Place of Birth: Plymouth
Date of Birth: 16/02/1998
Previous Clubs: None
Representative Honours: Lambs (in Argentina)
Best rugby memory: Beating Tonbridge at home in Titans' promotion season, The big win at home against Rams
Sporting hero: Lewis Hamilton
Day job: Vineyard manager
Ben Oliphant-Thompson (first published November 2021)
In his regular column meeting the players, Richard Kitzinger, talks wine and work with Titans forward Ben Oliphant-Thompson.
I was amused to overhear at the recent game against Rams a conversation between fellow spectators about the players’ details uploaded on the club website. “Did you see that Ben O-T’s job is listed as ‘Vineyard Manager’?” one chap asked his friend who agreed that it was quite an intriguing career. So it was only logical that I follow this up and speak with the popular back row forward to find out more.
We begin by talking about Kenton Park Estate, his family home and also his place of work. Ben was away travelling in Australia and New Zealand post A-Levels when his parents grabbed the opportunity to buy the property and, by the time his funds ran out in Thailand and he headed home, home had changed. Ben’s mother had been running a café in Budleigh Salterton and had visited Kenton Park as she stocked their wine. She had always said to the family that if it ever came onto the market, they should buy it.
“I came back from overseas and it was all hands on deck,” Ben recalls. “The house had been sold and suddenly we were having a go at setting up a vineyard.” Not that any of the Oliphant-Thompsons had any experience in growing grapes but that didn’t stand in their way, “It’s been a steep learning curve but that’s the adventure,” said the 80-cap Titan. “Three days after I got back, we replanted the vineyard. That was about five years ago and it’s been like that ever since.”
“It’s been a steep learning curve, but a really fun one at that.”
At the time we sit down to talk, this year’s harvest – the second since the vines began to yield grapes – has recently ended. Ben is already deep into another project though. From the 2020 grapes they have just begun to make brandy. He has spent the day working with barrels and siphoning by hand the wine from barrels hoisted high on a fork-lift. It’s another example of learning on the job, something that appeals to the 23-year-old because “It feels very much ‘in the moment’, it’s fun.”
Everybody takes a turn helping out. As the project has developed, so has the brand identity. “The day we replanted the vineyard, a load of my mates, rugby mates, came and helped out and there we were, all sizes. We were a motley crew and it stuck. Our team, to this day, is known as the Motley Cru.”
With most Brits remaining on these shores for their summer holidays this year, it was a very busy time for Ben. Officially his job title is ‘Vineyard Manager’ but on any given day he could be giving tours of the estate, managing the website or updating social media and manning the bar. That’s all before he looks after the vineyard and makes decisions as to what wine they make from the grapes. Meanwhile his parents, his girlfriend, his brother’s girlfriend and his sister are all to be found busy in the kitchens, serving at the bar or involved in one way or another with the workings of a vineyard.
Ben’s passion for rugby flourished at Blundells School in Tiverton. He made his 1st XV debut whilst in Year 11 and Tony Yapp, involved in coaching the school side, encouraged him to move into men’s rugby at Taunton. A schoolboy prop, he took advantage of the new pastures to transition into a Number 8. Forwards coach, Chris Brown, asked the new recruits to sort themselves into groups according to position and Ben made a beeline for the back row. “Yappie let me get away with it. The front row wasn’t my favourite position. If I’m needed in the second row, I’m happy just to be on the field for Titans but I’d prefer to be in the back row.”
Since leaving school Ben has focussed his fitness effort more on endurance events rather than pounding weights in a gym. He and some friends recently completed an Olympic Triathlon. It has, he says, left him feeling more mobile and less heavy than when he was required to bulk up for scrummaging. Being out in the open air in his working life surely gives his fitness a boost too. Kenton Park Estate’s offering has now expanded to include making cider from the on-site orchard and gin using botanicals grown in the herb garden. The family took a decision early on that they didn’t want to become ‘just another vineyard’.
“It’s a bit of everything which is why I love it. No two days are the same.”
When the Oliphant-Thompsons resolved to go for it during the English vineyard boom, they set out to create something different. The result is a vineyard destination with wine safaris, vineyard tours and tastings. “We made it a proper experience with the wine tastings taking place in the setting of the vineyard, gin in the herb garden and cider in the orchard.” Visitors are taken to meet the estate’s animals before enjoying an amazing three-course meal, served up from the Kenton Park kitchen and finishing the day with whisky and a log fire in the cosy comfort of the barrel room.
There are three different boutique accommodation options for visitors to Kenton Park Estate, borrowing from a model that has long been hugely successful in the wine regions of Australia and South Africa. The vineyard has made the step from day out destination to somewhere people choose to stay over, which might not be a bad idea after all that wine, cider, gin and whisky.
Ben explains that the evolution of their offering is what keeps the adventure fresh for everyone. “Late autumn is when we always sit down and discuss what the next projects to come on board will be.” With a sparkle in his eye, he confesses that it’s the creation of new destination points in the vineyard, that keeps it exciting.
With an eye to the future, Ben is keen to see the product and the destination, keep growing. Much as his rugby career at Taunton where he talks of high ambitions for the team and, on a personal level, nailing down a regular starting position in the Titans line-up. “There’s a bit of a joke doing the rounds that I don’t like the second row,” he chuckles, “but so long as I’m starting games and enjoying my rugby, I don’t mind too much where I am.”
Richard Kitzinger is writing in our match day programmes as well as on the Taunton RFC website. Richard is a Will Writer and all club members are entitled to a discount on Lasting Powers of Attorney with him. Call him on 07504 991893.