When you think about spending time on a vineyard, you'd be forgiven for picturing rolling Tuscan hills and long dusty evenings. However here in the UK, where our wine industry is going from strength to strength, we need to remember, like all farming, there is year-round activity. We caught up with David Bailey from Wraxall Vineyard, near Castle Cary, to find out what they are up to as we move towards winter.
"Its mid-October and we have just one more harvest to go. Two are done and the juice is with our winemaker (Ben Smith at Itasca) and on their way towards our next batch of award winning Rosé and Bacchus wines.
Although Wraxall Vineyard is 50 years old in 2024, one of the oldest vineyards in Somerset and the UK, my wife and I have only owned it for just over 2 years. And having come from the finance industry with little knowledge of growing things let alone making wine, the guidance from our viticulturist and our wine maker has been invaluable. We are now consistently winning silver medals for our wine and there is a very special announcement due in mid-November re our Rosé – keep a look out for it.
We are a small vineyard (4.5 hectares planted and we’ve just bought another 1.8 which will be planted with vines in 2025) and my biggest fear (nightmares!) at the outset was “How do we sell 10,000 bottles of wine?”, especially as we had no prior experience of the hospitality industry. In addition, I’ve already grown and sold one business and am now “retired” and needed to employ others to manage the vineyard on a day-to-day basis.
Looking around the industry, particularly in the US, Australia and South Africa, we pretty quickly realised that we had to turn what was previously a relatively low-key operation run by owner/operators into a multi-facetted business, allowing us to sell our wines at full retail prices (the price of trade sales barely cover our winemaking costs given that our production runs are relatively small and the cost high). We also decided that given our size we were going to concentrate on producing the best quality wines that we possibly could – quality over quantity – a high quality boutique vineyard.
In late 2021 we set about building “The View@Wraxall” our new amazing (even if I do say so myself!) tasting space which seats 45 (standing70) with views of 25 miles over the Somerset countryside. The venue became operational in Summer 2022 and visitor numbers have grown dramatically. We are heading for 5000 in 2023 from 600 in 2021, and now sell over 80 percent of our output through this venue at full retail price. It was a big investment but it has only added substantial capital value to the vineyard itself and allows us to achieve income streams that wouldn’t be achieved via trade sales (the Clarkeson model!).
One of the issues of growing things is weather and crop failure – in the case of vines (like any other fruit) this is late frost. If we get frosted we can loose all our crop, in the extreme, although Wraxall has never historically suffered with this. And just because the crop has been lost, it doesn’t mean you have to stop looking after the vines. By creating a range of accommodation on site – we have enhanced the offering at the View (allowing for residential courses, parties with accommodation and the like) but more to the point, we have created a hedge against the weather. The property income will support the vineyard wages for the year in the event of the loss of the vintage and thus reduce the financial risk to the business overall.
Purchasing the vineyard was probably a crazy thing to do – but we couldn’t let a 50 year old vineyard be destroyed under solar panels or the like (it wasn’t selling after 2 years). But once we had ownership we knew we had to make a properly financially sustainable business out of it, given our small size the only way to do this was via diversified income streams. By creating the tasting space and the accommodation, involving substantial capital investment, we have diversified the business reduced the risk and increased the value of the asset.
We have also, to date, created 6 permanent jobs plus part time work, something I am very proud of – but salaries need to be paid. So by generating on site sales at full retail price we have maximised the return on the wine. Our event programme is filling up and there will be more to come. We have started to put Wraxall Vineyard and Somerset wine on the map – the only way to go now, is up!"
To find out more about Wraxall Vineyard's amazing tasting venue The View @ Wraxall, their events, accommodation and of course their wine, head on over to their website.