A few years ago, I had a little black book. I carried it everywhere with me in my suit pocket. Every business idea I had that might mean I could swap my corporate life for something else – anything else – would go into the book.
No one has ever read that book, and some of the ideas were pretty crazy. But ultimately all roads led to wine. I had spent eight years in the wine business in the 1980s, when I was in my mid-twenties, and I knew I wanted to find a way to get involved in the trade again.
I mistakenly believed I might have enough capital in our Teddington house to buy a vineyard outright. I wasn’t completely wrong, but I certainly wouldn’t have had the deep reserves in the bank to sustain the business through the first crucial ten years. (I was advised that I’d need few million in the bank to see a winery through to profitability.)
Fortunately, my German-born wife with a French name (Marie-Jeannette, known as ‘Jeany’) knew that I was going to be intolerable to live with if I didn’t change my career. Even though we had our two eldest children in a good private school and our youngest seemed happy and busy, Jeany was prepared to turn her back on our lives in London for this new big adventure.
Jeany chose Provence. If we weren’t going to buy a vineyard, then we could at least live somewhere that friends might like to visit. And Provence rosé conveniently happened to be one of the only French wines that was actually growing in popularity.
Ending the corporate career
So when my then boss offered me a promotion, I declined it. That was the moment I felt like the bridges were starting to be burned. I’d scuppered my career and, six months later, I applied for redundancy.
It was the summer of 2008. We nearly managed a quick house sale to an M&A lawyer but the Lehman Brothers’ collapse gave him cold feet, and suddenly we felt very exposed. No job, the financial markets collapsing and now we couldn’t sell our house.
But in the early summer of 2009 we got lucky when we were offered the original asking price for the property. We were finally able to move.
Finding an affordable, decent house to rent in Provence proved to be a whole new challenge. But eventually (and just before the new term started in September 2009) we moved to one of the most beautiful villages in Provence, Cotignac.
Our two eldest bravely walked through the school gates with barely a word of French between them and our new routines (and new lives) began in earnest.
With the likes of Brad Pitt buying vineyards in Provence, the prices here are stratospheric. So with no chance of a purchase, I knew the only way to create a top-quality wine would be to become a négociant (a French word for someone who assembles the produce of smaller growers).
This would also give me the added (and significant) benefit of being able to pick and choose where I selected the grapes from.
Building a team
The big focus was always going to be on rosé, as that is what Provence has been famous for producing (since 600BC, in fact). Rosé accounts for almost 90 per cent of wine here and has become increasingly popular since producers have focused on setting out to make a pink wine (rather than it being a by-product of red, as it used to be).
Now I needed someone to help me select the best grapes from the region and this is where Angela Muir (Master of Wine) comes in. I knew Angela from my first stint in the wine business. She is an intimidating wine educator, a consultant to wineries all over the world and a force to be reckoned with.
After a dinner at her house with vicar husband Peter, it became clear that Angela had a genuine passion for Provence. She was on the team.
I was really excited when Angela flew over on 5 November 2010 to visit a vineyard whose grapes I was sure would be the perfect quality for Mirabeau. As we negotiated the long and bumpy drive towards the winery, Angela was making all the right noises about terroir and altitude.
But it wasn’t long before we were heading the other way back out of the drive, with my tail firmly between my legs. “Not good enough, Stephen,” she said. “If I am to be associated with Mirabeau, we need to do a lot better than that.”
Even during this somewhat embarrassing wake-up call, inside I was grinning. This was just what I wanted. Someone who was rigorously dedicated to quality; obsessive about only finding the best grapes to work with.
Three months (and 30 vineyards) later, we finally struck gold. We found some amazing vineyards just south-east of Aix, and a wonderful old winery where we could make our wine.
The man from Waitrose says yes
Waitrose and Majestic were first on my list to contact, and here Angela’s participation in Mirabeau became even more useful. The people at Waitrose not only loved the wine, they were also taken by the label design and the marketing approach, making lots of short films to tell the story.
They agreed to take the wine for year to see how it went. Bottom shelf, they said. That’s OK, I replied, and skipped out of their Bracknell headquarters like a child with a new toy. This was the dream start I’d only, well, dreamed about.
Triumph quickly turned to disaster when, the day before our first bottling in early March, the screw caps turned up in the wrong colour. Disaster. The two-month lead time to replace them meant that Waitrose wouldn’t have the wine before the end of May.
Then, weather-wise, it turned out to be an awful summer. Nonetheless, spurred by numerous press mentions (and an awful lots of my friends who were commanded go to Waitrose to buy Mirabeau) the wine sold.
Waitrose was happy and has since promoted us to an eye-level shelf. Although this summer’s weather was even worse than last, the wine has continued to sell well and pick up critical acclaim, not least from the queen of wine critics (and wine advisor to the Queen), Jancis Robinson.
Right now, our third vintage is bubbling away in fermentation tanks in the old winery and I am setting my sights further afield. We need to find another two or three Waitrose-sized customers to even think about paying ourselves salary.
But we are living in a beautiful part of the world, our children all speak fluent French, and Jeany and I are still married. The next few years will continue to be action-packed and filled with highs and lows.
And funnily enough, ‘wine producer’ never even made it into my little black book.