Rathfinny Wine Estate

Work to start on our Seasonal Worker accommodation on Monday…

After over a year of consultation and discussions with the South Downs National Park planning authority and a year of discussions with Wealden District Council before that, late last year (2012) we finally got planning permission to redevelop the old Rathfinny Flint Barns into a 46 bed hostel for seasonal workers.


Whilst Rathfinny has the most stunning location on the South Downs, with beautiful views down the Cuckmere valley, it is rather remote. Whilst the old hop and apple lands of Kent, and the market garden areas of West Sussex and Hampshire have a a willing band of seasonal workers to call on to help out during harvest and winter pruning, we are nearly an hour and a half from these pools of labour. So we realised very early on that we would need to build accomodation to house seasonal workers at Rathfinny, especially as there is very little reasonably priced accomodation near by.


The Flint Barns, whose roof was blown off by the storm of 1987, seemed like the natural solution to our problem and thankfully the SDNP planning authority agreed. We are starting work on Monday to underpin the walls, which have NO foundations, and then in May we hope the main building work will start, creating what will be a fantastic new facility not just for us but within the South Downs.


The new building will have a total of twelve bedrooms, many with bunks, with on-suite shower rooms to accomodate 46 people. In the new extension to the West we are adding a large dining area, cloakrooms, boot rooms, laundry and drying rooms. On the ground floor of the old Barn there will be a large recreational area with a wood burning stove for the winter months, because we will need to house seasonal workers to help us prune the vines during January and February, as well during the harvest in September and October.


When the Flint Barns are notbeing used by Rathfinny staff we will be letting them out to school groups who want to study the geography and history of the local area, as well as to walking and and other special interest groups.

We are also establishing a new trail which will open up the lower part of Cradle Valley and give access to the Flint Barns by foot. We hope to be able to offer walkers cream teas and refreshments and eventually a glass of Rathfinny Fizz.

So here is the deal if you want seasonal work at Rathfinny Wine Estate:

  • We will need a minimum of 46 people per day from 2014 onwards to help us at harvest time – late September and October.
  • We will house you and feed you.
  • We will even pay you!!
  • We will need you to commit to a minimum of a week.
  • We will ask you to work hard and pick tonnes of grapes.
  • But you will have a lot of fun whilst doing it…

So if you know any fit, strong students who want to earn some money before going on a gap year, or you just want to get away from the rat race for a week and go on a paid working holiday, then think about Rathfinny.

Now Cameron (our Vineyard Manager) doesn’t beleive that we can find fifty people a day who will be willing to work hard (and it is hard work picking grapes) however, I’m more optimistic and think we British will prove him wrong!

So pass it on, tell your friends and family that in 2014 there will be work at Rathfinny and you will have a lot of fun whilst doing it!! Guaranteed….

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Please don’t put plastic in with your green waste…..

If you are going to all the trouble of collecting your household potato peelings or garden waste to put it in a ‘green waste’ recycling bin, why put plastic in with it? It’s like putting a brown bottle in a white bottle-recycling bin! Putting plastic, even plastic bags, in with your ‘green waste’ makes it completely useless to people like us who could use hundreds of tons of this composted green waste on our vines each year.
We have been trying to source of good quality, plastic free compost to go on the vines from local composting companies. These companies collect and compost down household green waste, but sadly it is proving very difficult to find plastic free compost.

When it is chopped up into a fine ‘soil conditioner’ and filtered the composting company can remove the majority of the plastic. However, by then the compost is so fine, that unless it is dug in, it will either get washed away or just blow around the vineyard.

So here is the deal. Tell your neighbours, tell your friends… Tweet it on.


Otherwise, we will end up looking like Champagne vineyards that misguidedly used Parisian rubbish in their vineyards in the 1980’s & 90’s and they still have bits of plastic sticking out of the soil now.


If like us you collect food peelings and the like you can buy liners for your food waste bins from most supermarkets or on-line. They are made of cornstarch so they breakdown very easily and compost away. Unlike plastic bags!!!

Thank you – Rant over.

Got the message?

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Rain, rain and more rain… then snow. How are the vines Mark?

The week before last I was invited up to Liverpool to talk at a dinner held by a group who call themselves the LADS, the Lancashire Agricultural Discussion Society. I thought they’d want to hear about why I’m transforming Rathfinny from an arable farm into a vineyard, when wheat prices are hitting new highs. In fact many of them wanted to hear about hedge funds and how they work.

My memory of Lancashire when I attended Lancaster University, in the early 80’s, was that it rained everyday and the rain was mostly horizontal! So it came as no surprise to hear that it had been pretty wet up there in 2012. After the dinner several of the guys approached me and we talked about the weather, as you do. One farmer told me how in 2012, he had had 1498mm (59 inches) of rain, another had experienced 1422mm (56 inches).  Not wishing to sound like a weather bore, it was very interesting and made me look at our weather data when I got back.

We had 940mm (37 inches) of rain at Rathfinny in 2012, which is about 17.5% above the average for the past sixty years but 50% more the rainfall than we had in 2011! However, according to the Eastbourne weather data it is not a record or even close. In 2000 and 2002 Eastbourne, which is only 6miles away, recorded 1062mm and 1028mm of rain and in 1960 they had 1178mm of rain.

So what about temperatures? This is when it becomes interesting. The average annual temperature at Rathfinny in 2012 was 11.3C which, although lower than the record set in 2011 of 12.3C, was still above the average of 10.8C for the past sixty years. The trouble was that whilst we had a very very hot March, the key growing months of June, July, September and even October were very cool.

So whilst Cameron and his team are carefully pruning the vines and they rest under a blanket of snow, we are left to think ahead to 2013 and hope that we have a more normal weather year, hoepfully following the warming trend set over the last twenty years, and I promise that this year I won’t pray for rain!!


By the way vines survive under snow and frost.  It’s only in extremely harsh winters, like those experienced in Canada, that you have to protect them. The picture above is of Champagne.

Weather bores, like me, can consult the Met office website…

Great excitement this week – the glue laminated wooden beams which will form the roof of the Winery arrived this week and despite the snow on the ground they started to put them in place.

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New Year activity at Rathfinny

It has been a busy start to the year at Rathfinny. The steel has just arrived which will form the frame of the winery and it is being erected as I write this, I’ll post some pictures later in the week.

Also, Cameron and I have been off to Lyon (France) to visit one of the nurserys we are using to grow the vines we will be planting in March this year. We ordered these vines in 2011 so we wanted to take a look before we place a further order for vines needed in 2014!

It’s a long process making vines:

Firstly, suitable rootstock cane (in our case Fercal which is good for our chalky soil and used extensively in Champagne) is collected from plots in the nursery.


This is then sorted and graded..


The canes are then cut into the correct length ready for grafting – We have chosen to plant 90cm ‘high-grafted’ vines, which means the graft union is closer to the fruiting wire (the bottom wire of the trellis set at 110cm that will hold the grapes), this will save the vines from rabbit damage as the buds are off the ground and will mean we will hopefully gain a year before we get fruit.

The selected grape variety, in our case mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, is then grafted on the top of these rootstock canes and the vines are planted out in the nursery for a year.


They are then dug up, trimmed, cleaned, packed and stored over the winter months in a cool room before they are dispatched to us for planting at the end of March this year. Notice that some of the vines in this patch of the nursery are low-graft and others high.

We have chosen the high-grafted vines but the above pictures show some smaller vines which have been cleaned ready to be sent to Canada. The tops are covered in wax to save the graft union from drying out. They look good don’t they?

So we are now finalising our order for a further 80,000 vines for planting in 2014.

Happy New Year to you all…

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Lots of progress on the Winery and planning consent for the Flint Barns!!

Work started on the Winery in September and already the foundations have been poured and the ground floor walls went up this week.


It took over 40 cement trucks to deliver the 350 tonnes of concrete that were poured over 60 tonnes of steel reinforcement rods to form the foundations of our Winery. It’s not going anywhere!I it didn’t stop there. The steel frame will arrive in two weeks time and hopefully they will start putting that up just before or soon after Christmas.


Jonathan Médard, our winemaker, and I have just returned from Bordeaux where we attended the Vinitech, a trade show for vineyard and winery equipement. We have finalised some of our choices for the grape processing area, including a red-grape sorting bench, de-stemmer and crusher. We also found a very good supplier of lab equipement, based in the UK but supplying the wine trade the world over.


Meanwhile the boys have been collecting flints from the vineyard to use when restoring the Flint Barns because, DRUM ROLL PLEASE!!! – After two years of consultation and endless revision, we have finally been given planning permission to redevelop our Flint Barns into a 44-bed hostel for both seasonal workers, as well as educational and other organised special interest groups. It was a long painful process but we finally got there! Thank you SDNPA.


Lastly, we have just published our Winter 2012 Newsletter so look out for the link on our Website and if you haven’t done so already, why not subscribe?


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Buying British…

I had a myriad of thoughts late at night during a recent trip home to Hong Kong for my niece’s wedding.

Long on my mind has been the issue of employment and sourcing – both of which we want to do from England.  We want to build a seasonal workforce made up of local people, who gain skills and come back to us year on year for both picking in September and pruning in the New Year.  We want to buy British wherever we can and, as I venture out to source products to sell in our tasting room (which we hope to open next summer,) and to stock in our winery and flint barns my continual refrain is “does it come from Britain?”


The issues are not straightforward.  Take employment.  We can have a team of pickers, many of them from Eastern Europe, who are honest and reliable. They arrive early, work hard and we only have to make one payment to their manager.  Incidentally, it gets more subtle, many of them have lived here for years, so aren’t strictly migrant workers.  Employing local workers raises practical issues – what do they do for the rest of the year?  Or are local workers simply ‘teams’ who go from harvest to harvest around the country – and how then are they different from the other teams?

See, it’s not that easy.  Everyone tells me, it can’t be done: that we won’t find local people who want to come and pick, who are reliable and hard working.  Well, I’d like to prove them wrong. It is our intention to try, so if you’re reading this and fancy vineyard work when the time comes, drop us a line and we’ll contact you later on next year.

Sourcing.  Again, this is not an easy issue.  We are looking at glasses for tasting and for our winery and the flint barns as well as to sell. What I’m learning is that England makes great crystal, but not everyday, good quality glasses.  For that we need to go to Eastern Europe or the States.  Willow baskets – yes, we can get them made here, but the costs are very high, whereas if we went to China ….

Whilst in Hong Kong we visited Shenzhen over the border where the employment and sheer energy is overwhelming.  This is a city that has grown from 10,000 people in 1978 to more than 14 million today.  The number of people eager to do business is extraordinary.  The number of fake English labels like Burberry, Mulberry and Cath Kidston reiterates the fact that I learnt at a British Council event – English brands have a great reputation all over the world and people want them.

With all these thoughts in mind, I’ve been reading ‘Time to Start Thinking: America in Descent’ by Ed Luce (which I highly recommend) that questions America’s role in the world.  It got me thinking that in the same way that we seem to follow what happens over the pond, Britain too will be heading this way unless we change our outlook.

I don’t know the answer to our employment and sourcing issues but suspect we’ll have to compromise on our desire to ‘buy British’ in every way.

Tired and confused, worried about the state of the world, I suddenly questioned whether we should be making sparkling wine, a high end and relatively frivolous product at all.  Horrified, I turned to Mark only to find my ramblings had long since bored him and he was fast asleep!

So I had to work it out myself.  Yes – we should be making English Sparkling Wine because we are making something.  In the tradition of this country, we aim to make a quality, unique British product that will not only sell here but abroad and in so doing, will create jobs and opportunities for people in this country.

At that I was, (and you probably are too!) exhausted!

PS.  The photos above are some of Viv’s great photos of the winery development.  The second half of the slab was poured today – 200 tons of concrete has been poured over the last 10 days!

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Fly Fishing in Montana

I was reminded whilst waiting in vain to cross the road in Columbia, South Carolina, that contrary to Dunkin Donuts assertion that ‘America runs on Dunkin’, America runs on gasoline, the car is king and the pedestrian a second class citizen.

Everything is big in America, the cars, the houses, the portions and the fish were no exception. I had never been fly-fishing before and everyone warned me how difficult it was and how I should get some lessons before I went. It seems a little crazy to fly all the way to Helena, Montana to go fishing but that is what I did two weeks and I would thoroughly recommend it. I travelled out via New York to visit friends and back via Columbia, South Carolina to see my eldest son who is studying at USC for a year, you forget how big America is until you try to fly form the northwest to the southeast!

He has started a blog which is hilarious: http://diggersatusc.tumblr.com/

The fishing was fantastic. We fished the Missouri River for two days and then Wolf Creek for a day on a boat. The Missouri river, which starts in Montana and ends up joining the Mississippi, is split by several hydro dams in Montana and the area we fished was below Holter dam. On our first day we lost count of how many large 18-24″ rainbow trout we caught. As our fantastic guide and teacher Nate Stevan said, “each one would have been a ‘day-maker’ on any other river”.

What an introduction to fly-fishing. Of course I have been completely spoilt as day three demonstrated as we fished Wolf Creek. We caught several fish including a decent sized brown trout but nothing as large as the fish in the Missouri.

I have to say that overall I was disappointed with a lot of the wines we found in the US. I tried a lot of Oregon Pinot Noir, which is made in the Burgundian style, light colour and body, but they seemed to lack the depth of the French wines and the prices where astronomic. However, one little gem was the Wild Hogg 2008 Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley in Sonoma, this is a great example of Pinot from that cooler area of the Sonoma Valley, California.



If you fancy trying fly-fishing I recommend Nate Stevane as a guide, he runs a small outfitters called Trout on the fly Montana (www.montanatroutonthefly.com).

Back in England now to see how the building work is getting along. The foundations of the winery are going in and hopefully we can move into our new office in the next two weeks then we can get organised.


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Work on the Winery starts!

After two years of planning we have finally broken ground today on England’s largest purpose built winery at Rathfinny.

Now I have to admit it has been a hard slog. Eighteen months ago we needed Queens Council legal opinion to convince the planning authority that a winery is an agricultural building. We adapted and lowered the building’s height to meet planning objections. We have surveyed for every possible creature you could imagine living on the farm; bats, badgers and reptiles, you name it we have the survey. We have reports on the archeology, ecology and the history of the buildings and £5,000 later we have now relocated two common lizards. However, today we are finally starting to dig out the foundations for the new winery at Rathfinny.

This first phase of the winery will house the grape presses and fermentation tanks and will be capable of producing over 800,000 litres of wine. The building will house a laboratory for the winery, offices and work rest areas for winery staff, as well as a tasting room for larger groups, which extends out onto a balcony with views over the vineyard.

The winery has been sunk into an existing silage clamp enabling the presses to be suspended 6 metres above ground level.  The pressed juice can therefore run into settling tanks with minimal pumping. When settled, the juice will then be pumped to fermentation tanks. We have an area, which will be used as a barrel store as we intend to barrel age a portion of our base wine.

In the first few years we will store all our sparkling wine bottles in the same building. However, by 2016 our production will have expanded and we will then build phase two of the winery, which will include; a dedicated bottling line and barrel store and further ‘on-lees’ wine storage for over 4 million bottles.

Our belief is that the best sparkling wine needs to be bottle aged for a minimum of three years. So we will be patient and leave our sparkling wine on the yeast lees to extract those lovely yeasty flavours until it is perfect to drink.

The winery has been designed to blend into the beautiful environment of the South Downs. The grass roof will be seeded with Southdown’s grassland and is crafted to complement the surrounding landscape. The building features locally sourced oak and flint. A bank of photovoltaic solar panels will be discreetly hidden behind the winery, so that the winery is energy self-sufficient. All water used by the winery will come from our own borehole and we are also building a water treatment plant hidden behind the existing grain barns to treat all wastewater generated, so we will be self-sufficient in water as well.

Martin Swatton designed our winery. He had never designed a winery before, but has worked tirelessly to produce not only a beautiful, sustainable built building, but also an extremely functional work area. He has worked with various consultants on the winery design including David Cowderoy and more recently Gerard deVilliers, from South Africa, who has incidentally designed the internal specifications of most of the wineries around Cape Town.

I’d like to thank all those who have helped us get to this stage, including: Parker Dann, our planning consultants and Buro 4 our project managers. And of course Liz, ‘run ragged,’ my assistant who has chased and hassled to get us to this stage.

I can’t wait for the first bottle – can you?

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