Find and book great restaurantsFind a Restaurant
Search for exciting venues and eventsFind a Venue
If you need advice or help finding venues or event suppliers, use our free helpline service.
For many, it’s the ultimate dream. The thought of packing in city life to become a vigneron exercises a powerful allure. And who hasn’t, at times, wanted to trade in the treadmill for some rural idyll, surrounded by vines, making one’s own wine?
In reality, of course, it’s quite a challenge. Making wine is an investment-intensive, high-risk, low-return business. Long, irregular hours are matched by the extreme stress that Mother Nature can induce, with rain, frost, hail or even a heat wave capable of wiping out the possibility of a decent vintage, at a stroke. The oldest joke in the wine trade holds more than a kernel of truth. ‘How do you make a small fortune in wine? Invest a large one…’
This hasn’t stopped an ever-increasing number of Brits from taking the plunge. France is strewn with people who have left often high-powered, high-paid jobs, swapping – as one put it – the 9 to 5 for the 5 to 9, to try their hand at making wine.
James and Catherine Kinglake (pictured, left) are based in the Languedoc and threw over a life of City finance to fulfil their dream, buying the organically farmed Domaine Begude in 2003 as an ongoing business. Despite being used to the high-pressure City environment, and studying viticulture and winemaking at Plumpton College, James admits that he somewhat underestimated what his new life would entail.
‘With hindsight, we were a little naive, but we were confident that we were buying an estate with good terroir and I think this was the most important decision we made,’ says James. ‘I’m now on call seven days a week, 365 days a year, but I also know that I would never work for someone else again.’
The Kinglakes were approaching 40, stressed by London life, and had enough nous to realise that taking on the challenge of a working vineyard wouldn’t become any easier with advancing age. France, and specifically the Languedoc region, was their first choice.
‘Catherine and I are Burgundy fanatics and while it’s pretty much impossible to break into Burgundy, the Languedoc is the engine of change in France and you can make great Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and much else besides,’ says James.
With a permanent manager, Laurent Girault, on the team, plus relocated Aussie winemaker Richard Osborne on hand as consultant, and with their wines selling in Waitrose, Majestic and several other markets around the world, the Kinglakes certainly now appear to be enjoying their very hands-on proprietal role.
‘Every day of the year there is something different to do in the vineyard or cellar,’ says James. ‘The work can be hard, but the quality of life is incomparable.’
‘I was always completely sold on wine,’ says Stephen Cronk, who, with his wife, Jeany, and their young children (pictured, left), left a comfortable life in Richmond to become a winemaker in Provence two years ago. ‘I’ve had a dream of making wine since travelling around the vineyards of Australia 20 years ago and finally decided that it was now or never.’
Cronk had an early taste of the wine business, working for an importer in his twenties, before setting up his own wine and coffee import business, which he ‘sold with the debts to get a proper job’. That proper job led to 15 high-powered years in telecoms with salary and global travel schedule to match. Finally, tired of just talking about their dream, the family sold up, moved to France, put the children in a local school, and set about making wine.
Cronk took the canny step of avoiding the costs of owning vineyards and winery, instead buying in grapes direct from growers, and blending and making wines under his own Mirabeau label. He also engaged the services of a respected consultant, Master of Wine Angela Muir, to guide the project – an investment that paid off when Waitrose took on his first vintage.
Mirabeau has clubbed together with other British vinous émigrés at Domaine de Sainte Rose, Domaine Begude and Château Maris to promote their wines in partnership with Waitrose under the ‘Brit Pack’ banner.
‘My advice to anyone who is tempted would be, “yes, you can do it, but make sure you have the finances in place, seek advice from those already in the business and don’t expect to make any real returns for the first decade”,’ says Cronk. ‘The good part, though, is being my own boss in a beautiful part of the world. And actually making my own wine is incredible.’
It’s not the blood, sweat and tears of toiling in the vineyard or cellar that Languedoc-based Brit Packer Charles Simpson (pictured, left) at Domaine Sainte Rose talks about most. It’s the hard-nosed business reality of financial planning, marketing and selling his wines.
At 30, Simpson was the youngest director on the international board of GlaxoSmithKline. His remit covered 23 time zones and resulted in a globe-hopping life. The idea of packing it in and running a business together with his wife, Ruth, became ever more appealing.
‘We kept coming back to wine and the Languedoc struck us as the place to combine the best of the New and Old Worlds,’ says Simpson. ‘We realised that 90% of making a wine business work came down to being business savvy and that making the wine would, in a way, be the easier part as you can hire people who know what they are doing.’
The couple sold their Knightsbridge apartment a decade ago for £800,000, but Simpson estimated he needed €1.5m (just over £1.3m) to buy a working estate and provide for ongoing investment. So even with this generous start-up figure, he still had to borrow from the bank. He advises having a watertight business plan to cover for every imaginable contingency, and then to double the figures.
‘I might be up at 6am driving a forklift and finishing with paperwork at 8pm, and we’ve only just made a profit for the first time, but if you can make it work it’s a fantastic life,’ says Simpson. ‘It’s great opening a bottle of wine and thinking “we made this”, and the diversity of the role is wonderful.’
The Languedoc is a large, diverse region, capable of producing fantastic wines across a wide range of varieties and styles. Prices for land continue to rise, but are still below the average elsewhere in France, with pockets that can turn out to be good value. This means that you don’t have to have a million quid in the bank to even contemplate life as a vigneron.
Jon and Elizabeth Bowen (pictured, left) bought Domaine Sainte Croix in Hautes Corbières in 2004. ‘We didn’t go into it completely blind because I’d worked for wine merchants in Britain and also as a winemaker for people in California, Australia and more recently here in the Languedoc,’ says Jon. ‘I finally realised I could be doing something for myself rather than other people.’
Jon’s advice, if your budget isn’t endless, is to look for vineyards in more remote areas, where good land can still be found for a fraction of the price of more fashionable spots. The Bowen’s had ‘a little bit of money’ and a house in London to sell, but had to think carefully about how to begin.
‘You can splash out €1.5m (just over £1.3m) on a prestige property with 14ha of vines, but if resources are limited you can find a similar vineyard without the big house on very good land,’ he says. ‘We still had to persuade a bank to give us a loan, and live in the local village, but good wine starts from the ground up so the most important thing was to get the right vines.’
‘The hardest part of life as a winemaker is having to do absolutely everything yourself, from tending the vines and making the wine to the administration, marketing and commercial side,’ says Jon. ‘The best part is working with the seasons, and I still get such a buzz just walking into the vineyard – I’ve never had any doubt we did the right thing and I’d do it all again.’
Gavin and Angela Quinney (pictured, left) have carved out a reputation for their wines, selling to the restaurants of both Gordon Ramsay and Rick Stein, among other outlets. Gavin cashed in his share options and left his job at a highly successful computer business to buy a petite château near Bordeaux in 1999. He says his big jump from computers to vines was motivated by a chance to do something different, even if it was ‘the best way of sinking a lot of money into a business for small returns’.
‘I had a fantastic career in London, but this life is so different, and the biggest buzz comes from seeing people enjoy something that you’ve made,’ he says. ‘I’ve watched someone enjoy a bottle of our wine in one of Rick Stein’s restaurants and Jancis [Robinson, Financial Times] had one of our wines as ‘My wine of the week’ a couple of months ago; it’s moments like that which really bring home what you’ve done.’
DO speak to as many people who are already in the business as possible
DO have a fully thought-out business plan covering all possible eventualities
DO make sure your finance is in place, with access to further finance if unforeseen problems and costs arise (they will)
DO consider both training AND gaining work experience
DO expect to cost in outside expertise
DO remember that marketing and commercialisation are as important (and challenging) as making the wine
DO consider the impact of such a major life change with regard to both your family and friends
DON’T underestimate the sheer hard work involved – this is no easy retirement plan
DON’T buy a vineyard or estate without being absolutely sure of the (potential) quality of the wine
DON’T underestimate the additional investment costs that could be incurred after you are up and running
DON’T give up the City and expect real rural life to resemble a televised halcyon idyll
DON’T expect to make any real returns for up to a decade
DON’T let the naysayers tell you ‘it can’t be done’ – many hard-working yet happy new vignerons wouldn’t go back to their old life for all the money in the world
This feature was published in the autumn 2011 edition of Square Meal Lifestyle.