Ed Woodward: ‘Football and wine both have a rhythm of seasonality’

The former Manchester United boss on his new passion project - promoting his Douro Valley winery to the premier league

Ed and Isabelle Woodward in Quinta da Pedra Alta, Douro Valley, in Portugal

During his time in charge of Manchester United, Ed Woodward used to buy the managers a case of wine if they beat any of the top six teams at home and away in a season. 'Louis [van Gaal] wanted Vega Sicilia,' he says, 'José [Mourinho] wanted Barca Velha. Ole [Gunnar Solskjaer] had Vega Sicilia as well, actually. So all Iberian wines, funnily enough.' 

Now, on a baking hot Saturday in July, Woodward is on the village green in Barnes, south-west London, holding a glass of wine from his own - Portuguese - vineyard, manning a stall at the summer fair amid bric-a-brac and hurdy-gurdy music.

It's a long way from the boardrooms of England's biggest football club, yet he seems utterly in his element, a beam on his face as he deals with the 'big orange crisis' (the orange slices for the white port and tonic won't fit in the glass). 'I've never done this before, no,' he says, while his wife, Isabelle, calmly multitasks (their seven-year-old twins are also here). 'And I love it!'

Family project

The couple bought Quinta da Pedra Alta four years ago as a family project. A big, wildly beautiful estate up in the hills of the Douro Valley, the region where port is made but which is increasingly known for red and white table wines too, Pedra Alta is remote, set back from the Douro river. 'You can't see a single car from there,' says Isabelle. 

Quinta da Pedra Alta: a wildly beautiful estate in the hills of the Douro Valley

On the fringe of the quality wine zone marked out in the 18th century at the behest of the Marquis de Pombal, the quinta (estate) still has three of the original weathered granite marker posts standing on its slopes.

Woodward first went out to see the estate in 2016. 'I really didn't think to go and buy it, just to look,' he says when I meet him a fortnight before the fair, in the peace of a local café.

It wasn't an out-of-the-blue move. Woodward grew up in Chelmsford, where one of his childhood friends was Matt Gant, an award-winning winemaker who has worked at St Hallett in the Barossa and now makes wine in Margaret River, Australia. Together with Isabelle, they had been throwing around the idea of buying an estate for years. Gant had heard from a winemaker friend that Quinta da Pedra Alta was up for sale, but there were problems.

'I knew it was expensive. I also knew it hadn't been invested in for a while. I knew it would take a J curve [an initial loss before a recovery]. And not just a J curve in terms of capital expenditure. While it produced good wine to showcase what the land can do, lack of investment meant it was selling cheap, cheap wine to Brazil, bulk wine to Portugal. The brand itself was in the dust. And it was massively negative cash flow.

"But the Douro is a magical place. I defy anyone to go there and not be smitten. And so it was: 'The next day I woke up and thought, "Oh my God, I'm a bit falling in love with this."'

'A magical place': Quinta da Pedra Alta, in Douro Valley, Portugal

As the boss of Manchester United for nine years during which the team failed to win Premiership silverware, Woodward was often painted by the press as 'a pantomime villain' (his words). In the flesh, he's smiley, gregarious and quick-minded.

He went into football from investment banking, where, in the acquisitions and mergers department of JP Morgan, he helped negotiate the sale of United to the American Glazer family in 2005, moving across to the club soon after, becoming executive vice-chairman in 2012 and taking the helm a year later.

Even his critics describe him as a 'commercial genius', a man who boosted the finances of Manchester United with canny sponsorship deals, so it will be interesting to watch his approach to wine, a business in which, like football, it's usually said that to make a small fortune you need to start with a large one.

'I want it to be run as a business in a smart way but I'm not investing in a vineyard to make money,' he says, adding that he is currently working on the next set of five-year plans, and still unwinding after a decade in one of the biggest jobs in football. 'I was just taut. Wound tightly 24/7 dealing with things for many, many years. It's taking time, and that's why the vineyard is such a wonderful alternative.'

Woodward has had help from childhood friend Matt Gant, an award-winning winemaker

Woodward thinks his first taste of wine was a glass of riesling as a teenager on a family trip to Germany; it wasn't a very wine family. 'My father worked for the Ford Motor Company his whole life and he liked beer. But he was sent wine and he engaged with it, and when I left university he gave me a book and said, "I want you to buy wine, stick a label to each page and write your notes.''' So he did.

At around the same time, Woodward started dating Isabelle, who was a couple of years below him at the University of Bristol, where he read physics and she German and Italian. As their relationship developed they found themselves exploring wine, through travelling, ordering it in restaurants, and doing Wine & Spirit Education Trust courses together. 'I'm really, really pleased that [at the beginning] I didn't have much money and I wasn't exposed to expensive wine,' he says. 'Because it's a journey to learn.'

'It's a journey to learn': Woodward has enjoyed exploring wine with wife Isabelle

Sense of community

Does Woodward have football wine friends to talk league tables and vintages with? He says he knows Stephen Browett, the chairman of wine broker Farr Vintners and former co-chairman of Crystal Palace, and he goes on wine-tasting jaunts with Gary Lineker and the bar and club entrepreneur Jonathan Downey, most recently to Bordeaux. He also has a group of non-football friends who for years have paid into a kitty to buy cases of wine that they cellar then share.

Football and wine are, he rightly says, 'incomparable' save for the fact that both have 'a rhythm of seasonality. Every summer in football the table is reset to zero. We pick in August and then you've got a new season and off you go.'

One element of wine he is enjoying is the fact that it is 'very collaborative... in football, you engage more closely on things that definitely aren't competitive, or when it's a broader conversation about the industry. But in wine, I think, it's very different. [Winemakers] want to show people what they're doing and how they're progressing and why the changes that they're making are right, and they want to ask their friends and contemporaries what they believe and bounce off them.'

One discipline he has taken from sport is his preference for a 'flat hierarchy... I used to say to the management team, "If something's wrong and I'm being an idiot - tell me." The sense of community in the Douro is really strong. I'm interested in listening to and learning from people who have been there for generations.'

The dream team

Separately, I meet Woodward's old friend Matt Gant, who works on the wine with his friend Portuguese winemaker João Pires, the local who told Gant the estate was up for sale in the first place. The pair are clearly relishing the scope of their task, experimenting, working with native varieties, producing a highly creditable range of red, white and rosé wines that taste juicy and contemporary but are also true to the heritage of the place where they're made.

I particularly like the whites, which gleam with energy and have a refreshing salinity, and a light, fragrant red (perfect for Indian-summer drinking) called Clarete that the Wine Society has listed, which is made by co-fermenting a multitude of red and white grape varieties. There's also a knockout white port that is perfumed and softly textured and tastes of peaches, lemon verbena and brazil nuts.

Woodward and Gant have produced a range of red, white and rosé wines

Isabelle Woodward is a key part of the collaboration. The pair - who have been together for 30 years - make a formidable team. Isabelle is glamorous and graceful as well as brainy (she is currently studying for a master's in classical civilisation), a grafter who worked her way through university ('because I had to') stacking shelves during term time and working at the British Library in the holidays. She has worked in journalism as well as in luxury retail, in sales at Mulberry. She brings an instinctive eye for branding and aesthetics to the family business, including the details of which glasses, branded T-shirts ('I wanted the collars, so much smarter') and so on will help promote the wine.

With her, I try a 'white negroni'. Made with the Pedra No 03 White Port, gin and a bergamot liqueur, it is a delicious take on the classic and one of 21 cocktails that have been devised to make with the white port with an eye to getting it out into the wider world.Like Ed, she speaks enthusiastically about involving their two children in Quinta da Pedra Alta as they grow up, not with a view to them one day running it, more to get exposure to the different ways in which a business works, and being part of a family operation.

They will certainly enjoy being there. 'It's just stunning,' says Ed. 'You can see probably 10km along the Pinhão Valley [the river is a tributary of the Douro] and 8km the other way and it's this vast, vast valley with the winery on a hill and the steep terraces coming down.

At my leaving do, Ferran Soriano, who is the CEO of Manchester City, heard me talk about the vineyard for a couple of minutes and said, "I've never heard you speak so passionately, you're going to be working in the wine industry from now on." I said, "You've never heard me talk passionately about football because if you're a competitor you talk about other things." But I love football. I love sport in general. I'm named after Gareth Edwards, the rugby player - my middle name is Gareth. I got arthritis at the age of 11 so I couldn't play sport but that, if anything, pushed me deeper into watching it.'

He says the idea is to spend just one day a week on Quinta da Pedra Alta - so would he like to go back into football? 'It depends what you mean by back into football. I love many, many things about football. The rawness of it is unique. And I'm tingling thinking about that, because that environment is phenomenal.'

Of course the perfect ending to this story would be for a future Man United manager to request a Quinta da Pedra Alta wine as his reward for beating a top six team home and away. But, for both Quinta da Pedra Alta and Woodward himself, we'll have to wait to find out what lies ahead.