A leading light

The proverb ‘great oaks from little acorns grow’ is fitting for the short but spectacular story of Llanerch vineyard’s success.  At just 24 years old Ryan Davies bought one of the oldest vineyards in Wales with the vision of creating a tourism-driven vineyard business inspired by those he had seen on his antipodean travels. Vineyard discovers how, in Just 10 years, Llanerch has become an international visitor destination with award-winning restaurant, hotel, wedding and conference facilities – and is also leading the way with new viticulture technology.

Llanerch, nestled in the beautiful Vale of Glamorgan of South Wales, is Wales’ second oldest and largest commercial vineyard. The vineyard was initially planted in 1986 with a small bed and breakfast business in the original farmhouse – but it wasn’t the thriving business it is today.

Ryan Davies trained as a geologist and was about to head out to Australia to use his degree in the mining industry when his parents tempted him to stay in Wales with a sum of money to start his own business. At the time, in his early 20s and keen on extreme sports, Ryan started looking for a suitable location to create an extreme sports park, when he landed upon Llanerch vineyard, “I was not particularly interested in wine at the time but saw the potential of the site as a tourism location. While travelling I had worked at a few vineyards in New Zealand and Australia, where many vineyards are tourist attractions. I could see that this would be a great place to open a restaurant. We are close to the M4 and Cardiff, and only two hours from London – well from the London Welsh Rugby Club in Richmond to be more precise,” he smiled. 

Ryan bought the property in 2010, aged just 24 – with no experience in either hospitality or vineyard management. In just 10 years the small bed and breakfast has grown unrecognisably, the initial investment from Ryan’s parents has enabled the business to develop step by step to attract further investment. “Initially planning permission for expansion was challenging, but we know the system well now and the planners can see the benefits, especially with the numbers of people we employ and how much tourism we bring to the area,” Ryan explained. 

Despite his relative youth, Ryan is not someone to rush change, and the expansion has been, organic – slow and steady. “In 10 years, we have grown to employ over 100 people, have 37 hotel rooms, all five star, and which recently have achieved nearly 100% occupancy – and the restaurants regularly do 300 covers a day. My wage bill is scary!” Ryan exclaimed. “However, I have a great team of managers and staff, so I can now spend weekends with my young family.”

Llanerch is home to some of the oldest vines in the country as some of the original plantings in 1986 and trellised on Geneva Double Curtain – older than Ryan at 35 years – are still healthy and producing good crops. The older vines are Triomphe d’Alsace and Reichensteiner, but the newer planting in the seven-acre vineyard include Pinot Précoce, hybrids Seyval Blanc, Phoenix and Solaris, which do well. 

All the wine is sold on site at full retail price, in the restaurants and at the weddings and corporate events as well as the tours and tastings. Ryan does not see that it is cost effective to sell to supermarkets or bars – even though there are frequent requests to stock his wines. 

“We do not currently have a shop on site, but wine is sold from reception – but we don’t really have enough we are not encouraging these sales. We did have the wine available online, during the pandemic, but have taken it offline now to slow down sales,” Ryan exclaimed. But as the business grows there are concerns that the current volume of wine produced will not be able to meet demand, so another six acres have just been planted this year, with Solaris, Phoenix and Rondo. “We are continually being asked for a red wine, so with Rondo we will be able to meet this demand,” added Ryan. 

Running through all the business development and expansion plans is a commitment to sustainability. “We have a wastewater treatment plant which discharges clean water into the stream. Restaurants do create some food waste, but we ensure that this is collected so that it can be converted into biofuel and fertiliser. We also recycle as much as possible. 

Keeping the income streaming in

Llanerch is firstly a tourism location with its beautiful upmarket restaurant and hotel, wedding and event venue. “But Llanerch has a unique selling point which makes us stand out – and that is the vineyard and wines. In fact, we were proud to be The UK’s first vineyard hotel,” commented Ryan. 

The vineyard and wine are definitely a draw for visitors. “We usually run three vineyard tours and wine tastings per day – which amounts to around 90 people – every day of the week, through the summer months. The tours are full most days! The people that come on the tours often then stay for lunch, afternoon tea, or dinner, bringing additional income to these facilities,” explained Ryan. “The on site cookery school owned by Angela Grey is another income stream. And because we are not far from BBC Cardiff, we often provide a setting for filming, including some recent episodes of the TV series ‘Casualty’,” Ryan added. 

Llanerch with its beautiful views across the vineyards and surrounding countryside makes it a stunning setting for a wedding. With a licence for civil ceremonies the wedding can take place in the Calon Lodge overlooking the vines, adding to the ‘wow’ factor. A spacious permanent marquee can seat 150 guests and overlooks the new vineyard. “We are very popular for weddings and the vineyard certainly adds to the romantic setting. We had been doing, prior to the pandemic, about 70 weddings a year, but will increase this to 100, but want to make sure that weddings do not take over. We luckily have a slick team of chefs and service crew – and some very well-oiled logistics,” Ryan commented. 

The hotel business has also grown step-by-step – led by demand. “The reception staff kept saying to enquiries that we were fully booked, so we needed more rooms. I went to my bank and was able to show them turnover and profit margin, and we received a loan for the extension, refurbishment of existing rooms and a new 26 room two-story vineyard hotel with conference suites – and amazing views across the vines and Vale of Glamorgan,” explained Ryan.

The superior suites, located in each corner of the hotel, are very spacious and include a bedroom with super king size bed, as well as a living room area with sofas, a luxury ensuite bathroom, Juliette balconies and breath-taking views. 

“Around the world high quality vineyard hotels are very popular and we bring that unique experience here. We have had a lot of international visitors, before the pandemic, as we are so close to Cardiff airport – especially visitors from Dubai and UAE, saying they need to cool down here as the summers there are so hot,” Ryan smiled.

Ryan is a dog owner, with two beautiful Bernese Mountain dogs, called Bella and Bajha, so he saw the opportunity to meet the needs of dog owning customers by offering dog-friendly rooms in the hotel – and even a dog-friendly area in the restaurant. 

The power of Instagram

Ryan has used marketing and PR agencies in the past, but now finds that Instagram is doing a lot of his marketing for him. A very ‘Instagrammable’ colourful flower covered wall with the Llanerch brand is the first thing visitors see as they arrive – and is a prime opportunity for the obligatory selfie which is then posted on social media far and wide. “Although I didn’t realise it at the time, my best marketing decision was probably deciding to rope my Nan into appearing, with me, on the TV show ‘Four in a bed’. This was back in 2012, so early on in the business development and we had just opened our bed and breakfast. The other contestants on the show were really quite slating in their comments towards us, and we didn’t win – but this must have triggered a lot of support as our website hits increased massively and after its broadcast we were fully booked,” Ryan exclaimed. 

The Cariad range

Llanerch’s award-winning wines are called ‘Cariad’, (meaning ‘sweetheart’ in Welsh), which are made from varieties, mainly hybrids, well-suited to the site and climate. “Our average production at the moment is 12,000 bottles, and currently all our wines are made by Three Choirs Vineyard – as they do a good job – so we do not have any plans to have our own winery,” commented Ryan. “We want to keep the range simple, so we produce a dry white, an off-dry white and now, to meet demand, a medium sweet. We have a blush, and two sparkling wines – a white and a rosé. There are no varieties on the label, and we don’t see the need for obtaining a PDO or PGI – to keep it simple we just label the wines as product of UK.” 

Future plans

Ryan is creating complimentary business enterprises that ensure multiple income streams – and the steady, organic growth is a testament to his persistence and patience. “I may do things step-by-step, but I always have lots of plans constantly buzzing in my head,” Ryan commented.

“My next project is to create a spa and gym and we are in the process of applying for planning permission. I would like another building for the weddings, as well as larger conferences and corporate events, as I would like to expand into that market,” he added.

Ryan’s success with his own tourism focussed business means that he is a valuable member of the WineGB tourism working group – helping the industry with its wine tourism development. “Here in Wales, we have a wine cluster group, and there is the opportunity of funding from the Welsh government, but it has to benefit all of the Welsh vineyards. The group have discussed the possibility of a marketing campaign or research into a wine tour route, but nothing is decided yet.”

At Llanerch there are 10 acres of mature woodland and three acres of lakes. “One of my future projects is to put in some luxury treehouses – and provide golf buggies for the guests to get back from the restaurant. I may also consider purchasing more land for vines but will wait for the newly planted six acres to get into production first. I also need the new hotel to be fully up and running and turning a profit before the next project – I need to be patient. 

Although I do not plan to revive the extreme sports park idea – I do think a zip wire over the vines might be fun,” Ryan grinned.

Photos: ©Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic

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