Making a living from wine
You’re on the 7.40 to Cannon Street. The person next to you is sniffing incessantly. The carriage is littered with foul smelling Burger King bags. The train is delayed and guess what? It’s raining. In an effort to take yourself away from your infernal surroundings you cast your mind back to last week. You were in the south of France on holiday. There was a lovely chateau where you stopped to taste some wine. The owners looked suntanned, relaxed and happy. Worst of all they were British. You’ve been a member of the Tunbridge Wells Wine Society for at least two years now, couldn’t you do the same? By the time your train eases into the station you’ve made up your mind. You’re going to sell up and buy a vineyard in France.
Charles and Ruth Simpson are one of a growing number of Brits that have done just that. They both had high-flying careers, Charles in the pharmaceutical industry and Ruth in the development world. “We didn’t get married in order to not spend any time together,” says Charles. “But with the jobs we had we hardly ever saw each other. We have always been passionate about wine and although we knew it would be hard work at least it would be something we could do as a couple.”
They bought Domaine Sainte Rose close to Béziers in the Languedoc. They produce 100,000 bottles of wine a year. They are harvesting now and I spent an evening picking their 2004 Chardonnay grapes. They pick at night to avoid the grapes fermenting in the trailers. Wandering through vineyards lit by the moon is very idyllic, but making wine is hard work and extremely expensive.
Once the grapes have been picked, they have to be squashed in what is called a pneumatic press. This costs around £30,000. “It was either the press or a Porsche,” says Charles. “And my practical side took over.” The juice produced from the press is stored in steel vats which will set you back around £5,000 each, that have to be regulated by a cooling system (around £8,000). The list goes on. In fact before the grapes even go into the Porsche-substitute they have to go through a de-stemmer, which will set you back another £5,000. On top of all this you have to own the land (a wine domaine in the Languedoc will cost you anywhere between £500,000 and several million) and grow the grapes in the first place. Once all this is done you need to think about marketing.
“All too often the romantic notion of growing your own grapes and making your own wine can mask the true realities of the business,” says Ruth. “You need to have a very good relationship with your bank manager and a good sense of marketing.”
There is an old saying that to make a small fortune in the wine industry you should start with a large one. Although Charles and Ruth broke even in their second year, they won’t expect a return on their capital for another 10. “Basically you need to look at it like a way to sustain a lifestyle and not just to make money,” says Charles.
Ruth de Latude, a Yorkshirewoman who makes wine with her husband Gilles, says that to own a vineyard you have to be “passionate about wine, enthusiastic and convinced it is the best wine ever, be prepared to work very, very hard, understand that weather conditions are totally out of one’s control and have plenty of money to fall back on if things don’t go right”.
Of course there are ways of making money from wine that don’t involve owning a vineyard or growing grapes. One option is to focus on selling it, which is what the creators of www.picwines.co.uk are doing. Helen Genevier and Julie Statham met at university over 20 years ago. In 1997, Helen, who married a Frenchman, moved to the Pic St-Loup region in the Languedoc. Julie was working as a stockbroker when she decided she needed a change of lifestyle and moved to the same village a few years later.
It was during a dinner with friends who were visiting from England in the summer of 2002 that they came up with the idea of Pic Wines. “We were talking about it half-jokingly, about how everyone that comes here goes home with boxes of local wine. Our friends said we should go for it, that they would definitely buy the wine from the web rather than cart it home,” says Julie.
They now sell wines over the Internet from more than 30 local domaines “It is wonderful going round the various domaines collecting the wine to ship, that’s definitely the best part of the job,” says Julie. “That and the wine tasting events we hold in the UK.”
But despite the attractions, my French wine-making friend Jean-Claude Mas says you’re better off staying in England. “If you want to make money then don’t come to France,” he says. “The taxes here will kill your cash flow and building up any business is extremely difficult.” Maybe the daily commute is not so bad after all.
Charles & Ruth Simpson, Tel: +33(0) 467 39 07 54, E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Web: www.sainte-rose.com
Ruth de Latude, www.baronnie-de-bourgade.com
Jean-Claude Mas, www.paulmas.com
Helen Genevier and Julie Statham www.picwines.co.uk, email@example.com, Tel: +33 (0) 499 62 09 27
I have had several emails questioning whether or not the land grab policy in France is a contravention of the EU law on human rights. “International law clearly states that no government or public authority can deprive you of your property, unless: (a) the law of that country states that it can; and (b) it is in the public interest to do so,” says Stephen Smith, a bilingual lawyer specialising in French property and tax with Stephen Smith France Ltd. “But the European Court of Human Rights cannot get involved unless you have exhausted all the domestic possibilities in France. In other words, you must first go through the hierarchy of French courts with your French barrister and other legal team up to supreme court level, and also lobby the French government for redress. All of this can take years and be very expensive.”
According to another lawyer friend who wishes to remain anonymous, local mayors can get away with pretty much anything they want. “They make up their own definitions when it comes to what is and what isn’t in the public interest,” she says. “I would strongly advise anyone against litigating. It is rare that the man or woman in the street wins against the French powerful French administration.”
Stephen Smith, French lawyer, Stephen Smith France Ltd, www.stephensmithfranceltd.com, tel: 01473 437186, firstname.lastname@example.org
A retired reader writes that although she and her husband are now living full time in France, they are still paying tax in the UK and have not declared themselves to the authorities here. Should they? The answer is that anyone living in France is legally required to file an annual tax return stating their worldwide income. Even residents that have no income are required to file a blank return. You should also bear in mind that if your worldwide assets and income add up to more than €720,000 you may be liable for wealth tax. For more information contact Bill Blevins at Blevins Franks International, www.blevinsfranks.com or 020 7336 1116 or Stephen Smith at the above address.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019