Rathfinny Wine Estate

Wine tasting ….

I have to confess that with a household full of hungry teenagers this will be a short blog.

We have recently had a wonderful holiday in Italy where we have tried several of the local wines.  Those of you who know me from previous blogs will know that I am no great expert and prefer to sit down at the end of a long day, raise a glass to my lips, take a deep swig and declare it either ‘marvelous’ or ‘horrid.’  Mark’s attempts to get me to pick up different flavours usually falls on deaf ears, and if I’m particularly tired, I have been known to respond rather tartly.

However, as a co-owner of a vineyard, even I can see that I need to have some knowledge.  My last foray in formal wine tasting, (see my blog  http://rathfinnyestate.com/estate-news/?p=668 ) ended up with me declaring tastes of ‘bubblegum’ and even ‘camphor wood chests’ – but I really am going to try.

Here is one particular wine I really liked on our holiday.

Grillo front label

However, try as I might I just could not taste the promised papayas and mangoes referred to on the label.

Grillo back label

Having grown up in Hong Kong living on papayas and mangoes I count myself as something of an expert on them, so even though I was trying to show willing, I found myself ‘arguing’ with the label!  Not a good start.

Anyway, the plan is to take a formal course so for those of you who are already experts, you may ignore my blogs.  For those of you like me, who want to learn more, we can do so together.

This is one we all liked. Mark tells me Vermentino is a grape principally grown in Sardinia. This was lovely….

Vermentino

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Sarah Driver

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Too exciting …..

Ok, so I don’t write anything for ages and here I am pushing in with a second blog in 2 weeks!

However, whilst Mark gets excited about tanks and cross flow filters and electro dialysis (yawn!), I got really excited this week about our winery tasting room, which is taking shape. It has been a difficult room in some ways to fit out as it is long and narrow, but with the tireless help of Susie Atkinson, who has fitted out several Soho House venues, and Martin Swatton, our designer, we are nearly there.

Here’s our passage to the tasting room

tasting room hall

And our samples

tasting room samples

And our tasting room!

tasting room

The plan is to use this room to host trade tasting as well as events and it will be available for hire for off-sites, conferences and entertaining.

Finally, I then got even more excited down at the Gun Room where they are making great progress.  Look at what we found under the pebble dash ……..

pebble-dash:flint

Beautiful flint walls!  What was with the pebble dash??

flint wall

(If you’re worried about the benches – they’ve been temporarily removed to keep them safe whilst this work is undertaken.)

The Rathfinny Gun Room which incorporates Alfriston’s Heritage Centre will be open in November for early Christmas shopping – did I say Christmas!?  That will probably be the next time I write a blog knowing my track record!

Sarah Driver

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Visit to Champagne

It has been another busy week here at Rathfinny, starting with a visit to Champagne.

Mark and I had an amazing tour around Taittinger getting a serious case of cellar envy!  20 metres under their main site in Reims (pronounced Rance!) are Roman chalk cellars dating back to the third century, that they call ‘crayeres’.  They are incredible, dome shaped, rising like pyramids above you to small vents at ground level.

We saw rounded caves stacked with bottles, 72,000 to be exact, that take 2 men one week to fill.  With the help of wooden bars to line up the bottles exactly, they stack them 42 levels high – any higher and too much pressure is exerted on the lower bottles.

cellar taittinger

Then there was the range of bottles that made the standard 75cl bottle look positively tiny!

bottle sizes

I learnt their names – from smallest to largest – demie, bouteille, magnum (1.5 litres, 2 bottles), Jeroboam (3 litres, 4 bottles), mathusalem (6 litres, 8 bottles), salamanzar (9 litres, 12 bottles), balthazar (12 litres, 16 bottles) and finally nabuchodonosor (15 litres, 20 bottles).

I also learnt that Taittinger are one of the only Champagne houses to age their champagne in a jeroboam.  Many others decant from smaller bottles into a jeroboam after the secondary fermentation.  Taittinger only decant into bottles bigger than a jeroboam and we saw this process with a mathusalem.

transfer method

We met Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger and his son, Clovis and took on board their words of wisdom on how to market our sparkling wine all over the world.  The main messages I have taken home with me are it is hard work and attention to detail is paramount.

Back at Rathfinny there’s the winery tasting room fit out to finalise, seasonal workers’ employment contracts to draft, overseeing the Gun Room building works, preparing the winery for the delivery of the tanks, meetings with our PR agency to finalise our plans for next year, details to sort out for the winery opening, decisions to be taken on our labelling …… They were right about one thing – it is hard work!

Sarah Driver

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St Vincent’s Day Tasting

I have to apologise for not having posted a blog for months.  (Mark is leaning over me and tells me I haven’t done one since August last year!!)  He must be desperate, as he has also told me that someone has requested that I write more as I made him laugh – thank you Seaford golfer!

I could give you lots of excuses but I’ll stick to two.

  1. I’ve been doing an MA – last submission is in so only my dissertation to do over the summer.
  2. I have been working on my dyslexia campaign, which culminated in the launch of a report, The Fish in the Tree, at the House of Lords last month. If you’re interested, check out our website http://driveryouthtrust.com/?page_id=63.

I may have not been writing blogs but I have been working hard at Rathfinny.  With the able help of Georgia and Nikki we have been sourcing items to sell in our new cellar door, the Gun Room in Alfriston.  We got our last bit of planning permission yesterday – hurrah – so we should be ready to open in the autumn. The whole team has been working on designing the interior of the barns – think ‘simple, stylish hostel.’  All going well, we should be open in February next year.  I have enlisted the help of a great friend, Susie Atkinson, (http://susieatkinson.com) who has worked on many of the Soho House projects, to help with designing the interior of the Winery tasting room.  It’s a challenging shaped room, being long and narrow, but what she has come up with is exquisite.  There will be no better place to sit with a glass of sparkling wine and look upon the vineyard.

Rathfinny Winery Tasting Room

Jamie Everett has been a godsend and I have delighted in sending him all my legal files, especially those dealing with trademarks.  He has received them in good humour and is ploughing his way through all the work with good grace.

Finally, I did want to share with you an evening of wine tasting Mark and I went to in March.  It was SEVA’s (South East Vineyard Association) St Vincent Day Tasting held at Bolney Vineyard, who laid on a lovely spread.  St Vincent of Saragossa, for those of you, like me, who have never heard of him, is the patron saint of winemakers and his ‘day’ is 22nd January.

All was going well, I had a nice glass of bubbly in one hand, a canapé in the other and then they announced that the moment had come, we were to taste a selection of wines.  I can do that, I thought.  Taste, that is.  However, they handed out a formal sheet of paper upon which there were 10 rows and columns headed with things like, ‘nose’, ‘mousse’, ‘taste’, ‘grape’ and ‘country’.  It soon became apparent from the hush in the room, the serious look that descended on everyone’s face (except mine!) that something momentous was afoot.

Suffice it to say, I had a jolly time on my own and thought I’d done quite well.  I had decided to concentrate on the ‘taste’ section.  The only thing is that no one else seemed to have written down anything like my comments.  They quickly looked bemused when I proudly suggested flavours of ‘bubblegum’, ‘tutti frutti’ and ‘camphorwood chests’ (which I was particularly proud to have come up with).  From my notes I have also written ‘crushed up cornflake and a chappati’ but can’t imagine what sort of wine tasted like that!  Anyway the good news is that none of the wines were English!  I very quickly learnt that the best approach was to look wise, nod a lot and purse my lips knowingly.

Right!  Done!  I’m thinking Mark won’t let me write another blog after this!!

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I’m in charge! (Just don’t tell Mark!)

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With Mark sailing the high seas, I am in charge!  When I pointed this out to him a look of horror crossed his face.  “But Sarah,” he said, “you’re not allowed to make any decisions!”  Well, if you’re reading this Mark as you lounge in the sun, I am doing nothing but taking decisions, decisions, decisions!!  The first of which was to have a staff party at the end of the summer to celebrate all our hard work.  In fact, I’ve now appointed myself Director of Social Events and Liz and I are drawing up an exciting list of future dates.

It made me smile, and I am sure there are women out there who will know what I mean when I say – bless, and he thinks he’s made all those decisions on his own.  For some reason I am reminded of a card we have framed at home.

Husband: Do you know in all the years we’ve been married, I’ve never won an argument.

Wife: Yes, darling.  That’s because you’ve never been right!

Anyway, I digress.  If you have heard very little from me over the past month, it’s because life has been busy.  At Rathfinny, I’ve been plowing through all the legal paperwork that goes with employment, building contracts, registering trade marks both here and abroad, health and safety to say nothing of dealing with branding and PR.  I’m also working with Martin, our designer, on the fit out of the tasting room in the winery as well as starting to think about developing an outlet for our Sparkling Wine.  In relation to that, I’m having fun visiting local artists and suppliers with a view to stocking their goods, to complement our wines.  Oh, nearly forgot.  I’ve also been involved in the landscaping aspects of the new winery – inspired after our trip to South Africa earlier this year and am beginning to concentrate on the fitting out aspects of our Flint Barns, the planning permission for which has just gone in. Setting up a new business has certainly thrown more my way than I ever expected!

One of my highlights though has been working with the National Trust and the South Downs National Park on establishing the Rathfinny Trail, a walk that will take people across our land, through the vineyards and up to the Flint Barns where it is hoped they will be able to enjoy a cup of tea and a scone, or even a glass of bubbly.  Richard James, the Park Ranger, and I walked the route a few weeks ago and I got a foretaste of what’s on offer as he talked me through the rare flowers, told me about bees and enlightened me on the habits of the lark.  Watch this space for an opening date.

I was going to write about the employment debates we are having at the moment and my plans for writers’ retreats, but it will have to wait until next time.  By then, I’ll have made a million more decisions Mark!

Finally, we’ve just produced our third newsletter and you can find it here

http://www.rathfinnyestate.com/download/Rathfinnynewsletter.pdf

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What a week!

We are just starting to recover from a fabulous but ‘oh so busy’ planting week, which saw us all up at 4.30 am last Monday – yes, including the teenagers – waiting for the sun to rise in time to film BBC Breakfast.  There was a sense of great expectation as we nursed hot cups of tea in the chilly, breaking dawn and then it was all hands on deck.

Volker and his family, ably assisted by Cameron and our newest member of the team, David, got to work planting the vines in even, GPS directed rows and Mark set to with the media.  Nikki, Liz, Georgia (have I told you I had PA envy and have now got one of my own? – my long suffering friend, Georgia) and I made more cups of tea, ferried the press to and from Polegate station and around the farm and that was really how it was all week, with a few family ‘must-do’s’ thrown in like the obligatory holiday dentist trips and forced revision sessions.

It culminated on Saturday in the most fantastic way with close friends and local villagers joining us to plant their own individual vines and to share in a hog roast.  The ‘close friends’ were roped in, along with all the kids and their respective partners, in making the day a great success.  The video below says it all.

There are too many people to thank but (yet another old friend) Mary Jackson was our artist in residence that week, sketching and painting(http://www.newenglishartclub.co.uk/artists_pages/jackson_mary.asp?art=58) and Jenny of Complete Bliss (www.completebliss.net) (yes, you guessed it – another close friend) provided amazing food on the day, Liz (“run ragged”) who did a fantastic job all week keeping everyone fed and watered and Nikki, Cameron’s wife, who made teas and coffees whilst ferrying her kids to school and back, and was generally a rock all week – thank you one and all.

Sarah Driver

A selection of photos from Saturday.

PS… Please send any other photos of the planting party day to Liz atinfo@rathfinnyestate.com

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Countdown to planting – 1 week to go

“I drink champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad.  Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory.  I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.

Madame Bollinger, quoted in the Daily Telegraph.

Here’s a scary thought.  Although most Champagne houses were established by mad men, they end up being run by their spouses!  Bollinger, Verve Clicquot and Pommery to name but a few.  Watch out!

I am sneaking in a quick blog before next week’s planting and all the experts take over with talk about vines and temperatures and GPS planting – watch this space!

In anticipation of this great event, we have had our pictures taken.  This involved Liz and I waking at 6am to decide whether we were going ‘country’ or ‘executive’ – suffice it to say, we look neither!  A lovely photographer, Ben (female) arrived to be toId by me that “I hate my photo being taken and I’m really un-photogenic.”  Everyone says that, she answered with a laugh.  An hour or so later, she was trying to remain enthusiastic.  “Would you like to borrow my lipstick?” she asked.  “Really? That bad?”  She grimaced.  “Don’t you do make up?” she enquired, to which I informed her that, for me, I had so much make-up on that Mark had looked slightly twitchy when I appeared first thing in the morning.  Anyway, Ben has promised that I will look gorgeous and about 23, so I’m feeling very relaxed about the results – not!

It has been a succession of contracts and quotes over the past few weeks, with our main quote to all our consultants reiterating that we will not be earning anything until at least 2016 and so can they take the pain with us.  Not a desperately compelling argument, but one which most (I am happy to say) seem to accept, mainly it seems because of the sheer excitement and enthusiasm wine seems to evoke.  (At this point, I thank them all from the bottom of my heart, if not my purse, and promise that when we are seeing the profits of our work, they too, will see them flow their way.)

Promised a trip to South Africa, shallow as I am, the thought of a holiday in the sun with a book by a pool, ensured that I immediately became suddenly keen on the whole wine business.  It was not to be that quiet, relaxing trip of self indulgence.  I have to say though, I had the most fantastic time, despite inspecting 15 different wineries and I mean, really inspecting down to the drainage system, the benefits of different types of tanks and I can even tell you what the different stages of treating waste water are.  I have our charming and ever patient consultant, Gerard De Villiers (don’t even think of building a winery without asking this man!) to thank.

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Mark and Gerard inspecting waste water treatment at Hidden Valley

We were completely bowled over by the generosity of the wine people over there.  In particular, Louis Strydom, winemaker from Ernie Els (my favourite tasting experience), Cathy Grier Brewer from Villiera who supply M&S, Morne Very the wine maker at the exquisite Delaire Graff Estate and Pieter Ferreira at Graham Beck who graciously gave us two hours of his time after a sleepless night on a busy, picking day. Thank you all.

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The view from Ernie Els Winery

Wine – How Hard Can It Be?

I have decided to do a simple section every so often on my learning experience.  As the TV says, for those of you who know even a bit about wine, turn away from the screen now.  I am a complete beginner, so this will not be for you and will only be humiliating for me!

Here’s what I’ve learnt so far from my first experience of tasting wine, in South Africa.

  • There are many different grapes which give wines their different tastes. (I told you I knew nothing!)
  • Often, these different grapes are mixed together in different amounts – blended.
  • Chardonnay – I like this and learnt to recognise that it has a ‘smoky’ flavour, brought about by being aged (stored) in barrels of oak.
  • Oak – US oak gives vanilla flavours, French oak gives a different flavour, but I can’t remember what!  (I heard someone say this, but Mark says it’s completely wrong!  He says American oak grows more quickly and therefore the grain gives a more pronounced flavour, whilst French oak tends to have ‘tighter’ grains and is therefore more subtle. Confused?!
  • Sauvignon Blanc – I didn’t like it, describing it rather proudly as having a ‘vinegar taste,’ – which didn’t go down terribly well with the lady serving it!

Right.  Time to stop.  I’m feeling incredibly excited but also nervous about the next few weeks. Having vines growing in the ground will make this project so much more real and will be a daily reminder of the changes we have undertaken in our lives.

Sarah

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A Wine Bore – After Only One Week!

Picture the scene.  I am guiltily leaving a school ‘do’ early, hurrying through the melting snow to meet Fran (my oldest friend) in a pub.  Behind I have left other ‘better’ parents mingling and discussing their child’s progress as I clutch my phone and ring ahead to get an order in.

“What do you want?” says Fran.

“Mmm, can’t decide … wine or perhaps a G&T?”

“We’re drinking white,” she says.

“Mmm,” and it’s here I start to lose it.  “What grape?” I ask.

“What what???” comes the bewildered reply.  Fran and I have been friends for over 40 years.  That means we’ve been friends since primary school.  We grew up together.  We drank our way through our teens – white wine, red wine, Dubonnet lemonade (remember that?), Kahlua, home-made egg nog (don’t ask!), rum and coke (who drinks that anymore?), San Miguel beer (we grew up in Hong Kong) but never, and I mean never, have we asked “what grape?”

“It says Cote du Rhone on the bottle,” she says trying to be helpful.  That throws me.

“I haven’t heard of that grape,” I say.  (You will now get a sense of how much I have to learn!)  By this time I am at the pub and can sample the wine on offer.

I sip, breathe air in slightly (proud that I can now do this without choking or spitting everywhere), dip the tip of my tongue behind my teeth, dribble a bit and declare, “I don’t like it.”  Fran is looking incredulous.  Is it the dribble or the fact that I don’t like what’s on offer?  I ask for red, swirl it around and declare it has ‘legs’.

“What?” she says and I detect a hint of grumpiness.

“Yes” I say with an air of confidence – “if you swirl a glass and see dribbly lines on the inside, that’s ‘legs’ and it means the alcohol content is high.  13.5% in fact.”  Now she looks a tad impressed so I don’t let on I’ve read the label.

By the time I start discussing the ‘tannins’ Fran has had enough.  She casts a teenager stare across the table.  “G.O.Y” she says and I detect a sneer.  But, ever the optimist, I interpret this as “Good On You” for my efforts.

“Get Over Yourself” she hurls, filling her glass and I’m sure she’s mixed the wines. Worryingly as the evening progresses, I dip back to the white wine and with each successive sip I declare I like it more and more.  I’m not sure that’s the way this wine appreciation business is supposed to work.  By the end of the evening all the red and white has gone and Fran is asking for a glass more.

“More of the same?” ventures the waitress who has insisted on clean glasses for each colour of wine.

“Oh no,” says Fran.  “A glass of house will do us.”

We are back on familiar territory!

I have clearly spent too much time with my husband (wine bore!) in South Africa.

To be continued …..

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Sarah & Fran at Glastonbury 2010

PS. Many thanks to all my close friends who have read my blog and pushed my ‘hits’ way above my husband’s!  Who says I’m not competitive?

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How Snow Globes changed my life!

For those of you who regularly read this blog, you will note that I have not featured on it since my early blogs when it started, just over a year ago.

As the long suffering wife of Mark, I thought I had deftly sorted the problem of having a ‘retired’ husband aged 46 hanging around at home all day.  To the cries from my friends of ‘we’ll have a snitch among us, relaying our every move to our husbands’ – I came up with a cunning plan. Enthusiastically support his bizarre idea to go back to college full time to study ‘viticulture’ (what’s that?) for 2 years and to buy a farm and plant a vineyard.  Problem solved.

However, what that’s they say about the best-laid plans?  At first it seemed quite amusing – 5am discussions about the number of snail species on the South Downs – did you know or care that there are over a 100?  No, well neither did I.  Then there were the hours of shouting at the computer to contend with as he tackled wine posters and modern technology, combined with proof reading essays on vine moths (I live in a household of dyslexics) and long (one sided) conversations on the intricacies of malolactic fermentation (don’t ask!)

All of this I could just about cope with along with 4 children (don’t believe anyone when they say they get easier with age,) an MA of my own and a part time job devising an education programme for dyslexic children but then there was the vineyard to contend with.  In an earlier life I was a city solicitor for my sins and whilst I was whispering ‘are we insured,’ ‘have you asked a lawyer?’ and ‘where’s the contract?’ I started to find things creeping onto my desk. CV’s, employment contracts, planning papers (what do they say in Harry Potter – he who must not be named!), trade mark applications – the list went on and on.  Pillow talk took on a new meaning as every issue to do with the vineyard passed over it.

It came to a head in December as Mark waved yet another pile of ‘can you just’ jobs at me as I was dishing up dinner.  Admittedly I had had a day pretty much to myself, which meant I’d fitted in a yoga class and had a quick sandwich with some mates but I was reaching the end of my tether.  As we were dishing out jobs, I pointed out that not one Christmas present had been bought by him to say nothing of the million and one jobs in the house that had somehow made the way to the bottom of his never ending list.

That’s when I brought out my piece de resistance!  I had purchased some particularly tacky snow globes for each of our 4 children.  All I needed was for a delightful picture of us happily together to be found, printed off and put in each one.  Once that was done – I would happily look at the waving pile of paperwork.

Suffice it to say, it was a particularly difficult negotiation which saw the usual cycle of husband:wife arguments – shouting, silence, sulking, more shouting, apology (he’s good at that), compromise and peace.

The upshot is – I am now ‘in’ having agreed to devote 2 full days a week to developing our vineyard, dedicated time to concentrate on all the issues and to be appreciated and acknowledged for having done so.

Oh – did I say that he promised me a fabulous trip to South Africa to tour vineyards?!  More on this in my next blog!

PS.  Actually, the snow globes job never was completed.

PPS. Maybe we just didn’t have a happy picture of us as a couple to go in the snowglobes?? You’d think we would – we’ve been married 25 years this July!!

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Royal Wedding and English Wines

Sarah here – as usual very behind with my blogging!  Probably due to sleep deprivation as my husband keeps waking me up at some ungodly hour to discuss some new thought of his or, even worse, to excitedly shove a graph in my befuddled face and ask me to show the same enthusiasm he has for sales of sparkling wine the world over!

Anyway, lots has been going on ….. and here are a few highlights.

Chapel Down – Frazer Thompson, CEO of Chapel Down, sent us a lovely welcoming email to the world of wine a few months ago, inviting us down for lunch.  We had a brilliant time with him, me in particular, as he showed us all over the site and explained every part of the process, which I have never taken much notice of in the past when visiting vineyards, preferring (as is my wont!) to focus on the end result.  We finished off with an excellent lunch (the best soup I have had in a long time) and a tasting of some of their wines and bubbly.

Without pretending to know, I’d say the following:-

Bacchus white wine – I really liked this (and I have drifted away from white wines with age (mine, not the wine!) finding them too acidic) – the smell was heavenly and my first thoughts were elderflower and hedgerows.  Honestly!  So proud of myself when Frazer said exactly the same before I’d said a word.

Flint dry – I liked this too – very clear and light and eminently drinkable.

Of course my favourite was the Chapel Down Sparkling but here I fall down as I can’t remember which one we had.  I do know though, that I have a nice bottle of the Union to celebrate with tomorrow on the …

Royal Wedding.  Can my husband really wield such influence?  He’d like to think so since he wields little in the domestic arena.  Check out this story to see just why we should all be patriotically drinking our own English wines.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1380903/ROYAL-WEDDING-2011-English-wine-table-Kate-Williams-big-day–costs-8-50-bottle.html

Well done Chapel Down!

Finally, we recently welcomed the English National Trust and Natural England to Rathfinny and we will be working closely with them, in our new National Park, to save our chalk downland meadow with the help of ponies.  More on that later!

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