Stephen and Jeany were both working in fast-paced jobs when they came to a fork in the road. They had to decide whether to accept a tempting promotion in the telecom industry that would take Stephen further away from his slow-burning passion for wine, or give it all up and start again from scratch, in a foreign country, with three young children, and no certainty of success. Naturally, they opted for the latter. They brought with them an impeccable nose for quality and a determination to demystify wine (look for the YouTube video on how to open a bottle of wine with a flip-flop). We asked Stephen to tell us more.
What led to the decision to come to France?
I had worked in the wine trade, it was my original career choice in fact. I started my own wine company for a short time then sold it and went on to a career in the telecom industry, but the passion for wine didn’t go away. I started toying with the idea of making my own wine and France was a natural choice. I spoke to experts who were doing the same thing I wanted to do. The rule of thumb is that you need ten years of cash flow set aside because you can’t expect to make money quickly, you have to build the brand. Of course I didn’t have that kind of reserve so instead of running my own vineyard, I decided to become a négociant – a producer who makes wine by assembling the grapes from smaller growers.
Where are you based?
We are in Cotignac, in Provence, the nearest city is Toulon. It’s a fertile, sun-kissed area of France, with lakes, hills, vineyards, in proximity Aix-en-Provence, Marseille and the sea. We are renovating a 16th century former winery to become our headquarters, showroom and cellar.
Tell us about your business …
The objective is to make one of the best wines in the region using grapes from only the best vineyards (in terms of altitude, aspect and soil). We bring together old world and new, with a great team of people including Jo Ahearne who trained as a winemaker at Charles Sturt University, Australia and is a qualified Master of Wine. My wife Jeany is involved in the look and feel of the brand. Our signature wine, Mirabeau rosé gets great reviews, it’s one of those rare wines that works both as an aperitif and to have with your meal. Our first big break came with an order from Waitrose and it went from strength to strength, even winning a few awards like the Decanter award, a silver medal at the International Wine and Spirit Competition plus we were fortunate to get great press coverage.
How did you find the infamous French paperwork?
I didn’t get any financing – we decided to do it the hard way through our savings – so that cut the bureaucracy down, but I find that the process of making wine in France is very paper intensive, particularly as we have to deal with the douane. You wouldn’t believe the amount of work that goes into getting that tiny little stamp with the figure of Marianne that is pasted on the top of the bottles.
What was the best day ever for the business?
The day we got the order confirmation from Waitrose. I had been targeting them as our main launch partner. It was very exciting.
And the blackest day?
After one year of planning, one day before the first bottling the capsules arrived. They were the wrong ones. It delayed our launch six weeks. Waitrose had taken a risk with us and I didn’t want to let them down, plus the market is very competitive. There are over 600 wine estates here and all of them have several labels. You can’t afford to miss a step.
What was your biggest challenge?
On the family front, our oldest daughter was eight when we moved and took to the change in school and language with ease, but our seven-year old son cried every day for six months. It was very painful for all of us. He is twelve now and loves it here. Our youngest daughter was a toddler at the time, so I guess she made the smoothest transition.
Contact details for the winery:
“Mirabeau en Provence” in the renovated La Falaise 16th century winery
5, cours Gambetta, Cotignac
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