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From telecoms to winemaking in Provence – Financial Times

From telecoms to winemaking in Provence – Financial Times

I grew up in Surrey, and decided to go into the world of telecommunications in the 1990s, at a time when it was really booming. I worked for a company based in Mayfair that built cables under the sea. It was a nice place, and I met my wife there — she was the groovy marketing lady and I was the slightly arrogant sales guy.

Shortly after we bought our first house together, we went to visit some friends in the south of France. We were walking round a vineyard, and I remember saying: “One day I want to own something like this” — I’d actually worked in wine distribution for a bit in my twenties. My friend said, “This vineyard is on sale for the same amount you just paid for your house in London.” I think changing your career can often be triggered by a small moment, and that was where the seed was sown.

It took a long time to flesh out the plan to move to France. My wife and I did a lot of “socialising” of the idea, which means taking a concept that’s in your head and throwing it out there to people who will critique it. It’s an important step. A lot of people harbour a “One day . . . ” dream, but they keep it internal because they don’t want to be challenged on it.

By the mid-2000s, it got to a point where I was really not enjoying my job any more. I’d had six bosses in two years, and they would always get fired. Then I was asked to become the boss, which meant I was next in line to get fired. I thought, “This is probably the moment”, so I went in on Monday and refused the promotion.

Plan A was to sell the house in London and buy a vineyard. But we realised it’s not actually that easy — the right ones aren’t for sale, especially in an area as popular with celebrities as Provence. I was persuaded by friends that my obsession with owning the land was perhaps not the right one. There are three Vs in winemaking: viticulture — growing grapes; vinification — turning them into wine; and vendre — selling. Rather than owning vines, we decided to work with different growers here and make our blends from a combination of vineyards. At Mirabeau we make three rosé wines and one sparkling wine, and we’re able to make them consistent — if we have a very hot year and we’re lacking the acidity in the wine, we can go and buy from higher up in the hills. The most satisfying day of the year is when we complete the blend. We make 1.2m bottles a year.

We have a boutique in a former winery in Cotignac, and the family lives in a beautiful bastide [manor house] that we built about 4km from the centre. When we first moved here in 2009 our children were eight, seven and one. It was the older ones who had the bigger challenge — they didn’t understand the context of what we were doing, and were pretty miserable. My son Felix was bawling his eyes out at the school gates every day. Now, they’re happy here. Our youngest son says he sometimes feels French, sometimes English.

In terms of work-life balance, the honest answer is it’s not better than when I was in London. That was fixed hours, whereas this brings with it a lot of pressure to make sure it works — it’s been head over handlebars. We broke even for the first time in July last year, and just took our first family vacation for nine years. But I’m so grateful that I knew what I wanted to do when I had my midlife crisis.

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