Mary Bridges, one of the UK’s rising-star winemakers, is a long way from her Scottish home.
Here, she tells us how a combination of grit, drive and focus took her around the world and back again to become Gusbourne’s Oenologist.
When we speak one bright May morning, Mary Bridges is dazzling. Not just because her regulation hi-vis jacket sits in luminous contrast to the bright blue sky and lime-green vines behind her.
But rather because of her effortlessly dispensed knowledge, infectious energy and unabashed enthusiasm for absolutely everything wine related.
Mary is Gusbourne’s Oenologist – a job title which, for many of us, is hard enough to pronounce, let alone understand. At the winery, her focus is on the chemistry and research side of winemaking. It’s a complex, enviable role which she stepped into, slightly nauseatingly, around the same time she turned 30.
“It’s about being determined,” Mary says when we talk about how she got to where she is so quickly. “And I say ‘yes’ a lot – give stuff a go. I hate letting anyone down, so if I say yes to something then it means I have to find a way to do it.”
It’s a commendable attitude – and it’s one that’s taken her from her childhood home – “a tiny place near Inverness; very much malt whisky country” – to just about the farthest point south in England.
“In Scotland, I was working in hospitality, but it was the wine side of things I loved,” Mary says. “So, I made this big change. I went to Plumpton to do a degree in viticulture and oenology.” It was quite the leap, but to Mary it made perfect sense. “My dad was a farmer, and my parents spend all their time in the outdoors, so there’s a bit of that in me,” says Mary. “Even though I’m mainly in the winemakers’ office, I have this connection with the vineyards.”
Before finishing her studies, Mary worked the 2018 vintage in the South of France. “Then by chance, Charlie [Holland, the Chief Winemaker] got in touch. Someone had dropped out of harvest at Gusbourne, so I went straight into the UK harvest. And that was it: I got the bug. It was a really easy choice to go into the production side of things.”
Before she joined the team full-time in 2020, Mary spent another stint abroad at influential Californian producer Merry Edwards. “I was just an intern, but I learned so much,” says Mary. “Heidi, the deputy winemaker, tasted everything every day, every ferment, every bit of juice.
And although she did look at the numbers [the chemical analysis], even things like deciding when to pick the grapes was mainly done by looking at the colour of the juice.
It was a really important lesson – and one of the hardest things you learn. You can’t just make wine by numbers. The numbers can look good, and you might make a decision based on them, but you’ve got to know when to shut that off and get back into the tasting. Sometimes it’s more about do we like the wine or do we not?”
In just a few short years, Mary has gone from a shy student of winemaking (“I needed a lot of hand-holding; a lot of guidance,” she says) to playing a key role in a small but hugely talented team. Alongside her colleagues, Tom, AJ and Sara, she’s put her name to a number of our Winemakers’ Edition releases. These small-scale bottlings are designed to let our young winemakers follow their own instincts and ideas outside of the classic Gusbourne range.
But of all the projects so far, one sits closest to her heart. It’s officially called Winemakers’ Edition Pinot Meunier 2022, but Mary dubs it “Baby Rotie”. Late on in the 2022 harvest, Mary went out into the Kent vineyards to hand-pick the ripest, longest-hanging Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, which she made into a single barrel of precious wine. It was a true labour of love, which is why the wine will be sold to raise money for a charity close to Mary’s heart.
“It’s deeply personal. But making it – being in the vines and making the wine – is a massive reflection on how actually spending time in the vineyard made me feel better. There’s a little bit of me in this wine.
“For me, it’s a big achievement. And you know, it’s just one barrel of wine. It’s not going to change the world. But I’m pretty proud of it.”
Our Winemakers’ Edition wines can be purchased and tasted at our cellar door in Appledore, Kent. To be amongst the first to try these wines, you can become a Gusbourne member.