Unthinkable Drinkable Brent wine making event

Saturday 24th September 2016

Harvist Rd, Queens Park


Tumbling, overflowing crates fill the front garden, mimicking the  flow of people spilling onto the pavement. Convivial chatter, bursts of laughter and many ready smiles pass between the crowd as glasses of sangria and red wine pass from hand to hand. No haphazard gathering, there is an underlying focus and purposeful atmosphere as the people form a loose semi-circle facing the two large barrels. In one of these barrels lie the grapes harvested from local vines in the Kensal to Kilburn area, in the other, grapes from Montepulciano in Italy and local garden centre Clifton Nurseries. The former will be made into sangria, the latter into NW6 wine. Last year’s produce stand proud on the garden wall. Wine bottles display their NW6 logo while locally harvested apples and Mexican mojito mint bob on the surface of the crimson sangria.

When I arrive there is a boy waist deep in liquid and almost engulfed by one of the barrels. He nevertheless fills it to the brim with his stomping squelching exuberance. He drops down, completely disappearing within the depths and suddenly bobs back up, two fists full of the split, oozing grapes. The purple liquid drips long rivulets down his arms as he squeezes, teeth clenched, before dropping the fruit with a splash beneath the assault of his joyous surging feet.

Paolo Santini, now in his eighties, stands in serene contrast to the yelping youth in the barrel. He leans gently against the concrete wall and talks to me of growing up in Italy and the winemaking of his youth. Originating from Borgo Val di Taro in the province of Parma, Paolo moved to London when he was 25. Now a local resident of the Kensal area he is one of the wine making gurus of the Unthinkable Drinkable initiative. He talks of how harvest in his home town was always at this time of year. The rhythms and cyclical processes of nature reach across time and space, connecting a 1940’s community in an Italian town to this gathering on a Queens Park street in London 2016. He talks of the physicality of the process of wine making, his body moving gracefully to demonstrate the desired motion of the feet. He explains how using your feet is the best method, smoothing one palm against the other to illustrate the removal of grape skins and the release of the sugary juice. Laughing, he remembers how he would walk through the local town and hear his name called “Paolo, Paolo!” to come and press the grapes for other families. The sleepless nights, exhaustion and sore, red raw feet that would follow. But I can’t keep Paolo chatting for long. Soon he is needed  to taste test a new delivery of local grapes or to check the liquid level in the press.

My attention is soon drawn to the host, Leo Johnson, as he warmly welcomes me to the group. While Paulo is the teacher Leo Johnson, author, radio presenter and cofounder of Unthinkable Drinkable Brent,  is the initiator and one of the main driving forces behind this project. Curt nods of acknowledgement, perhaps a twitch of a smile, but most likely downright avoidance of eye contact are the more typical forms of social interaction between  neighbours on an anonymous London street. Leo, a Queens Park resident, was sick of feeling like “one of two thousand people” none of whom knew each other. He decided to make change. A chance conversation with the Italian neighbour from down the road, an invitation to try the grapes from the vine in his garden and Paolo’s seal of approval- yes you could make these into wine- were the founding sparks of this community initiative. This was back in 2014. Two years on and the word has spread.

People arrive with baskets brimming full with grapes from their vines, harvested specifically for this day.  The hidden cornucopia of private garden and allotment produce revealed. All hands are on deck to sort the green unripe grapes from the red. We taste the green and scrunch our faces, laughing at the sour tang. Laura Matthews, a  grape donor, local resident and musician, sums up the event as “a metaphor for sharing the love”. Legs stained purple from his turn treading grapes, Leo now buzzes with energy through the front garden, central to the action and essential to the welcoming warm atmosphere of the group. Familiar faces walk confidently across the threshold of the garden path to jubilant shouts of greeting. New faces, with bemused, incredulous but pleasantly surprised expressions stop to stare. They remain hesitant on the pavement before Leo crosses over to them, sharing the wine, enthusiasm and the invitation to join.

This open nature of the event invites chance encounters and happy co-incidences. Ramak, a local resident, happened upon the wine making event a few years ago while walking to the shops. He is now an annual and invaluable member, bringing knowledge and different stories to tell. Through him I learn the process of drying the grapes before plucking them from the stalks to create the sweetest wine.  Then Gaetano from Spoleto in Umbria happens to walk past and stops in bewildered pleasure. He lives locally now but his family in Italy have been making wine for over 60 years. Smiling, he talks of how harvesting and wine making is all about family and community. “This is the essence of it” his arm sweeps to include the party of people, the barrels, the crates full of grapes.

While the wine making has become more efficient, and the wine more drinkable over the three years since its inception, the heart and soul of Leo’s vision has always been and remains the same: community connection and sharing. The wine making functions as a catalyst for this social connectivity. I sense that it is this process of making and not the product produced that is the true core of Unthinkable Drinkable Brent. Shayne Whitaker, also a local resident, has a bottle of NW6 2014 on her shelf that she  bought for £400 at a charity auction. The wine, never opened, was bought more for the strength of the idea and people behind it than for the strength of its taste. Michael Stuart, a core member of the Transition Kensal to Kilburn group, stands knee deep in grapes and states with a happy grin “I don’t even like wine.”

Walking home, my local Kilburn streets feel imbued with a welcoming spirit. The buildings glow with the low light of the end of September sun. The stories I’ve heard and people I’ve met suffuse my thoughts, filling me with warmth and spilling out in smiles.


To find out more go to: http://unthinkabledrinkable.org/

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