Life Lessons with… Jacob Leadley

The multiple-award-winning winemaker (and social media star) tells us all about his love of New Zealand, the importance of convivial lunches - and why he reckons he lacks confidence

Words by Club Oenologique Editors

CEO of Black Chalk winery Jacob Leadley

The CEO and award-winning winemaker of Black Chalk winery in Hampshire says he blended the newly garlanded IWSC trophy-winning Classic Brut 2016 at his kitchen table. It’s a hands-on approach that encapsulates how Jacob Leadley has operated since he gave upon a life in the City to pursue his passion. In the last seven years, Leadley reckons he’s made over 100 English sparkling wines. He came to the vocation after spending nine years working for a number of investment banks. Turning his back on London, in 2011, after a degree in Viticulture and Oenology at Plumpton College, he started his career with Hattingley Valley, where he won a clutch of gold medals, trophies and two World Champion wines. He’s since worked in Champagne and Central Otago in New Zealand (the one place he’d love to live if he wasn’t busy in Hampshire).

Leadley started making Black Chalk as a side project while he was at Hattingley Valley; he supervised the building of the new winery, which opened in September – the new wine press, he says, cost about as much as his house. At the height of lockdown, Leadley found himself going viral when he initiated the #theBIGenglishwinegoodfriday by suggesting fans of English and Welsh wine should buy a bottle and “secure an entire industry and their workforce in one very enjoyable evening”. The move attracted huge support – and prompted a mild Twitter storm when it was pointed out that Good Friday was the one day in the year when Christians should abstain from alcohol…

Black Chalk’s Classic Brut 2016 won an IWSC Trophy at this year’s awards, where the judges praised it for its “fresh white fruit and consistent balance; expressive, savoury and citrusy”.

Black Chalk Classic Brut 2016 wine (1)

What was your childhood ambition?

I very much recall desperately wanting to travel the world.

What do you wish you’d known when you were 21?

That I had plenty of time to grow up.

What exercise do you do?

I live in the South Downs National Park [in the south of England] and spend a lot of time running in the hills. Running has become important not just to my physical health, but my mental health too.

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?

I’ve always lacked confidence. I spend too long wondering if I’ve made the right call.

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?

The Coquard press in our new Winery cost as much as some houses.

The Coquard press at Black Chalk winery
The team at Black Chalk winery in front of the new press. Left to right: vineyard consultant Luke Wolfe, chief operating officer and marketing chief Andrew Seden, winemaker and chief executive Jacob Leadley, assistant winemaker Zoë Driver, temporary winemaker (and old friend) Brian Shaw

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?

I have a serious soft spot for Central Otago in New Zealand. I love the wines, I love the landscape, and the skiing isn’t bad. I’d love a lakeside property in Wanaka.

Lake Wanaka in New Zealand
Lake Wanaka in New Zealand: "I'd love a lakeside property there..."

If you could do any other job what would it be?

I’m not sure if it’s a job, but I would have loved to have been an explorer. I think it comes from my childhood and wanting to travel a lot.

What is your favourite restaurant – anywhere?

One of my favourite places is Gymkhana on Albemarle Street in London. Simply amazing food.

Gymkhana: "Simply amazing"

What luxury item (except wine or whisky) would you take with you to a desert island?

Something I can listen to music with. Music plays such an important part in every aspect of my life that I don’t think I could cope without it. Ben Howard, Kings of Leon, Wolf Alice and Bombay Bicycle Club would be on my playlist.

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?

I want to run a marathon. I’m not sure I have it in me though – I’ve done a few half-marathons (13.1 miles/21km) so I’d be chuffed to complete the full distance. My last half-marathon time was 1:56.

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?

I would make long lunches with friends and family a requirement. It’s something I experienced while working in Champagne – the French understand how important it is to take time to enjoy food and drink with each other. We just don’t do it enough.

Whom would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

Charles Darwin: I have always been enthralled by the theory of evolution and its impact on us all.

Captain James Cook: a true explorer, born [in the village of Marton in Yorkshire] near to where I grew up.

Ben Howard: my favourite musician. If he could bring his guitar and play for his supper that would be perfect.

Billy Connolly: do I need to explain?

And last but not least, a selection of close friends.

Billy Connolly
Look who's coming to dinner: comic legend Billy Connolly, and Victorian titan Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Toasting my toes in front of the fire, glass of wine in hand. I’ve enjoyed that since I was very little (the fire, that is; the wine came later).

What’s your secret talent?

I’ve been told I can cook. My signature dishes: curry of any type, and a mean roast dinner.

When were you happiest?

When I’m with my children – Mia (10), Hal (8) and Heather (4).

Whom do you most admire?

Anyone who has the drive to follow a dream.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“The [Pinot] Meunier is coming through.” It’s a running joke at the winery.

What’s your greatest regret?

Not getting into wine earlier – I spent nine years in a bank when I could have been making wine around the world.

What’s your go-to box-set, TV programme or podcast?

The best thing I’ve watched for a long time is Peaky Blinders. I also very much enjoyed Louis Theroux’s podcast Grounded [in which the interviewer uses his period of quarantine to track down the people he’d always wanted to interview, including Helena Bonham Carter, Sir Lenny Henry, Chris O’Dowd and YouTube megastar KSI].

Louis Theroux’s podcast Grounded
How to stay grounded in lockdown: listen to Louis Theroux

What’s your most treasured possession?

I’m not sure I have one – perhaps I don’t place that much importance on things.

What time do you go to bed?

When I can. I’m not shy of an early night but I’ve also been known to be the last one standing on a night out.