From Innings to Tannins

Sir Ian Botham, England’s greatest cricket all-rounder, tells Joe Fattorini why he’s leaving the pitch to concentrate on his other passion – wine producing. And of course, the ’81 vintage is pretty special…

By Joe Fattorini

July 25 2019

Ian Botham never had a business card. “I’ve never needed one,” he tells me, reaching into his pocket. “But it felt great when I was sent these”. He hands it over: “Sir Ian Botham, Winemaker”.

He may be a cricket legend, the world’s greatest living all-rounder, charity fundraiser, and respected commentator, but these days he wants you to know that he makes wine.

The love affair started when Botham became a professional cricketer. “I was introduced to wine by John Arlott, when I was about 16, at Somerset. John was reporting on the game from this rickety commentary box. Because I was the new kid in the club, and I wasn’t playing, the secretary asked me to take Mr Arlott’s basket up to him. When I got there, John asked me to open it and take everything out. There were bottles of wine, including a Beaujolais Nouveau.”

It was the beginning not only of a love of wine (“A passion,” says Ian) but something Botham shared with Arlott. “That day John told me all about how Beaujolais Nouveau was very short lived. And about the Beaujolais run into London. That was my first introduction to wine. A few days later we were on the same train up to London and we got talking again.” And they never stopped.

Arlott introduced Botham to French wine, and Botham returned the favour by introducing Arlott to Australian wine. Not always to Arlott’s delight. “He was very set in his ways,” Botham says.

Botham certainly had plenty of chances to learn about Australian wine as a cricketer. “I was talking to Bob Willis recently and we agreed we played Test cricket in the right era. In our day, we’d play Thursday, Friday and Saturday and then go out to have a decent drink on a Saturday night. A few of us would recover on Sunday and visit wineries and then come back to play the final two days on Monday and Tuesday.”

A vintage celebrating Botham’s legendary victories in the 1981 Ashes series
A vintage celebrating Botham’s legendary victories in the 1981 Ashes series

Australia was where Botham’s love of wine took flight and it’s where he spends six months of the year today.

It was natural that it would be where Sir Ian Botham Wines was born. He’s quick to distance himself from the idea of a “celebrity wine… where someone just puts their name on the side of something they’ve bottled from a tank that nobody else wanted”. To make his range, he’s collaborated with some of Australia’s most celebrated winemakers, many whom he’s known for years. They include Geoff Merrill, who has worked with him to blend an intense and focused Cabernet Sauvignon from the Barossa Valley for one of his top-tier ‘Sir Ian Botham’ wines. Botham also has a range of regional specialities under his ‘Series’ label, and critically-acclaimed entry-level wines under the ‘All Rounder’ label.

Each has been a true partnership. Botham met Marty Edwards of The Lane Vineyard in a hotel lobby in Adelaide, where Marty was armed with three different barrel samples for him to try. The first two weren’t right at all. “But he did that deliberately, because the third was absolutely delicious,” Botham remembers. Even so, while it was delicious, it was not quite right. “So I told him I thought it needed another six months in the barrel. You know, to round it out, make it a bit broader. More like the style of Chardonnay I like to drink.” This was a bold request.

Botham first learned about Australian wines on frequent trips to the continent in the 1980s with the England team
Botham first learned about Australian wines on frequent trips to the continent in the 1980s with the England team

Marty Edwards isn’t just an award winning winemaker in his own right, famed for a linear, focused style of wine. His first career was in the Australian Special Boat Service. “If I’d known I was talking to a former member of the Special Forces, I might not have been so determined,” Botham laughs.

But Botham was right. This year the Chardonnay was placed in the definitive Top 100 Australian Wines List by leading critic and Australia expert, Matthew Jukes.

It’s a pugnacious, determined confidence familiar to anyone who followed Botham’s first career in cricket. Or his second career as a commentator. He remains one of the greatest all rounders of all time, with 5,200 Test Match runs and 383 Test wickets. His Botham Series wines recall those Tests, particularly the ’81 (Shiraz) where he was Man of the Series, scored 399 runs, took 34 wickets, held 12 catches and captained only the second side in history to recover from following on to win a Test (with bookmakers offering odds of 500/1 against them), eventually recovering The Ashes.

He’s still an uncompromising voice in cricket. At a recent wine event hosted at the Australian High Commission in London, Botham pulled no punches about the return to the game of Steve Smith and Dave Warner at this year’s World Cup after using sandpaper on the ball. “I hate cheating, and that’s what they did. They cheated”

On stage, Botham cheerfully answers all the cricket questions. Yet off stage one of his friends says, “He’ll always answer the questions, but I know he gets a bit frustrated. He just wants to talk about wine these days. It’s his passion. He’ll talk about the cricket. But he always wants to bring it back to wine.”

Soon he’ll have his chance. Botham points out that this Ashes Series will be his “last involvement in cricket commentating”. And now it’s not just him, as winemaking is a family business. At the BBC Good Food Show last year, a visitor came up to the Sir Ian Botham Wines stand and asked the rep if Ian was “really involved, or just put his names on the wine?” “Oh I can assure you my husband is very much involved,” replied the rep, Lady (Kath) Botham. “But if you have any technical questions, you might have to ask my daughter,”, motioning to Sara. “She’s more of an expert there”. The last time we meet, Sara and her (wine merchant) husband Darren have just had their baby Arthur. It’s possible Arthur will grow up talking about his “winemaker grandad… Sir Ian Botham”.