So, ‘pre wine-making’ you guys were both doing pretty well in ‘regular’ careers. Charles, you were flying high at GlaxoSmithKline, and Ruth you were doing lots in the humanitarian sector, right? Could you why you quit and how the experience has been up to today? Has it been the realisation of a dream? The idea first struck you when you were working in Azerbaijan?
These days, when very few people can claim to be living their dream, we can categorically say that we are two of the few who can. Our decision to cast aside our respective international careers in order to establish and run a high-quality, boutique, wine business in rural France was driven by a desire to work together and to create a family business of our own. It involved a large degree of risk and a huge amount of determination to realise this mutual dream.
I read one of you once say ‘…we started out as keen consumers of wine with a very commercial approach to the business’ – so, where did your wine adventure begin exactly? Did you have a certain moment or a certain vino that turned you onto the world of delicious wine? (…and I presume, plant the seed of an idea that you’d actually make wine one day?)
We were keen and interested wine consumers with aspirations to set up a business of our own. We had travelled widely in wine producing areas and knew the styles of wine that we wanted to create. We also knew that we wanted to sell our product in the UK market as we understood the channels and the main players. We were attracted to the wine industry because it has three very distinct aspects to the business: the agricultural part, the technical/winemaking part and the business/marketing part.
We started our business with skills in the third area, which we think is actually the most important – as if you cannot sell your product and manage what is an extremely cash intensive business, you will not be able to afford to continue the other areas in the long term! We have learned the agricultural and winemaking side ‘on the job’, with the help of professionally trained experts.
In terms of setting up in Languedoc (Domaine Sainte Rose), how has that been? As far as I know, when it comes to French wines, this region is something of an underdog. You’ve opted for an Old World location but for making wine in a New World way – could you elaborate a little on that?
Our passion for wine and desire to invest in an, ‘emerging’ wine-producing area, rather than an area that was already well established, led us to the exciting and highly diverse French wine-producing region of Languedoc-Roussillon. The dream had always been to produce quality wine and the property we found, Domaine de Sainte Rose, provided us with the perfect raw materials.
In the fourteen years that we have now been at Sainte Rose we have completely redesigned the winery, turning it into a state-of-the-art facility; we have gradually implemented major improvements in the vineyard, using environmentally sensitive farming techniques; and we have successfully introduced our wines into ten different markets around the world.
Our goal was to produce authentic, affordable, handcrafted wines of distinction and to our immense satisfaction, our wine has so far been universally well received by both the wine trade and consumers all over the world. In the UK we have an enthusiastic following, trading with key players such as Waitrose, Majestic and Naked Wines in addition to managing our own small import company ‘Simpsons Wine Imports’.
You’ve also been getting busy on UK soil in the last few years. Could you tell us about what you’re up to with sparkling wines in Kent? It’s always great to see people creating on the ‘home turf…’
Not content to rest on our laurels at Sainte Rose, in 2013 we brought our know-how back to the UK – establishing an exciting new English Sparkling Wine project. In 2012 we had invested in 90 acres (30 hectares) of prime viticultural land in the North Downs of Kent. This investment was driven by the suitability of this land to plant vines, based on aspect, slope and soil analyses and our goal was to produce top quality English Sparkling Wine.
We planted our first 10 hectares of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir on our estate near Canterbury in 2014. The vineyard sites occupy glorious positions on the sunny, sheltered slopes of Barham in the North Downs. The initial plantings have worked well, so we will again be bringing over our French plantation team from the Languedoc next week to plant a further 10 hectares of the same varieties.
The final 10 hectares are due to be planted in 2017. We have also just heard that our application to the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) Growth Programme for grant funding for the development of a state-of-the-art winery, has been successful. The grant will assist in the conversion of two barns, which are situated equidistant between our vineyards in Barham, into a modern winery and tasting room.
Work on the project will start immediately and the conversion will be completed by September 2016, in anticipation of our first harvest in October.
Asides from wine, what else might we find you guys enjoying a glass of? Ruth, you’re 5th generation Grants family….whisky?
Yes, being part of the family means we sometimes get to sample unique, specially commissioned whiskies that never see the open market! We are also very partial to gin-based cocktails using the Grant’s gin brand Hendricks. In addition to these, Charles is a master cocktail maker with particular favourites being frozen Margaritas using lemons & limes from our garden at Sainte Rose and Mojitos again made with mint from the garden.
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into the life (or should that be lives?) of a winemaker?
This is such a difficult question as every day is different, which is why we love what we do so much! As we write we are flying back to London from Montpellier airport having spent a few administrative days at Domaine Sainte Rose catching up with our staff there and various projects in the vineyard and the winery.
Tomorrow we will be putting the finishing touches on phase two of our Kent vineyard plantation plans for next week, which includes everything from managing the French plantation team who are driving over from France with 42,000 vines, to organising journalist and customer visits.
Having received the news that our RDPE grant application has been successful, we also have an enormous amount of planning to do as we start work converting and equipping our agricultural buildings to create a winery!
Who’s the person who’s most inspired you in your work – food industry or otherwise? Is there anyone that you draw inspiration or strength from? Do you have any specific culinary influences?
James Herrick, who made and marketed the first French wine branded as Chardonnay into the UK in the 1990s was our ‘Guardian Angel’ in the the early stages of our business, something (or rather somebody) that you can never bank on when writing a business plan. His advice kept us very grounded and focused on the importance of the commercial side of our business, thus we probably have him to thank for our early success and the fact that we still have the passion and interest to do it all over again in England!
Re. culinary influences, where to start!? Having travelled extensively throughout the world we love food and food pairing! This is one of the joys of spending time back in the UK, where the food is so diverse and different cuisines are so easily available to cook at home or eat out. French food can be fantastic, but it does get old when it is the only cuisine available!
What do you enjoy most and least about what you do?
We most enjoy the diversity of what we do and the satisfaction of seeing other people pouring and enjoying the fruits of our labour! We least enjoy the bureaucracy of running a business in France and the bureaucracy associated with producing a duty controlled product in both countries with all the checks and controls that this entails.
What advice would you give to aspiring winemakers who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had?
When we first had the idea of entering the wine industry the advice we received initially was to “go & lie down in dark room until the thought goes away!”. But seriously, our advice would be to be courageous, invest in a different country or new area/appellation, make unique and different wine styles and use new wine making techniques to set yourself apart from the crowd.
It is also important for interested parties to understand the price of the ticket. This is an expensive industry, with intensive initial investment and start up costs (especially if intending to produce Method Traditional sparkling wine) before ever seeing a return on that investment. You need to have a long term investment plan and focus.
If you could get anyone to try your wines (fictional or real, living or dead) who would you pick and which of the wines would you like them to try? Assume that they go on to be your brand ambassador…
We’d love to have our wines poured in the Palace, so definitely the Queen! She has once again been a role model as Monarch of the UK and set a precedent of pouring English Sparkling wine at State functions – as she absolutely should.
[Ed: Well done, Your Maj…]
The Houses of Parliament and the Prime Minister have a national obligation to follow suit, given the astronomical budget for wine that they have! The latest information was that there were no English Sparkling wines on the wine list at Westminster, which is outrageous!
What’s your ultimate aim and goal for the business? If you could achieve anything with it, what would you pick? Money and reality are no obstacle, so shoot for the moon…
Unfortunately money is a huge obstacle in this massively expensive industry! Removing money from the equation is like removing grapes from the equation so we have to be entirely realistic and say that our aspiration remains to sell all our wines profitably in multiple stable markets! Happily, Domaine Sainte Rose is now at that stage after 14 years of extremely hard work but we have much to do with Simpsons Wine Estate.
Our goal for the Simpsons Wine Estate wines is to sell not only to the home market, but to be integral to developing an export market for English Sparkling Wines. We have the advantage of having established clients and a fixed route to market in many export markets. We intend to be ambassadors for this new and exciting wine sector in the countries where it has not yet been discovered.
Once the Simpsons Wine Estate brand is established, we have planted all our current land and are selling all of our potential production we might consider purchasing more land (if appropriate sites became available), however site selection is the most critical factor in the production of top quality sparkling wine in England – so any future sites would have to warrant our interest!
Where next for you and the business?
We have a busy year ahead of us, not just with the plantation & winery developments in Kent, but also with major reinvestment and improvements at Domaine Sainte Rose.
And we always ask customary ridiculous questions…
If you had a time machine that could send you backward in time as far as you wanted (without any logical paradoxes, timeline contamination, etc.) – what period of time would you visit and what are the first 3 things you’d do once you got there?
Charles would travel back to the industrial revolution in the USA, bringing with him the concept of renewable energy, which thus avoids the reliance on fossil fuels and the subsequent climate change. [Ed: Strong]
Ruth would go back to 1942 in Nakuru, Kenya before her Mother was born – she would meet the grandparents she never knew.
If you could swap lives for the day with any fictional character (and you’d be guaranteed to return to your life after 24 hours), who would you choose, and why?
Charles would be James Bond as he’d get to drive Aston Martins & hopefully drink English Sparkling wine instead of Bollinger!
Ruth would be Arwen from Lord of the Rings as she’d get to ride a beautiful horse, look young forever and be super chilled all the time!