Based on a conversation with Katrin Helene-Deeg in May 2022
Debbie Warner joined the New Dawn Traders team earlier in 2022 as our go-to wine expert and forger of wine-based-relationships. With the aim of expanding the NDT wine portfolio and supporting our wholesale partnerships, Debbie brings a barrel of experience to the table: 7 years (and counting) in wine sales, countless hours in the hospitality industry, a WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) Educator certification, and a BSc in marine biology.
Debbie also founded and runs Wild Wine School from vineyards around Cornwall. There she shares her enthusiasm for sustainable viticulture and minimal intervention wine-making through a range of wine courses, from Introduction to Wild Wines to dip your toes, to multiple-day WSET courses to dive deeper.
Debbie’s first task on the NDT agenda has been to work with the team at The Pig hotel group where this summer you can enjoy a glass of Bal da Madre Red or Bal da Madre White as their new house wines. These are both low-intervention and vegan, made with wild yeasts and organic methods by Gil Taveira of Miss Vitis Wines, in Portugal’s Beira Interior. In June, boxes of these wines made the 1-2 week journey from Porto to Penzance aboard gaff ketch Klevia.
We spoke with Debbie to hear what it’s been like to enter the world of wine shipped by sail.
New Dawn Traders: You must have learned quite a bit in your years in sales for a wine wholesaler. How do you see this fitting into your work with New Dawn Traders?
Debbie Warner: This may seem like a romantic idea of sales, but my favourite part of sales is creating relationships with people. When I’ve built a relationship, the transaction doesn’t feel transactional – it feels like I’m enabling people to access the products I love.
So at NDT there are different levels of relationships we are always cultivating to do just that: there’s the relationship between us and the producer, there’s the relationship between us and the people who drink the wine, and then there’s this third relationship that is important – the relationship between the people who drink the wine and the producers.
NDT: What is something outsiders find surprising about your work?
DW: That I don’t spend all day drinking or tasting wine! My work actually involves loads of sitting on a computer looking at spreadsheets.
NDT: What’s your favourite part of your work?
DW: Tasting wines with the people who have made them, seeing their vineyards and taking in the full experience of what goes into a bottle.
NDT: How did you transition from marine biology to the wine world?
DW: I always wanted to be a marine biologist as a kid. So I went to university and studied marine biology, and oceanography and worked with turtles. But then I realised I didn’t want to be an academic, so I thought about converting to environmental law. Then I was told I would either be working for free, or I’d be working for the people that I was trying to work against – basically defending oil giants.
A bit disillusioned, I ended up moving back to London and managing a shop. All the while I was spending time in Cornwall with my boyfriend at the time – I loved being by the coast and realised I really just wanted to live by the sea. It has always been such a special and important place for me. So I found work at a restaurant here in Cornwall and I was put on a WSET course by my employer. And I loved it.
I knew that’s what I wanted to focus on. Wine! There is science behind wine, so I could pick up my science background. And it brings in all these other wonderful things like people, culture and history. What an amazing kind of lens to view the world with.
NDT: How did you turn a wine interest into this career you love today?
DW: I would save up all my tips for WSET courses and to go on trips to wine regions. My best memories from those trips were experiences like buying wine at a winery, taking it down to the beach, and enjoying it with amazing food by the sea. Or dangling my feet off the side of a quay, or having a picnic in a field with good wine. These were beautiful moments of having wine outside.
So I started Wild Wine Club to recreate that feeling, to show people the magic of drinking wine outside, in the wild. Today Cornwall’s food scene is much more diverse, but at the time in the early 2010s, there weren’t many opportunities for people in their 20s to enjoy wine. It still felt a bit stuffy. I wanted to create an informal, inclusive place to enjoy this agricultural product that comes from the land, on the land.
But people wanted to learn more! So that’s how Wild Wine School began, where I design and deliver specialist training courses about wine.
NDT: What led you to explore the option of sailing wine to the UK?
DW: The climate emergency is now, right. I’ve always been passionate about showcasing winemakers I know are working in sustainable ways in the vineyards and wineries, that’s why Wild Wine School specializes in educating people about sustainable viticulture, and more minimal intervention winemaking. But there’s also the huge aspect of transport!
While English wines are gaining popularity, some of my favourites are from the European continent, or further. So, I had this dream of bringing wine to the UK by sailboat.
So I approached Alex [Geldenhuys] and within a couple of conversations, it became quite apparent that the kind of skill sets that we had were really complimentary. Alex has the boats sussed and I have relationships with like-minded hospitality businesses.
NDT: What is a challenge you’re currently working through?
DW: The modern sail cargo industry is in its infancy, and that’s a challenge. I could pick up the phone right now to any number of restaurants and retailers in the UK and they would say, “Yes, please, we would love some wine to come in by sailboat” but we just can’t meet that demand, yet. We still have a limited capacity.
I’m so excited to get the “wine by sail” opportunity out there to restaurants, shops and bars. And I know that people want it! We’ve just got to work slowly to do a good job. We actually have a responsibility to do a good job so that retailers and customers trust emerging industries and experimental approaches to business like New Dawn Traders.
NDT: How does sail cargo fit into the future of Wild Wine School and your work in wine?
DW: Many different ways. Wine tourism generally involves flying and I want to encourage people to take boats to wine regions. It’d be amazing to create a boat tour from the UK to maybe get off in Bilbao, San Sebastian. I mean, how great would it be to explore the wine regions of Spain and Portugal without flying?
Another idea is to backload some of the UK’s amazing fine ciders and export them to Portugal on the ships, once the ships have unloaded European cargo in the UK.
NDT: Where are you most content?
DW: In nature, away from technology.