When it comes to the local wine industry, Sussex women are well and truly top of the crop. We speak with eight who are leading the way to help secure the county’s position as the UK’s premier wine tourism destination.

Historically the wine industry has been perceived to be a male-dominated one. Globally, men still outweigh women when it comes to Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers and - according to a report published last October by Curious Vines, an online community connecting women in wine - three quarters of women working in the UK wine trade have said that sexism and gender bias is still a major issue within the industry.

However, the percentage of women working in wine in the UK is increasing year-on-year. In the winelands of Sussex, which represents a quarter of Great Britain under vine and was designated Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status in 2022, we are leading the way with a huge proportion of our 138 vineyards and their winemaking operations run by women.

‘Since working in the wine industry I have been immensely encouraged by the number of women who are at the forefront of the dynamic growth and creativity we are witnessing,’ says Kirsty Goring, brand director of Wiston Estate and board member of Sussex Modern, which, together with the Sussex Visitor Economy Initiative, is spearheading ambitious plans to grow Sussex's wine tourism sector from its current value of £25 million to an impressive £283 million by 2040.

‘Whether it is at established wineries like Ridgeview, organic wineries like Oxney, new wineries like Kinsbrook, you will find women driving the commercials, the sustainability, the marketing, as well as establishing innovative ways of linking vineyards and wineries with the wider tourism and hospitality sector.’ Here we meet the Sussex women in wine putting our county’s vines on the wine tourism map.

Great British Life: America on her beloved tractorAmerica on her beloved tractor (Image: Oastbrook)

America Brewer, owner, winemaker & viticulturist at Oastbrook Estate Vineyard, Robertsbridge

Originally from Brazil, America bought Oastbrook, a former Guinness hop farm nestled just a few miles from Bodiam Castle, with her husband, Nick, in 2013.

The couple, has transformed the estate into a stunning venue to visit and stay, with a quirky Vineyard Hollow, Waterside Lodge and luxury glamping, alongside a winery and rows of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier vines.

America, who is part of a working group to create a new vineyard trail in Sussex, is extremely hands on, leading the management of the vineyard and winemaking, which she admits people are a little shocked to learn when they first meet her.

‘Sometimes when I'm buying equipment to use in the vineyard, the salespeople automatically turn to my husband to talk about the equipment, when I'm going to be the one using it!’ she says ‘It's also taken time for people to understand that it's actually me physically looking after the vineyard and making the wine. I'm very hands on but I also like to dress well, so people have begun to realise that I'm going to be driving my tractor with high heels on!’


Great British Life: Cherie SpriggsCherie Spriggs (Image: ADRIAN LANDER)

Cherie Spriggs, head winemaker, Nyetimber, West Chiltington

Cherie, 47, was born and raised in Canada and, after completing a master’s degree at the Wine Research Centre in Vancouver, she and her husband, Brad, who is also a winemaker, moved to the UK to work at Nyetimber in West Chiltington – believing that it was one of the best sparkling wine producers in the world.

‘It was 2007 and the industry was so small here in England that I only knew one other woman winemaker, but in real terms I only knew about five winemakers in total in the whole country,’ says Cherie. “In the old world sparkling wine regions – France, Spain, Italy – I understand that the industry is still extremely male led but here, because England is relatively young, the same type of barriers don’t seem to exist.”

It appears global opinions are changing, for in 2018, Cherie became the first woman in the world ever to win ‘Sparkling Winemaker of the Year’ at the International Wine Challenge – it was also the first time in history a winemaker from outside Champagne had ever won the award.

‘I think that’s been the biggest challenge – not necessarily being a woman in wine but, since joining Nyetimber, which has been pioneering in paving the way for this thriving industry, we’ve been up against so many naysayers and, at the start, it really felt like we had to justify our existence,’ says Cherie, who would love to see networking initiatives that are popular in the city, such as Women In Wine London, branch out to Sussex.

‘Sussex felt like a bit of a black hole when I first moved here, you really had to head to London for good food and wine, but now we have so many amazing places even in and around Horsham, where we live, including Michelin-star restaurants like The Pass and Interlude,’ she adds. ‘I think Sussex is one of the most beautiful places in the world and there's so much potential for it to become a global destination for people to come for tourism, led by the wine industry.’


Great British Life: Ashling Park Lodge. Ashling Park Lodge. (Image: Daniel Alford)

Gail Gardner, Managing Director, Ashling Park, near Chichester

Gail and her family have lived at Ashling Park, a 50-acre estate situated in the hamlet of West Ashling, near Chichester in West Sussex, for 30 years. However, it was after Gail spent a few years in Switzerland and was seduced by the romantic vineyards there that she convinced her family to plant vines on their 25-acre hay meadow.

‘I lived in the middle of wine country, the Valais region, which is the country’s largest and most prominent wine region and fell in love with vineyards then,’ she explains.

Back home, the farmland was planted with 10 acres of Bacchus, Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Meunier in 2018, and the family also lease a 23-acre vineyard at Petworth to make their sparkling wines, which have won multiple awards including Best Sparkling Wine for both its classic cuvee and rose at the Wine GB Awards.

Gail, 50, has spearheaded the development of the estate into a thriving tourist spot – there is now a restaurant, gin-making school and luxury accommodation, which was designed by Lewes-based architect and Channel 4 Amazing Spaces co-host, William Hardie.

‘It’s been a challenge striking a balance between family responsibilities and the demanding schedules of a vineyard business,’ says Gail, who has three children. ‘I had a little case of imposters syndrome when I started but soon realised there are some amazing women role models in the industry. Some of the key players in the English wine scene are ladies from Sussex; their entrepreneurial spirit, talent and innovation has led the way and I’m in total awe of them!’


Great British Life: Sam LitnerSam Litner (Image: ADRIAN LANDER)

Sam Linter, Wine Director at Plumpton Wine Division, Plumpton College

A real trailblazer in the English wine industry, Sam grew up on Bolney Wine Estate, the Haywards Heath vineyard her parents, Janet and Rodney Pratt, founded in 1972. At the time it was one of the first commercial vineyards in England but little-known. Sam, 55, joined the business and took over the reins in 1995, helping build it to one of the top ten wine producers in the UK. In 2022, the brand was sold to sparkling wine giant Freixenet Copestick.

‘As head winemaker at Bolney Wine Estate, transforming the brand with a phenomenal increase in turnover of over 600% in a decade was a real achievement but the sweet spot has to be overseeing the first-ever sale of an English wine brand to a major international sparkling wine group,’ says Sam, who while at Bolney co-founded Sustainable Wines of Great Britain and became director and chairwoman of Wine GB, the national association for the English and Welsh wine industry.

Last year, after 28 years at the helm as MD, she stepped away from Bolney to join Plumpton College, where she imparts her almost 30 years’ experience to the next generation of winemakers as director of the Wine Division.

‘Being a woman in wine provides an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective and contribute to the diversity within the industry,’ she says. ‘Additionally, it is important to come together and inspire other women who are interested in pursuing careers in wine.

'One interesting trend among the next generation of women in the wine industry is their growing presence and influence in traditionally male-dominated roles, such as winemaking, vineyard management, and wine entrepreneurship.

'There has been a notable increase in female representation in wine education and certification programmes, as well as leadership positions within wineries and wine businesses. Additionally, many young women are actively challenging stereotypes and working to create more inclusive and diverse environments within the industry. When we work together these developments demonstrate a positive shift towards greater gender equality and diversity in the world of wine.’

Sam adds that it is the close-knit nature of the local wine community and its strong emphasis on sustainability and environmental stewardship that makes Sussex such a special place to work.

‘Many producers are dedicated to sustainable practices, as well as conservation efforts, which not only contribute to the quality of the wine but also reflect a commitment to preserving the region's natural beauty for future generations.’


Great British Life: Tamara RobertsTamara Roberts (Image: ADRIAN LANDER)

Tamara Roberts, CEO, Ridgeview, Ditchling Common

Last year’s Sussex Business Awards CEO of the Year, Tamara has overseen the running of Ridgeview in Ditchling for almost a decade, following the death of her father, Mike in 2014.

Tamara joined her family’s business in 2004 after working in financial services and has overseen the growth of Ridgeview into a globally-acclaimed business, producing over half a million bottles of wine per annum.

As a CEO and mum of two, Tamara recognises the challenges women face navigating the cultural expectation and ‘norm’ that women are chief carers when it comes to children and other family members, regardless of status in the workplace.

‘I think the additional pressure this brings can result in women being at a disadvantage to men in terms of networking, building business relationships and wellbeing as we are always juggling and having to rush from one thing to another,’ she says. ‘We certainly haven’t achieved equality in this area,” she says. ‘However, it’s difficult to identify if there is anything unique about being a woman in wine compared to a woman in any other industry. I certainly feel respected and that I have an equal place at the table with other English wine producers.’

Tamara has relished opportunities to represent and influence the development of the wine industry by becoming a board member of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association and Wines of Great Britain and, in 2020, became the first English wine producer to become president of the International Wine & Spirits Competition, the awarding body for wine and spirits.

However, one of her greatest achievements has been to see Ridgeview awarded IWSC International Winemaker of the Year in 2018 – the first English producer in history to win the award ¬– on what would have been her father’s 75th birthday.

‘The IWSC attracts entries from over 90 countries and is seen as a benchmark for quality with over 400 global experts assisting with the judging. It is difficult to comprehend the enormity of this award to Ridgeview and the family,’ says Tamara. ‘Being recognised as the International Winemaker of the Year shows just what can be done when quality is at the heart of everything we do. Our achievements will always be tinged with sadness that Dad is no longer here with us, but we take great comfort that we are living his dream and that ‘life really is for celebrating”.’


Great British Life: Megan Rayner-WardMegan Rayner-Ward (Image: ADRIAN LANDER)

Megan Rayner-Ward, assistant winemaker at Wiston Estate, Pulborough

Megan, 31, began working in wine 12 years ago as a sales assistant for Adnams in Suffolk. She moved to Sussex to study for a degree in Viticulture and Oenology at Plumpton College, where she achieved First Class honours.

‘I didn’t quite believe I could do the course and considered dropping out soon after starting WHY? but I put in an enormous amount of work and in the end really found my place within the wine world,’ explains Megan, who lives in Worthing.

Megan joined Wiston Estate in 2018, working her way up to assistant winemaker, and her writings on English Bacchus – arguably England’s signature still white wine grape – and the influence of soil on wine have appeared in books and trade publications.

‘Perhaps I am of a lucky few, or perhaps it shows the fast progression of our new industry in the UK, but apart from a few rude remarks when I’m on a forklift, I have not ever felt marginalised or made to feel like I was incapable of doing the job I wanted to do due to my gender,’ she says. ‘I hope to continue to bring a bit more diversity to a traditionally male sector and encourage any person to consider jobs that perhaps they thought they couldn’t do or shouldn’t do because of their gender or other perceived social norms.’


Great British Life: Oxney Organic Estate, near RyeOxney Organic Estate, near Rye (Image: Oxney)

Kristen Syltevik, owner, Oxney Organic Estate, near Rye

Norway-born Kristin has been a pioneering figure in England’s production of organic wine.

She started Oxney Organic, the largest single-estate producer of English organic wine, in 2012 after a long career in public relations.

‘I started the vineyard after selling my PR agency and thought a career change would be healthy,’ says Kristen, 58, who has lived in Beckley since 2002 and runs Oxney with her partner, Paul Dobson. ‘We’ve done pretty well on the wine awards circuit and are becoming established as the leading sustainable British vineyard and wine producer.’

The 35-acre vineyard, which produces around a fifth of all organic grapes grown in the UK, forms part of a wider organic farming estate, near the River Rother just outside Rye in East Sussex, and has a winery, cellar door and holiday accommodation in the shape of a self-catering cottage, barn accommodation and shepherd huts.

‘We’re a small team here and I am involved in most things, from vineyard to winery, from marketing to sales,’ Kristen explains. ‘I have found, being a woman in wine, that the industry in itself – i.e. other wine producers – are very open and gender, race, etc. does not play a role.

'However, the supporting industry, which comes out of the agricultural industry, can be very sexist – I haven’t got enough fingers on my hand when a supplier I have invited turns to the nearest man to 'explain'! The Sussex wine community is very supportive of each other though; I always know that there is someone out there who will help with questions and support where required.’


Great British Life: Cara Lee DalyCara Lee Daly (Image: Bolney)

Cara Lee Dely, head of winemaking, production and operations, Bolney Wine Estate, near Haywards Heath

Cara grew up in South Africa, where she trained as a pilot but, while training for her licence, her father, an aviation photographer, passed away in an aeroplane accident.

‘This naturally made me step back and reassess my life. I was 20 years old and a bit lost,’ she says. ‘During a holiday with my family, we visited a wine estate called Packwood in the Cape Winelands and that is where my childhood dreams changed into my future one – winemaking was my calling.’

While in South Africa, Cara spent 10 years working with Clayton Reabow, head winemaker at Môreson in Franschhoek, and focused on sparkling wine production, but with a British grandfather and love of the UK countryside, always kept an eye on developments within the English wine industry.

‘I had travelled to many parts of the UK throughout my childhood and loved the countryside, the culture and vibrancy and my goal was to work to a level where I could make a difference to the winemaking here,’ explains Cara, who moved to Sussex and joined Bolney Wine Estate near Haywards Heath, where she heads up the winemaking operations, in 2021.

‘Women have led the charge in winemaking for hundreds of years – most of the top Champagne houses were and are still led by women and have established the name for sparkling wine to be about celebration and joy in all languages,’ she says.

‘I am proud to be the leader of my team but when it comes down to our busiest time of the year, during harvest when the grapes are finally ripe and come into the winery, I will be on the forklift and loading the presses with the best of them! There are challenges everywhere for women in business, but I have worked hard, perhaps sometimes harder, to learn my trade in order to be taken seriously.’

Cara has loved living in Sussex so much, that she persuaded her mum to swap South Africa for Sussex too.

'I love living in Sussex; we have the best of all the worlds – I can be paddle boarding down the river Adur in the morning and wakeboarding on Hove beach in the afternoon. I love that my mum is now nearby, and she flew over our two Italian Greyhounds, who adore the Sussex countryside too!’