Driving ‘brand Sussex’ global

Sitting neck label to neck label with the best wines in the world.

Following the amazing success of our inaugural Viti-Culture show, see page 40, it seemed apt for the Vineyard magazine team to celebrate in style at a local vineyard.

The Flint Barns at Rathfinny Wine Estate, situated just outside Alfriston and a short 30-minute drive from the showground at Plumpton College, is located well off the beaten track in possibly the most tranquil, refreshing countryside spot I have ever stayed the night. 

The driveway alone succeeded in dropping jaws and that was well before the rest of the team saw the true scale of the plantings, the enormous winery and cellar facilities, the charming courtyard and breath-taking views that the accommodation block benefits from.

Originally designed to house seasonal workers, the rooms were an idyllic blend of modern industrial come homely farmhouse, with minimalist steel furniture and quaint, rustic soft furnishings. Sinking into one of the plush chairs in the cosy shared lounge after a revitalising post-show walk around the vines, it was very easy to see why the other guests, a walking group, were revisiting for the fourth time. All that was missing was my dog.

From the hospitality team, Abi Ellson and head chef Mark Goodwin were dedicated, attentive and friendly, always there when you needed them; working tirelessly behind the scenes when you didn’t. The food, from the seasonal evening menu, which was a modern take on traditional British cuisine, through to the wholesome buffet breakfast, was impeccable and needless to say, the estate wines we indulged in, including the Cradle Valley 2017 Pinot Blanc Pinot Gris, the recently released 2015 Blanc de Noirs and the 2016 Brut Rosé, were all on top form.

Best of all, we were privileged to be joined for tea (dinner to southern readers) by the estate’s co-founder Mark Driver, who had also kindly given his time to deliver a captivating opening keynote speech that morning at the show. 

As well as chatting over how well Viti-Culture had been received by exhibitors and visitors alike, conversation naturally turned to the UK’s home-grown wine industry, as well as Mark and wife Sarah’s journey so far.

Venturing into viticulture 

There are few who don’t know the story of the ex-hedge fund manager and his ex-property lawyer wife escaping from the smoke to plant one of the UK’s biggest vineyards on an arable farm known as Rathfinny just outside Alfriston in East Sussex.

More specifically, during his formative years as a stockbroker Mark was often expected to wine and dine elite clients at top-end restaurants. Not wanting to get the wine part wrong, he enrolled on one of Michael Schuster’s courses where he learnt “a bit about wine, the different grapes and where they were grown”. Fascinated by the wine scene in New Zealand, which was “doing really refreshing things with classic grape varieties” in the early 1990s, Mark and Sarah took a trip there while visiting her family in Hong Kong. 

“When we got back to Hong Kong, I was so eager to get involved in wine production I even looked at land prices in New Zealand, but there is a lot of capital needed to start a vineyard, so it was put on the back burner,” said Mark. 

The years rolled on: the Drivers started a family, going on to have four children; in the early 2000s, Mark became a founding partner of the hedge fund management group Horseman Capital Management; in 2007, Sarah founded the Driver Youth Trust, one of the UK’s largest educational charities to focus on literacy mainly through its school programme called Drive for Literacy. 

In 2009, two momentous things happened: Mark’s daughter Millie, now Rathfinny’s marketing manager, was preparing for further education; and two of the three principal partners of Horseman Capital decided it was time to take a step back. 

“Running investment funds is quite stressful, particularly as we had to navigate through a tricky period with both the tech and financial crises,” said Mark, “but I was only 46 at the time and it was far too early to retire. I was already looking to purchase some land and I suppose the main catalyst was sitting down with Millie to look for a university course on the UCAS website.” 

After coming across the viticulture and oenology course at Plumpton College, Mark started to delve deeper into the English wine industry, researching Plumpton alumni, reading about the success of this bourgeoning industry and analysing the wine market in the UK.

“The UK consumes some 1.8 million bottles of wine per year and as 99% of that is imported, I thought that it would be quite a good, interesting opportunity if we could make world-class sparkling wine,” said Mark. “In early 2010, on one of Sarah’s significant birthdays, I bought six bottles of English sparkling wine, many made by Plumpton alumni, and six bottles of Champagne. We had a blind tasting with 12 of our close personal friends. I asked them to rate them and, amazingly all the English wines headed to the top of the list. Even my French friend said she preferred a Ridgeview wine to all the French ones. So, I decided that we should look to plant grapes somewhere in Sussex.” 

The following year Mark enrolled on the foundation degree course and in 2010 the Drivers were introduced to Rathfinny, a 600-acre arable farm set in the South Downs National Park, with steep, south facing, chalky slopes just three miles from the sea. The land was purchased, prepared and in 2012 the first vines were planted. The varieties planted are predominantly Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier with small parcels of Pinot blanc and Pinot gris. 

“There are now 350,000 vines planted across about 220-acres of land,” said Mark. “From day one this was always going to be a commercial venture because, in my mind, for it to be successful on a long-term basis we would need to create a global brand. To do that we would need to have a world-class winemaker and experienced vineyard manager and with that in mind, we worked out that we would need to plant a minimum of 250-acres of vines.”

Unexpected publicity

The finer details may be new to some, but there is no doubt that the majority of readers were probably already more than familiar with this origin story. This is largely because, despite the fact that the estate’s maiden vintage was only released to the world last April, the Rathfinny PR machine was operating long before the first vine even went into the ground.

“Who knew that we would become the best-known winemaker who had not yet produced a wine?” said Mark. “We hadn’t even crushed a grape and we were being written about widely in the papers and drinks trade press both here and around the world, it was incredible.” 

But how exactly do you go from being in the voiceless world of finance where, according to Mark, you are “kept very quiet”, “shot down in flames” and “blamed for everything” in the media, to being at the helm of one of the country’s most hotly anticipated wine brands? 

Well, as is the norm in this serendipitous life, it all came down to timing and the age-old adage – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. 

“It all stemmed from meeting Ian MacGregor, who was the then editor of the Sunday Telegraph, in 2011,” said Mark. “We are both parents of very dyslexic children who were attending Bruern Abbey, a specialist school for children with literacy difficulties. We got talking at a pre-Christmas event and I happened to mention in passing that Sarah and I were getting ready to plant a vineyard. He listened to me talk about our ambitious plans, the wider industry and he thought it was such a great story he had to write about it.” 

The finished piece appeared in the Sunday Telegraphs’ first edition of the new year as the good news story for the new year. The iconic picture of Mark stood on a hill, with the Cuckmere Valley behind, hands spread wide looking like the “Angel of the South” may have led to a fair share of ribbing from fellow Plumpton students, but the article did the trick and it was not long before the Drivers had to employ a PR company to deal with all the enquiries. 

“From there everything snowballed. We had journalists and television stations contacting us from all over the world; everyone wanted to write about Rathfinny in 2012,” said Mark. “BBC Breakfast even came down to cover the planting of our first vines. I remember standing with the late Mike Roberts, who was head of the English Wine Producers at the time, as the sun was rising and thinking what a bizarre scenario it was.” 

The press coverage certainly worked wonders, and as well as helping to promote the wider UK wine industry, it effectively established awareness of the upcoming Rathfinny brand and over the subsequent seven years, despite having no bottles to sell, Mark had to be content with “all the major supermarkets and global distributors coming up the drive asking to distribute our wines”.

When the time finally arrived to launch the 2014 Blanc de Blancs and the 2015 Rosé Brut, the industry held its breath. As Matthew Jukes so eloquently wrote in his Vineyard magazine column there was “a great sense of anticipation” and “a long way to fall” should the wines have failed to “stack up to their hype” particularly after “years of carefully seeding the market with timely press releases and teasers.”

Fortunately, for the Drivers, the wines were a resounding success and the PR and media exposure continued to propel this ‘one-to-watch’ English sparkling wine estate forward. 

Carefully chosen markets

Riding this unrelenting wave of publicity, there was unsurprisingly a huge demand for the wines from the trade, however, Mark and Sarah, had long before agreed upon a strategic approach to getting their wines to market.

“Even now the vines are established, we have to wait four years from harvest to release,” said Mark. “Not only is this very capital draining, but at the end of the process we have a really top quality, luxury product which needs to be placed carefully in the market. In my mind sparkling wine is a celebratory drink and unlike still wine, where over 80% is consumed in the home, typically 50% of fizz is sold through the on-trade.” 

With this in mind, the Drivers consciously took a decision from the beginning to focus entirely on the on-trade, high-end independent wine merchants and ‘speciality’ retail. 

“We know that our wine is not going to sell sitting on a shelf in a big grocery store because as a premium priced product, it has to be hand-sold,” said Mark. “Independent retailers always proffer advice and for the restaurants we are in, there will be a sommelier, or an experienced wine waiter, who will be able to suggest and explain about our wines. Supermarket wine simply sells on price, but we can’t compete because we just don’t have the economies of scale. Champagne produce some 30 million bottles per year, we have released less than 30,000 this year and will eventually be aiming for about 80,000 cases.”

Knowing where their wines would need to be to succeed, the next step was to find a suitable distributor; the search was on for a nationwide company who would eventually be able to cope with the circa one million bottles per year further down the line, but who were also small enough to provide enough focus to ensure that the fledgling Rathfinny label wouldn’t be lost in a sea of other brands.

“We spent three years looking and I employed someone on a consultancy basis to help find the right one,” said Mark. “Initially we engaged in long discussions with Hatch Mansfield, but they represent Taittinger and it turned out that the only way Taittinger would allow us to be listed on the same books was if they had a stake in our business. So, we turned them down because, at that time, it felt wrong very wrong for an English brand to have a French Champagne house behind it.”

Today Rathfinny’s range of wines is successfully distributed in the UK by Gonzalez Byass and has gone on to feature in plenty of top listings, with the latest releases (2015 Blanc de Noir and 2016 Brut Rosé) being selected as the ‘sparkling of the month’ for May 2019 at The Ritz, London – only the second time in the establishment’s 113-year history that a non-Champagne has been chosen for this promotion.

As well as deciding to focus on the on-trade, as a big brand, Mark knew that they would need to “chip in” on the international export market as soon as possible and the Sussex estate is already shipping its wines across the world. Its total exports in 2019 are expected to grow to 20% with the long-term goal of 50% sales heading out overseas.

“Over supply, is a dreaded topic,” said Mark. “In the last three years, some five million vines have been planted in the UK and in the last 10 years we have seen a 194% increase in the area we know about under vine. When fully mature, the English wine industry, as it stands, could in a good year, produce over 25 million bottles, of which over 18 or 20 million will be sparkling. But how can the UK market absorb that quantity? In 2018, the French sold some 26.8 million bottles of Champagne in the UK, but we cannot rely on displacing the whole of that market. We have to be realistic. We need to tackle overseas markets and to do that effectively we need to focus on one thing; quality.”

I’d rather be drinking Sussex

With export a pivotal part of Rathfinny’s long-term sales strategy, Mark was eager to produce wines which would not only stand up with the best wines made in England but ones which would also sit neck label to neck label with the best wines in the world. 

“The wine market is very competitive and why would anyone want to buy a mediocre bottle of English wine when they can buy outstanding wines from the rest of the world for less money?” said Mark. “If you are not making wines which can compete on an international stage, then think about stopping because you are not going to be able to continue selling those wines in the future. We cannot expect to sell anywhere near the amount of sparkling wine being produced here or overseas if we are not matching or exceeding the best quality in the world.” 

Fervently focused on driving quality upwards, Mark’s next step was to create a real benchmark for his sparkling wines and so set about establishing the Sussex Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) scheme. 

“This isn’t just about provenance; wines cannot be called ‘Sussex’ unless they have been through a qualitative assessment where six independent tasters will decide whether the wine is really up to scratch,” said Mark. “The current English PDO is entry level, table wine. There are moves by WineGB to strengthen it, which is applaudable, but currently you could drive a bus through the PDO and still come out the other side being able to call it a Quality English Sparkling Wine.” 

The controversial move left many in the industry questioning why Mark didn’t use his efforts to make the existing system stricter and more rigorous, but as the owners of a ‘global wine brand’ the Drivers’ ambition was always to “grab Sussex”. 

“Successful wines are always known by the region – consumers don’t talk about French wine, it’s Burgundy or Bordeaux; nowadays it’s not New Zealand, it’s Marlborough or Central Otago,” said Mark. “We need to fit the model of the rest of the wine world. Sussex is going to become a major winegrowing region and our wines will be very different to those from Yorkshire, or Cornwall, or other parts of the South East. As such, we wanted Sussex to have a smack of quality. Consumers will know that when they buy a Sussex wine, it is not going to smell of old tyres and it is going to be a really good quality wine.” 

In the long-term, Mark hopes that, where quality allows, other Sussex wineries will also move to adopt the term Sussex and that perhaps in the future the rules could be altered slightly to allow for producers who buy in grapes from other counties, or have their wines made just across the geographical border.

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