seemed further and further away.

In 2018 the dream sparked into life. Stanlake Park in Berkshire were looking for a new winemaker. After meeting both Nico and Natalia the owners realised they made a formidable team and came as a pair. They were hired, and today are given the freedom to run the estate as if it is their own. Natalia and Nico could see the potential not only of the wines but the estate itself. This could become a wonderful place for wine tourism as well as just a winery. They had their dream project and the freedom to live it as they so wished. They finally had their boat out to sea, only this is no boat, but a winery in England. They had found their “belonging somewhere you feel free.”

Stanlake Park

As we realise more and more that wine is ultimately about story telling (well, it is to me) there aren’t many that top this for drama and emotion. I can’t think of a song that pairs better with this story than Wildflowers. Although…given the choice of Argentina, Italy or Berkshire (where Reading is) I’m not sure I’d have done the same. winks again

I’ve always known it, but the lockdown has made it ever more apparent, that what I love most about what I do is the people. Wine is great, but without the people behind it, it’s not all that. Natalia and Nico’s story struck me so powerfully as my wife and I have been through those moments of finding the right place, trying to be together in the face of red tape and paperwork, and at times the dream seemed impossible. However good the wines and branding are, this story is one of the most meaningful I have come across in my many years as a wine merchant.

Belonging somewhere you feel free

Stanlake Park itself has quite a considerable story and history. I won’t go in depth here (head to the website www.stanlakepark.com/pages/our-history) The estate can trace its origins back to 1166 when it was owned by the Earl of Salisbury and known as Hinton Pipard. No, not George Peppard, Hinton Pipard. But equally, we all love it when a plan comes together. It became known as Stanlake Park in the 1400’s and has some wonderful ties to Henry VIII and the Tudor dynasty.

Stanlake vines

The first vines were planted in 1979 by the Leighton family and it was known as Thames Valley Vineyard. It now covers 6 hectares and over 10,000 vines. The winery is the largest in Berkshire and is housed in a protected 17th century reformation barn. What a place and what a story. Head to my instagram where you’ll find some reviews on the wines.

“Run away, find you a lover / Go away somewhere all bright and new / I have seen no other / Who compares with you”

We’re all just wildflowers.

Remember: it’s just grapes

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