Mercian Vineyards Association logo IN SEARCH OF AN ENGLISH VINEYARD
- An odyssey into viticulture and economics

(First written for the Mercian Vineyards Association Newsletter, Summer 1997)

It's difficult to believe it now, but in July 1993 we set out on our Long March to find an English Vineyard. And we are still looking.

The background was a long held interest in vines and wine (from the 1970's) and the stimulus a feature in "The Times" one Saturday in the summer of '93 - "What you can get for £200,000 in London, Perthshire and Devon". The Devon property was a thatched Devon longhouse with 11 acres including 7 acres of vines, a winery newly converted from an old mill and a holiday letting cottage.

We had to look. We did. Good features: vineyard well sited and gently sloping to the south. Excellent winery building. Less good: vineyard detached from rest of land. House & cottage needed re-thatching. Public footpath right past front door. Isolated - no passing trade.

With early retirement on horizon for 1995 it was too soon really, but we put in an offer anyway, but it wasn't enough and we didn't get it. No bad feelings about this.

Late summer 1994. After an absolute welter of estate agents' details of houses with land and even some vineyards at last one dropped through the letter-box and caught our attention straight away.

Again in Devon. Early Victorian, Regency style house. Nearly six acres of land altogether, three and a half of vines. South south east sloping. But high. Lowest point over 400 feet a.s.l. and highest more like 500. Victorian outbuildings converted to winery and large vinery housing cabernet sauvignon and merlot vines for home use.

We visit. Twice. We liked it, but not the price. We make an offer. Owners unwilling to come down and signs of another buyer who was ready and willing to buy.

A few months pass. We learn that the buyers have pulled out. We make our same offer again. No dice.

More months pass. We pass through the nearby market town and call in the agents. We re-affirm our interest. We visit again. We look at another property nearby (without a vineyard but with suitable land). A few days later we visit again. We resolve to negotiate until we get it, and at our price.

Three weeks later: we have a deal, subject to survey. We engage surveyor. Surveyor costs an arm and a leg but produces report to rival Encyclopaedia Britannica. Upshot of report? Some expensive problems - £30-40,000ish.

Meanwhile as time ticks by we begin to think of all the negative points: isolated but on main road - liable to be stripped out by passing burglars every time you went down to the local supermarket. Too high? Very variable production track record. Absolute zero production in previous year due to frosts. Private drainage system drains away but no-one knows where to. Roof needs stripping and relaying, new leads and valleys needed etc. etc. We get cold feet about running a vineyard - can we do it, is it financially viable, without a life-long's experience of the vagaries of wind, weather, pests and disease, wine-making disasters and fickleness of passing tourists/potential customers, could we cope?

Result: we go cold and owners decide to have some of the work done which the surveyor found to be needed. Price goes up to reflect this. We pull out.

Not the end of the saga. We begin to have second thoughts but determined not to pay too much. Enquire about state of play every couple of months. We are told that owner has grubbed out vineyard. But a year later we pass the property and can see it is still there. We make a last attempt to buy, but too late. It is sold. Sold, we learn at only £5,000 or so more than price 12 months earlier. And here's the rub - not sold as a working vineyard, but the vines grubbed up to make way for horses.

This saga is almost too painful to recount now for us, but what must it have been like for the owners who had established the vineyards from scratch, had nurtured them over 12 years or so and had grown elderly in the process? And finally had had to grub out what they had planted?

Date we first saw this property - August 1994. Date sale actually completed and new owners move in - December 1996.

This, dear reader, is just episode one of a very long saga indeed. A saga that has not finished yet. Future episodes, if I can stand writing them and you can stand reading them will throw at least a little light on some of the other 30 vineyards we have considered. We are still looking.

A POSTSCRIPT: Our quest has not been without benefit. We have learnt quite a lot and I have assembled a working appraisal kit by which to judge properties with vineyards:

We have 2 criteria:-

1. We are looking for a really nice period house.

2. I am looking for a vineyard which is financially viable.

What do I mean by "financially viable"? Well, I have decided that there is no point applying normal commercial criteria (rate of return of 20-25% p.a. on capital employed) because they would rule out just about every English vineyard in my view. So the criteria I have evolved assume the total package (excluding perhaps plant, equipment and machinery) is priced at no more than the house with land is worth. The judgement of viability is then two-fold: Can the vineyard make enough net profit to (a) pay me at least a sensible "agricultural worker" level of wages for my labour and (b) after taking that wage and all other costs into account can it pay a sensible return (say 10%) on the capital employed (i.e. the plant and machinery, winery equipment etc + any new investment needed - but ignoring the value of the house & land).

The romance of the vine is so strong it is easy to be over-whelmed by it, but in all conscience, if a vineyard cannot satisfy these very un-demanding criteria it cannot make sense to take it on because all one will be doing is to pour pound notes and huge chunks of labour at it and subsidise one's customers for drinking one's hard won product. Better to tend a quarter acre "hobby" vineyard for one's own satisfaction and wine to drink than, in effect, pay passers-by to take one's produce off one's hands.

Suffice to say, in our travels so far we have seen only a handful of vineyards which can possibly satisfy even these un-demanding criteria, let alone commercial criteria that a merchant banker would lay down.

We have seen nice houses with either no vineyard or vineyards which could not look my criteria in the face and we have seen (one or two) good viable vineyards but without the des.res. we seek.

We have advertised - you may have seen it? "Wanted - the perfect house with the perfect vineyard". We have not found it. Not yet.

We are still looking.

Bob Tarr © 1998

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