“What happens when you walk into a bar in New York or Beijing or Berlin…” which sounds like the start of a joke, but Mark Driver is about to explain his ambition for the Rathfinny wine brand… “and the bar staff ask you if you would prefer Champagne or a Sussex. You say Sussex, and they recommend Rathfinny. We want to be a global brand, known everywhere for being the best quality and able to compete on the world stage with any sparkling wine.”
Driver, a former stockbroker, hedge fund manager and now co-owner of the wine estate, says that’s already starting to happen: the Savoy Hotel’s wine list offers that very choice, and English sparkling wine is served at top-table restaurants such as the Caprice, Les Quat’ Saisons, the Ritz and the Connaught (which all offer Rathfinny).
It’s a long cry from when the business was founded in 2010, with the challenge peculiar to wine making start-ups that they will have no product available for years because Champagne-style wine takes at least four years to ferment.
That of course results in a marketing conundrum. Driver’s wife and business partner Sarah, a former lawyer, sums up the challenge as: “How do you grow a brand when you have nothing to sell?”
It helped that the Drivers were savvy enough to get an interview in The Telegraph right at the outset and that started a flurry of media coverage that raised awareness and led to them being courted by potential stockists before they had even planted their own vines. Having a daughter taking a Masters degree in marketing has been a help too.
The couple had previously spent over a year looking for land that would be suitable for growing grapes, and eventually Rathfinny, which had been a farm for two hundred years, came up for sale. It was the “perfect” site, says Driver, as the South Downs is in a “sweet spot” geographically in terms of microclimate. Climate change here has been helpful to growers, while it has hindered those in traditional areas like Champagne, where hotter weather has disrupted the growing and picking cycle.
On the other hand, being the most northerly of the wine-growing regions means there is a risk of losing vines to late frosts, which “in rare circumstances” can destroy a harvest.
The Drivers kept the Rathfinny name as they felt that the local heritage would help create value in the brand. Indeed, the Sussex story is deliberately echoed through visual cues in the wine labels and merchandising material. There are references to Sussex in the use of a font designed by Eric Gill, the arts and crafts movement typographer, and in the use of the Sussex shield as a motif. The textured labels, meanwhile, are reminiscent of chalk, with their uneven edging representing the curves of the South Downs, and the label, unusually for wine, goes all around the bottle, allowing space to include information about the company as well as the wine.
Of course Rathfinny are not allowed to call their sparkling wine a champagne (a name specific to that region of France), and neither would they want to, says Driver – though the South Downs chalk is the same type of chalk as in Champagne and they make a nod to the tradition of champagne by having a foil wrap and a muzzled cork. Instead, they have tried to emulate the success of the champagne ‘brand’ by promoting their own ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ with a view to making Sussex wine trip off the tongue like Cornish pasties or Jersey Royal potatoes.
“The idea is to celebrate the geography, the terroir of the site: we celebrate Sussex just as champagne makers celebrate their region,” says Driver. “Bordeaux and Burgundy wine makers do the same. Then brands grow out of those affiliations.”
He points out the value to the Rathfinny brand by having an interconnection between landscape, wine and art, and with this in mind they have collaborated with others to create an art and wine trail. Projects like that could lead to the county becoming a destination, with visitors coming to England to travel around the south’s vineyards and to tour the national park, says Driver, who admires the Denbies wine estate for already having made themselves into a tourist attraction.
He points out that while English wine is seen as a new phenomenon, the country actually has a rich – though somewhat lost – heritage of wine making. “The Romans and then the Normans made wine here but the abolition of the monasteries ended the tradition and we lost the taste for wine,” Driver explains. “But in the past fifty years vines were planted again here and in the past ten or twenty years, the land occupied by vines in the UK has trebled. It’s been quite a cycle.”
Thought the couple say that they have worked on their brand largely on instinct, they took advice from a consultant early on which gave them confidence. The first brand value to emerge from that process was more of a mission statement: to create “the best quality sparkling wine from the perfect site in Sussex”.
Which might sound like a marketing sound bite but is anything but hyperbole. “There’s an old saying that you can’t make good wine from bad grapes, but you can make bad wine from good grapes,” says Driver. “When we visited nurseries across Europe to find the right vines, our vineyard manager said we would not buy any from a nursery which you couldn’t eat your dinner off; they had to be that clean.”
The grapes are just the start, he adds. “Everything we do, every touch point, has to impart quality if we are to deliver on that brand value. The label design, the compliment slips, even the trellis posts and signposts on the estate. One member of staff challenged me about some aspect of quality, then apologised, thinking she sounded rude, but I loved that she ‘got’ it.”
Another brand value is being part of the community, through employing local people. “We had two hundred people picking in one day, through wind and rain, and they are all passionate about making great wine,” says Sarah Driver. “I think how we feel about staff and community does make us different from other vineyards.”
The Drivers don’t necessarily regard the growing number of wine-makers in the region as competition, believing that each helps to increase awareness of English wine, to mutual benefit.
Not that they are all the same. Rathfinny are unusual in using only their own grapes while many vineyards buy them in for example. And Denbies, one of the best-known English vineyards have different grape varieties, and unlike Rathfinny they sell 80% of production direct to the consumer. “That’s a great model because if you sell from the cellar door, you don’t give away any margin,” observes Driver.
The customer base for Rathfinny is mainly independent wine merchants and the on-trade – including Michelin-starred restaurants. They avoid the supermarkets, through which most English wine is sold. “We took the view early on that being in a multiple grocer would mean kissing the brand goodbye,” says Driver. “One sommelier said ‘why would I have you on my list if a customer can buy you in Waitrose?’
“In the supermarkets, people choose based on price or on what awards the wine has won,” he goes on. “We don’t want to be sold on price, and we don’t enter awards because you don’t need that sticker on the label when you are selling to the on-trade. If the wine gets on the list of a top restaurant, chosen by the master sommelier, that’s the best recommendation you can have.”
One of Rathfinny’s customers is the Dorchester, which sent a team to Sussex to learn about the terroir and how the wine is made. “We know the sommeliers and chefs that we work with,” says Driver. “We even know their families, and we had twenty people from Le Gavroche restaurant come to pick grapes here. All this creates brand ambassadors; they take the message around the world and creates additional demand for our product, when, for example, a sommelier joins another restaurant.”
Indeed, the biggest challenges for English wine brands are education and exposure. “There is a lack of knowledge about agriculture generally in this country and wine in particular,” Driver suggests. “It’s not like in France, when people grow up understanding wine because they live so close to its production.”
A particular requirement, he says is for people to understand how much work goes into making wine – and hence how much it can cost. The vines are tended by hand, the grapes are picked by hand, then pressed and put to ferment in giant stainless steel tanks before being bottled and left for three years. The full process takes at least four years. “Our wine is great value when you consider the amount of work that goes into it, and the lack of economy of scale that we would benefit from,” Drover asserts. “We had to limit the size of orders to one per person at the beginning; we’re not like a Moet, producing 30million bottles every year.”
Another aspect is the need to define the difference between Rathfinny and other types of sparkling wine. “We are not making a Prosecco, which contains more sugar and yeast, takes far less time to make and lacks nuanced flavour.
“We have this nod to the heritage of champagne as we are making a traditional product, but we are creating a new category of English wine that is innovative in being fresher and fruitier than champagne. So you could describe Rathfinny as disruptors now, but we are a small business in a long game, and we can’t continue to be disruptors for a hundred years.”
What’s more important to Driver is relevance. “A brand doesn’t have to be disruptive to stay relevant,” he argues. ”For us, the key element of maintaining relevance is producing quality wine. But the disruption created by others can help us if it raises awareness of wine. Past disruptive technologies have enabled wine in a box, wine in a can, and Brewdog, the ultimate disruptors, are introducing a sparkling Sauvignon Blanc in a can. A certain audience will love that. It won’t threaten us because it’s a different market and a different product.
“Strategic changes can happen if you try to address different markets,” he acknowledges, “but we can’t compromise on the mission to create the best quality sparkling wine. If we did that we might as well shut up shop and go home.”
A market which is particularly interesting is the younger generation of drinkers. “They seem to care more about what they eat and drink,” Driver observes. “There is more interest in provenance, air miles and environmental sustainability. There is a move to less quantity and more quality, and surprisingly young men are the strongest growth category in sparkling wine.”