There’s an awful lot of wine in Annfield Plain, writes Stan Abbott. It’s planet-friendly to boot
Tony Cleary sounds like a man with the solution to all our economic and environmental woes. In three decades he has built his Lanchester Wine Cellars enterprise from a front room start-up into a business that he defines, breathlessly, by a simple set of superlatives.
It’s hard to disagree with the first, that this is “County Durham’s best kept secret”. Did you know, for example, that nearly 230 people were working three shifts a day, five days a week in a world-class drinks business on top of a hill near Stanley?
“We are the third-biggest bottling plant in the UK and the most modern in Europe,” he says. “The biggest bottler of 187ml bottles in the world; the third biggest hamper company in the UK; the first operation in the UK to have a bottle-size Tetra packing line for wine.”
“We” is the Lanchester Group, comprising the original Lanchester Wine Cellars, Lanchester Gifts and the ultra-modern Greencroft Bottling, which now accounts for the lion’s share of a £26m turnover that’s forecast to double in the next 12 months. Its newest bottling line will run at 24,000 units an hour, sealing wines in a nitrogen environment to maximize shelf life.
“We want to be the greenest wine company in the world and by the end of the year we will be carbon-minus,” asserts Tony.
If all this is still news to you, well Greencroft Bottling is a little bit invisible: look closely at the next bottle of wine you buy at the supermarket and, if it bears the serial number W1740, it will have come off one of the state-of-the-art bottling lines at Annfield Plain. If you’re given one of those little baby bottles of wine on a flight, chances are Tony’s team will have bottled it.
You may well also drink one of Tony’s own-label wines, such as Waters Edge, down your local, or find one of Lanchester Wine Cellars’ fruit wines complementing the hand-pulled ales at a Tap and Spile or Head of Steam pub.
“We’ll make £2m profit on a turnover of £33m this year and that’s not bad for a family business,” he says. “Yes, of course, people want to buy me out – I call them the vulture capitalists. But this business is absolutely not for sale – we are building something for the future.
“We have always left the money in the business and that’s why we are still here – it’s all about making the business stronger and employing more local people. We should have more than 300 people by this time next year.”
Tony’s wife Veronica looks after the group’s property side at the Annfield Plain site and daughter, Alex (one of three offspring), has worked for the company since graduating. For Tony, sustainability means more than just not blowing the profits on fast cars (he’s been running the same Volvo for 19 years). It’s about building the Lanchester USPs of quality and, increasingly, sustainability.
Temperature in the Lanchester offices is modulated by a heat pump, while solar panels make inroads into the electricity bills. Soon, two wind turbines will begin turning on the exposed site, generating an estimated 2.4MW, against usage of 1.8MW. But it is with the advent of Tetra packs that Tony Cleary expects to really improve his green credentials.
He says: “It will be very sustainable – Fair Trade South African wine in green packaging that’s cheaper to buy and easier to recycle than glass.
“Because the packs are square, we save 29 lorry trips for every million litres of wine, which equates to 20 tonnes of carbon.”
Wine in cartons? Some of us haven’t got used to screw caps yet. But, as Tony says, 8.8% of the European market is already supplied that way “if you put something good into a Tetra pack you get something good out”.