As we enter our 9th week of isolation, having ‘locked-down’ a week before we had to (our new granddaughter, Peggy and some of our children are living with us making me feel 102 as I am slightly asthmatic), I am reflecting on what it has meant for us at Rathfinny. Incidentally, having locked down, we all promptly fell ill with what we are sure was Coronavirus. Mark suffered the most (of course he did) and he coughed for a month. Honestly, if he hadn’t stopped coughing, I was tempted to…!

Running a business based on relationships with the hospitality sector – we sell 95% of our Sussex Sparkling through hotels and restaurants and run our Michelin Plate Tasting Room and Flint Barns too – you can imagine the impact on our budget. Like many businesses, we rely on a good summer trade from Easter onwards to see us through the quieter winter months, so the timing has been about as bad as it can be. Then there’s the personal issues. We are a ‘tight’ team and to have to put our hospitality staff on furlough, after pruning was finished, was tough.

Jamie, our COO, and his team have been flat out dealing with the practical pay roll and administrative side and Jamie has personally taken on the critical task of ensuring he is up to date on all government advice.  This gets passed on to Cam in the Vineyard and Tony in the Winery, who in turn have to make the adjustments to ensure our staff are safe. In practical terms, this means everything is just that little bit slower, which again has a knock-on effect on costs.

We’ve had to pivot our entire marketing and sales strategy in the short term and reassess budgets across the business to see where we can make savings and what spending we can defer. All of this running alongside the uncertainty about when there will be a light at the end of the tunnel, takes its toll on a business that has still not broken even.

But like everything in life there’s a good side to all this and for me, it revolves around people. Our staff have been brilliant. Those taking furlough and the effects on income have done so with good grace. Our teams on-site have continued coming to work and have adapted. Everyone has tried to keep in touch, recognising that loneliness and isolation are hard.

Sales and marketing have been working flat out, thinking of new ways to connect with our customers and I’m pleased to reveal an e-commerce site will be in place in time for the launch of our new vintages on 29th May. Do follow our Instagram, Twitter or Facebook channels to stay up to date! This means that unlike before, anyone can buy our cases of wine direct from us and have them delivered across the country.

We’ve also kept in touch with our friends in the hospitality sector, rejoicing in the birth of one’s son who arrived at home, delivered by him! Others have shared how hard they are finding it and what they are doing to cope and we’ve reached out to our off-trade partners, big and small, to work together during these challenging times.

Our customers and followers have all been supportive, most of them leaving deposits with us for when we re-open and supporting us by buying our wine. One local man told Abi, who delivers our wine for free within 10 miles, that he’s buying lots from us as he wants us to be there so he can visit in the future! I’m hoping that many of you will support us with purchases when we launch, recognising that buying British, especially at this time, helps our local businesses and keeps people employed.

All of us have been thinking of creative ways to open up as lock-down eases, in a way that keeps all our staff and customers safe, but let’s them visit and enjoy the beauty of the Estate. Here was Mark’s contribution!

We’ll have a new, larger Cellar Door, open from 29th May, where you can visit observing safe distances with a drive by service where you can place a reservation in advance. Delicious 3 course picnics are on the cards that you can collect along with a delicious bottle of one of our new Sussex Sparkling wines and have your own ‘Dine in the Vines’ experience, plus we have many other ideas as the situation eases.

Last but not least, the best news in all of this is that our new wines are being so very well received. Mark and I have been hosting online tastings with the leading critics and again, when it comes down to people, how lovely an experience that has been. To be honest, we both felt fairly nervous about it – hosting from our kitchen to the experts is daunting and this is probably best expressed by Anna Krebiehl from The Buyer.

“Both Sarah and Mark Driver wore their hearts on their sleeves as they launched a formidable quartet of English Sparkling Wines.”

But whether it’s the current ‘spirit of the age’ where we are all in this together, in our kitchens and attic offices, from here to abroad, every tasting has felt like a meeting of fellow travellers, all for once experiencing the same highs and lows.

Here’s a taster of their comments.

Classic Cuvée 2016 – our first release of this blend:

“I feel like I’ve been waiting for an age to taste this and honestly, it was worth it. Heavenly, all toasted brioche, nuts and bubbles as fine as cashmere.” Helen McGinn, Knackered Mother

Blanc de Noirs 2016:

“My favourite of the four wines is this terrific Blanc de Noirs. I like this style of wine from several other English wineries, too, but no one else makes a bottle of wine like this!” Matthew Jukes