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How to buy a vineyard

Want to make your own wine? The key is in the planning, says Monty Waldin, who shares his insight from several winemaking ventures. Plus, we profile three couples who are now living the dream in South Africa, England and France.

How to buy a vineyard: Case study 2: Hattingley Valley, Hampshire, England

With his wine maker, Emma Rice, winning the 2014 UK Vineyard Association’s Winemaker of the Year award for Hattingley Valley’s first wines, owner Simon Robinson is justifiably proud.

While vines were planted in 2008, the idea took root in the late 1990s, when Robinson heard Stuart Moss, founder of Nyetimber, expounding the virtues of Champagne varieties in English soils. Hattingley today produces a range of vintage sparkling wines and a premium cuvée, with a NV on the horizon.

The Robinsons – Simon was with a City law firm and his wife Nicola still runs a skiwear company – bought Kings Farm House with one hectare in the early 1990s, building the land up to 180ha by 2000. Partly driven by the low wheat price, Simon was looking at diversification even in the early days.

Although ‘people are open to trying new ideas and technologies,’ in a relatively young winemaking country like England, he found establishing a vineyard and winery presents its own challenges, not least the paucity of relevant support companies.

It took until 2005 for Robinson to take the plunge. ‘I was watching how the UK market was developing,’ he explains, noting both the increasingly positive wine press coverage and the growth in global awards alongside the still low wheat price as the deciding factors. He kept the local village fully informed from the outset, and credits the UKVA as being invaluable in terms of advice and contacts.

With an estate manager on board, they scoured the farm for south-facing sites with minimum frost risk. Soil surveys confirmed that three fields were potential vineyard sites, but even the stand-out candidate was short on a few key trace minerals, requiring soil dressing prior to planting.

Total vineyard set-up cost was north of £250,000, including fencing and trellising, and planting 10ha with Champagne varieties. Following a good first harvest in 2010, Robinson planted a further 4ha, costing £90,000, choosing a more sheltered spot and planting trees as wind breaks. Along with the Champagne grapes, a small amount of Bacchus was planted, as ‘a potential cash crop’.

Building a team

In such a new industry, high-calibre, experienced staff are not always easy to come by. While a New Zealand-trained consultant acted as adviser in the early days, Robinson secured a viticultural manager through advertising via agricultural colleges and England’s viticulture and winemaking education centre, Plumpton College. Plumpton graduate Emma Rice, who was appointed to take charge of the cellar, suggested offering custom crush facilities, making wine under contract for the growing number of small English wineries.

Building the cellar and equipping it cost more than £2.25m. A further £1m has been invested since 2010, trebling capacity to 325,000hl, to meet the needs not just of Hattingley Valley, but its contract customers. Robinson kept his day job until spring 2013, spending weekends on the farm and taking holidays at harvest-time. ‘When we started selling wine, it took up more and more time,’ he says.

With Hattingley Valley’s own production a potential 250,000 bottles, Robinson needed to raise awareness. To build the brand, he embarked on sponsorships, chose a UK distributor (Liberty Wines), attended international trade fairs and appointed agents as far afield as China and the US.

And the hardest challenge? ‘The 2012 vintage,’ says Robinson. The cold, damp conditions resulted in a harvest 10% of the anticipated size, and only two of their 10 partner vineyards brought in any crop. ‘The biggest dent was not the cashflow but the fact that, come 2015, we won’t have as much wine available,’ he says, explaining how they have revised their release schedule to take account of this. ‘That’s why we’ve started building a bank of reserve wines, to guard against the bad weather.’

‘This was always going to be a long-term project, but it has to be profitable,’ says Robinson, explaining that funds have been a mix of his own resources and bank loans. They are on target to break even in 2015. But while business plans ‘are sensible’, he is adamant ‘they need to be adaptable’, noting Rice’s contracting recommendation. Now they look after the winemaking for 17 vineyards.

DO your homework in terms of costs. Not just how much to build your facility, but also how much can you sell your grapes for. Try to look five to six steps ahead

DON’T plant too quickly – and don’t plan on a quick return


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