It was summer 2010 when I first visited Rathfinny and we agreed to buy the land to establish a vineyard. So four years on what have I learnt?
Firstly, Patience – establishing a vineyard is a labour of love, money and time. Everything takes time. You have to order your vines from a nursery eighteen month ahead of when you plant them. It then takes at least three years for them to get established before you get your first crop. It will take further three years before we release our first Sussex Sparkling Wine.
Double time double money – I’m not sure who first created this statement of fact but it is true as Sarah reminds me, all too often. Everything seems to cost twice as much as we originally budgeted and take twice as long. It took us nearly two years to get planning permission for the Winery and the cost! Who knew you needed a consultant for everything from bats to bees and that we’d have to relocate two ‘common’ lizards before we could start building?
Every expense is upfront – Planting a vineyard is expensive, I knew that. It’s not just the vines but the trellising, wire, equipment (tractors and the like required) and the maintenance for the first three years before you get a crop. I knew we’d have to plan for the future but with a vineyard everything is upfront. We needed a winery to cope with not just this year’s small crop but our planned crop in 2020, so we needed a building four times the size of what is required for the first three years. We needed workers’ accommodation to house a seasonal work force and we had to build an office designed by the office fitouts brisbane company to house the staff required to manage the project.
Weather – I have now become a weather watcher (a farmer). Our crop is completely dependent on the weather. Since 2010 the weather has been extraordinary – 2011 was very hot and dry and we had what the local farmer called ‘Australian wheat’. It hardly grew above our ankles (while wearing an ankle brace) as it was so hot and dry. Then we entered 2012 and we planted our first vines in April in 23ºC into dry soil, a hose pipe ban was imposed and then the heavens opened and it developed into one of the wettest, coldest years since the 80’s. 2013 was more promising but spring started so late we planted another 80,000 vines in April, but this time through snow! 2014 is a more ‘normal’ unpredictable English summer, long balmy July days have given way to a cooler than hoped for August.
Wind – I’d done a project on the site as part of my Wine Production degree course at Plumpton College and knew we had a windy site. Some wind on a vineyard is good but the storms we had in the summers of 2012/13 delayed the growth of the vines. We have now erected temporary windbreaks to help the trees, which form shelter belts across the land, grow. It has made a huge difference but I guess we are about a year behind where I hoped to be.
Stress – I have to say that owning a vineyard is nothing like as stressful as running a hedge fund. We have hired a fantastic team of people who have taken on responsibility for the various areas of the project, but like any long term investment I do keep looking at the business plan and historical weather data and question is this really a sane thing to do?
And the answer is YES – I have learnt that there is a great market for high quality Sussex Sparkling Wine, but you can’t expect people to just turn up and buy it. You have to promote it and work hard at selling it. We have had interested buyers walk up the drive from Sweden to China but bottles don’t just fly off shelves. The Rathfinny brand needs to be built worldwide which is partly why we encourage media coverage.
The Vineyard Team
So, refreshed after a cool summer holiday in Scotland and Cornwall (we seem to have missed the sun everywhere we’ve been!) I’m really looking forward to getting back to Rathfinny and seeing how things have progressed.
Mark Driver – Joint owner with she who must be obeyed…