Living the dream
Ever felt like making your own wine? If you work in the business, whether as a retailer, sommelier, importer or impoverished hack, the chances are that you’ve entertained just such a dream.
With the sun on your face and a couple of glasses of vino inside you, it’s easy to imagine buying a few acres of vines and living the life of a vigneron. What better than tasting the fruits of your own honest toil?
Or maybe not. Winemaking is a notoriously unrewarding occupation, at least in the monetary sense. We all know the cliché that the best way to make a small fortune in the business is to start with a much larger one. Swathes of viticultural Europe are in dire straits, stuck making wine styles that are unfashionable, unprofitable and difficult to sell. Just talk to a few producers in Europe’s less glamorous wine regions.
And yet there’s no shortage of people – particularly in the New World – who still want to give it a go. Visit South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Argentina or the US and wineries are proliferating. Every time I go to these places, it seems, there are at least 20 new wineries to get to grips with.
Many of them are established by individuals who’ve made lots of cash doing something else, of course, be it dentistry, hedge fund management or property speculation.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they are vanity projects – these people invariably have egos to match the size of their bank balances – but if they make a loss, at least for a decade or so, their owners are prepared to write it off.
Others take an even longer view. I can’t see most of the petits châteaux that Chinese investors have purchased in Bordeaux over the past few years turning a quick, or even a medium-term, profit.
At the top end, wine has become a rich person’s game. The sums required to buy a half-decent vineyard in, say, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Montalcino, Barolo or the Napa Valley have lost contact with the reality of the market. Even if you sell your wine at £75 a bottle or more, the figures don’t add up, unless you (rather than the bank) own the vineyards already.
The barriers to entry are high in the wine industry, partly because the product is a tough, low-margin sell, but also because it’s expensive to make – or rather make well. You’re also dealing with an agricultural product that can be wiped out by bad weather in a few minutes. Many new winery owners are naïve about this, underestimating the amount of investment they will need. A dose of realism is far more useful than sunny optimism. Does that mean winery ownership is off limits to ordinary people without cash to burn? It’s certainly harder today than it was 30, 20 or even 10 years ago, but it’s not impossible. Be smart about it and there’s nothing to stop you succeeding. Who knows, you might even make world-class wines.
The key to making good wine, as almost everyone knows, is having access to flavoursome, balanced grapes. The cheapest way to do this is to buy them from someone else. You don’t have to own your own vineyards to succeed. Indeed, it may hold you back, especially in the first decade, when you are waiting for your vines to mature. Buy fruit from selected growers in the right regions and you can take a short cut to profitability.
The same goes for owning a winery. Why buy expensive equipment that you only use for a few weeks a year when you can rent it from someone else? Custom crush facilities – or just a corner of someone else’s cellar – will do just as well. Wolf Blass, for example, was famous for doing just this in the early part of his career. Who needs a state-of-the-art press?
All of this will count for nothing if you choose the wrong wine region. What you’re looking for is somewhere that over-delivers in the bottle, but is still underrated by critics and consumers.
If I were setting up my own wine brand today, I’d head for one of four places: Sicily, South Africa (especially Swartland), Languedoc-Roussillon or Washington State. In all four places, you’d have access to high- quality, reasonably priced grapes, often sourced from old vines, plentiful sunshine and a reliable climate.
Could you build a brand from scratch with a few thousand pounds in your pocket? I believe you could, if you bought the right grapes and got your winemaking and marketing right. Plenty of people with far more money have failed where you will succeed, but that’s because they didn’t make smart choices. So over to you. Fancy giving it a go?