Buying an English Vineyard
for aspirant vinegrowers

Index:

A cautionary note
Making it pay
Some basic choices
Skills & advice
Make sure the basic factors are favourable
Where will you live
Yes - size does matter!
Will growing grapes & making wine be enough?

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A cautionary note

If you have looked at the "Notes on Viticulture" on this website, you will have seen that they also start with a "cautionary note". This one is even more needed.

Before parting with your hard earned cash for an English or Welsh vineyard there are a lot of things to find out and think about. The anecdote that the way to get a small fortune is to start with a large fortune and buy an English vineyard has more than a grain of truth in it. It is a caution! Enough said.


Making it pay

At the peak of the development of English and Welsh vineyards in the modern era (the late 1980s), there were over 400 commercial vineyards in the U.K. There are slightly less now (perhaps 380 at present). The 30 or 40 reduction is due to a number of reasons - owners losing interest, retiring, dying and, most significant for this present consideration, going out of business because the vineyard couldn't be made to pay. There is a more sophisticated argument about the levels of return you should be aiming for to make owning a vineyard a sensible financial decision - English Wine - a healthy long term future? - but at the very basic level you need to do your sums and demonstrate to yourself that it is actually possible to make the level of net profit that you need to make in order to survive. Then halve the amount you come up with and ask yourself whether you could live with that. If your calculations don't even produce a net profit, then forget it!

Many people (the present author included) come to viticulture and winemaking as a hobby, even a romance, in which financial considerations seem of little importance. If you are growing a few vines in your garden, or even a few hundred as a hobby, that's fine. If you are planning to make your livelihood from your proposed vineyard you'd be wise to be sure (a) it is possible for the vineyard you are considering to do that and (b) to be sure you have the skills, energy and tenacity to do so as well.

It has recently taken a major court case to confirm that viticulture and winemaking are agricultural enterprises. Like all agricultural activities it is subject to the vagaries of the weather and the fickleness of markets. This is a degree of uncertainty which many people have never experienced and many are not suited to coping with it.


Some basic choices

With around 380 vineyards in existence, obviously in any one year there are going to be a number for sale. So a fairly basic issue is, do you want to buy an existing "going concern" or do you want to establish a vineyard and/or winery from scratch?

There are pluses and minuses for both:

Pluses for buying an established vineyard include -

  • Someone else has done the hard work of establishing the vineyard
  • You should, if you are a serious prospective buyer, have access to audited accounts which will demonstrate viability (If you cannot get access, then the warning bells should be ringing loud and clear)
  • The vineyard may/should have established its own market - either locally, or through particular outlets, and/or with passing/tourist trade

Minuses for buying an established vineyard include -

  • You are stuck, at least in the short term, with the decisions the present owner has made (e.g. as to varieties grown, row spacing, trellising system, arrangement and equipment of winery)
  • You are stuck with the physical attributes of the site - (e.g. orientation, soil, shelter). Some such aspects you may be able to modify over time, but some you will not (e.g. a 400 feet above sea level site cannot be lowered to 100 feet a.s.l.)
There are also pluses and minuses to developing your own vineyard from scratch:
  • Plus - you can decide the varieties of vine, the row spacing and orinetation, the trellis system to be used
  • Minus - you might get these decisions more wrong than did the previous owner of an existing vineyard
  • Plus - you can search out the perfect site for a vineyard rather than making do with a sub-optimal site
  • Minus - you will have to wait a long time before you begin to get any return on your investment. Do you have deep enough pockets? (It will take 5 to 7 years before you are at full production)


    Skills & Advice

    Most English vineyards have only one or two permanent workers - their owner(s). There is little doubt that those producing the best wines - judged objectively - and having the most commercial success, are those with the best professional skills - in the techniques of viticulture and winemaking and in the business skills which are needed - marketing, administration, human-relations etc.

    If you do not have these the obvious and necessary thing to do is to acquire them. Second best - but maybe necessary whilst you do acquire the skills yourself - is to engage highly skilled and experienced consultants/advisors who can help compensate for your lack of knowledge, skills and experience.


    Make sure the basic factors are favourable

    Whether you are considering buying an existing vineyard or starting one fromscratch, make yourself a check-list of all the factors which need to be considered (e.g. orientation of land to sun, degree of shelter, soil suitability, drainage, varieties planted, room for expansion). In reality, you are not going to get maximum positive scores on absolutely every factor, but think very carefully about those which don't merit a good positive score - are they the factors which will mean you can never make a decent living - or perhaps any living at all - out of this vineyard?


    Where will you live?

    Many, probably most, English vineyards have a house on or near the vineyard site. In my experience it is extremely difficult to satisfy demanding criteria for the house you are seeking at the same time as doing so for the vineyard. Excellent vineyards may have unsuitable houses. Superb houses may have poor vineyards. Never is the need for clear thinking more evident than when disentangling these two intertwined and probably conflicting areas of consideration. There's no magic answer to this, other than to stand well back and try to see both issues clearly.

    If there is no house, either with an existing vineyard or with a piece of land you prose to develop a vineyard on, you will need to be sure that it will be practical. How far away from your home is the vineyard? How long will it take to get there and how will you travel? What about tractors or other machinery - where will you keep them? Will there be security problems if no-one is living on the patch?

    Looking after a vineyard may not be quite as restrictive on your movements as keeping a herd of cows, but the reality is - especially if the vineyard is substantial in size - that you will (unless you are going to employ a manager and/or workers) be there most of each working day - and if you are not what will be happening (or not) in your absence?


    Yes - size does matter!

    Whilst it is true that a poor large vineyard is an even worse bet than a poor small one, it is also true that a good large vineyard may not only be better than a small one but it may be more financially viable.

    A small vineyard may seem to be big enough to take on, but as with any agricultural enterprise, the amount it can earn will - at the upper end - be subject to a finite limit related to the size of the vineyard (This is not to say that there aren't other ways of increasing productivity or the price of the product - e.g. by raising quality). If you are busing a small vineyard, and you are planning to be successful, you should have a clear idea of how/where you could expand.


    Will growing grapes & making wine be enough?

    Many vineyards have added extra activities - organised tours, restaurants, shops, plant centres and these additional activities may be vital ingredients in earning a sensible return on the enterprise. But they do raise issues - not least, whether you actually want to do this sort of thing and do you have the skills/commitment to do it well. Best to know at the outset whether or not such activities will be vital to success and survival.

     
    This page will be developed over time. You may have advice you think should be added - if so please tell us - see the foot of the homepage of this website for contact details.

    Robert J. Tarr © 2000

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