Thoughtful, precise and whip-smart, winemaker AJ Benham is a keen talent. In May 2023, he was named in Harpers “30 under 30”, recognising publicly what the team at Gusbourne have long known: AJ is a winemaker who’s destined for great things.
He’s the man responsible for the lesser-known aspects of winemaking at Gusbourne: bottling, secondary fermentation, dosage and tasting trials, wine storage and disgorging. And, while this part of the craft may not be as well-understood, or as photogenetic, as vine cultivation and grape-pressing, it’s vital work. In AJ’s hands, our juvenile wines are coaxed towards maturity.
AJ joined Gusbourne’s winery crew back in April 2018 and, in September 2023, stepped up to take on the weighty role of Head of Wine Operations. His path to this ambidextrous role in the winery and warehouse took him across the globe – and across all aspects of Gusbourne’s winemaking.
The road less travelled
“I worked for a year abroad during my degree and got the wine bug in New South Wales where I was living alongside people who were really into wine,” says AJ. “I really enjoyed the idea of creating something from the land. As someone put it to me: winemaking is one of the last artisan jobs. One of the last truly artisan ways you can make a living.”
After finishing his degree, AJ worked in hospitality in his hometown, York (“it’s where I learned to join the dots between food and wine”) before going on to the Eastern Institute of Technology in Hawkes Bay, for an intense year spent studying Oenology. “Hawkes’ Bay is one of the best new wine regions in the world just for the sheer quantity of things they can do there, anything from aromatic Sauvignon Blanc right the way up to Bordeaux Blends,” says AJ.
“I really got into not just the craft but also the science; it’s a lovely mix of both worlds.”
Next, AJ sought out an internship that would take him not just through harvest, but a full winemaking year. Cue 12 months in Missouri.
You’ll be forgiven for not associating Missouri with fine wine production. Or, in fact, wine production of any kind whatsoever. “It might not be famous any more,” says AJ. “But it’s got this fascinating history. It’s the original wine country in America. I was working at Stone Hill Winery, in what used to be the second largest winery in the world during the 1800s, where they had a large German immigrant population. And then Prohibition happened and most of the vines were grubbed up.
“It was the most evocative place to go to work every day – they had all these underground cellars, a limestone cave dug into the side of a hill. They even still had pre-Civil War vines there. They were really serious about their winemaking; lots of new oak; lots of experiments and different things going on. They also had a sparkling programme, which was an area I focused on – I had eyes back on the burgeoning wine industry back home. I was completely thrown in at the deep end.”
The deep end is, it seems, somewhere that all ambitious winemakers must spend time. It’s this full immersion into autonomous decision-making and responsibility that shapes the ambition and belief needed to push ahead and take opportunities as they arise. It was exactly what AJ needed to prepare him for his next move, to Gusbourne.
Right place, right time
Within months of arriving at Appledore, a new role was created, one which focused on the secondary winemaking. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to get experience of all of the processes. And it has just worked out. I’m quite logistically focused and I’ve always enjoyed making things work effectively.”
AJ is characteristically matter-of-fact about “making things work”. In reality, his early years at Gusbourne saw him setting up an entirely new facility from a blank slate, transforming a former fruit storage depot into a temperature- and humidity-controlled wine warehouse where the secondary fermentation and ageing can take place.
“In early 2019 it was very obvious we were going to run out of room for disgorging, lees ageing and finished stock storage. The space we’ve got now gives us much more control for production, storage and dispatch,” he says.
So far so good. But what about the craft – the artisan appeal – of the work which first brought AJ into wine? “There’s a lot about my role which draws on those skills, whether that’s looking after the large-scale trials, lees ageing tasting or blending.
“And, whatever is happening in the secondary wine production, I’m back in the winery at harvest, blending and bottling. All of which are huge logistical challenges. From a winemaking point of view, I still very much have my hand in,” says AJ.
AJ and his team work alongside Head Winemaker Mary Bridges and her team in a neat partnership. “Mary’s skills – with her natural ability to dial in on the technical side of things, the science and analysis, work well alongside mine,” says AJ. “It’s a fantastic team to be part of as we move forward to Gusbourne’s next chapter.”