Look before you leap
17th November 2023
Having bought a vineyard with his wife 20 years ago, with the mentality “leap, and the net will appear”, Master Winemaker and consultant Justin Howard-Sneyd now advises his clients to look before they leap – helping them to find their ‘why?’ before they plant a vineyard.
My wife Amanda and I bought a vineyard in 2004 with no business plan, and no idea about growing grapes. Little did we know it, but we were following the advice of American naturalist John Burroughs, who said: “Leap, and the net will appear”.
We leapt. And that decision put us on a road that has fundamentally affected the way we now live our lives, and was one of the best decisions we ever made. But I now spend a good deal of my life advising a variety of clients not to leap until they have looked. Back in 2004, I was already a Master of Wine with great connections in the commercial side of wine, and we minimised our risk by finding someone to farm the land for us (and take the grapes in return), while we both kept working at our jobs and spent time formulating a plan.
And our initial ‘investment’ was only 1.8ha costing around £20,000, so we were not going to be sunk if it all fell to pieces. So perhaps it wasn’t a very daring leap. And we found ourselves a net in the form of a very kind friend who invested some more money to help us to buy two more small vineyards and to finance the first few years of production before we sold anything.
We wouldn’t change the past for a nano-second – but knowing what we know now, I think we would do a few things differently.
To plant or not to plant?
How would I advise you if you were in a similar position today? I’d say that if you are already absolutely fanatical about wine, completely sure about why you are doing it, and have the time, energy and determination to succeed, then go for it. Especially if learning the lessons for yourself and riding the roller-coaster of uncertainty is part of the attraction. Remember, the net will appear.
On the other hand, you may be satisfied that you have taken most of the big risks you want to take in your life. You may want to make a substantial investment in a vineyard without making too many mistakes. Or you may be hesitating because you are not quite sure of what you are letting yourself in for. In this case, it would be wise to ask yourself a few questions, and talk to a few people who might be able to help you.
So who should you talk to? A viticulturist, winemaker, marketing expert, or business person? Or do you need a psychiatrist or philosopher?
A viticulturist will tell you where to plant a vineyard and how to plant a vineyard. A winemaker will tell you what you need to do to make the highest quality of wine that you can. A marketing expert will help you find an audience who want to buy your wine, and maybe how to tailor your wine to suit your audience. A business person may be able to optimise your profitability, and achieve the best financial result with the means at your disposal. A psychiatrist might help you to explore whether your decision-making is rational, and whether you are in a fit state to make such a decision.
But not many of these people will tell you if you should. And it is generally in their interests to encourage you to go ahead, because then you might hire them to help. They are experts, and they know how to help you maximise your chances, within their field of expertise.
But before you jump straight into investing, you first need to know what you are letting yourself in for. And to understand your motivations, and what you want to get out of it.
The first question is “why?”
Does this list of reasons sound familiar?:
- Because I love wine
- Because I like the idea of having my own vineyard
- Because I’ve got some spare money, and I want to invest it in something I enjoy
- Because I own some land, and this feels like a good use of it
- Because it is a good business opportunity
- Because I’d like to pass something on to the next generation
- Because English wine is doing really well, right?
But what about this list?:
- Because I want to immerse myself in everything from forklift truck driving to form-filling
- Because I love pruning in the winter for days on end
- Because I love meeting new people and tasting wine with them
- Because I love making real connections with sommeliers and wine-lovers
- Because I want to travel the world and keep unusual working hours
- Because I want to develop an unexpected depth of knowledge about a surprisingly wide range of topics in which, until this point, I had zero interest
- Because I am prepared to risk having a frost or hail destroy my entire crop once in a while
- Because I love paying tax to the government
- Because I love finding, developing and rewarding the best people, and building a great team
- Because I want to hang out in the cellar door all weekend and chat to my customers.
Everyone has their reasons. You will have yours.
Ikigai – finding your ‘why?’
Our approach at The Hive Wine Consulting, is to help you understand your ‘why’. Ideally, right at the start. And then to pull together a holistic plan, based on your goals.
We love a concept that the Japanese call ‘ikigai’. It helps you to discover your reason for getting out of bed in the morning. What it is that will motivate you to push through the difficult days, when the obstacles seem insurmountable.
Following the concept of ikigai, your life’s ‘purpose’ lies at the intersection of four circles: What you love, what you are good at, what you can be paid for and what the world needs.
So do you have green fingers, and love growing healthy plants? Are you a natural in the wine cellar, combining a flair for flavour with an aptitude for biology and chemistry? Do you want to involve yourself in the hospitality and tourism side, and end up running a restaurant and accommodation, and managing a large team?
Or do you love creating a brief and then delegating delivery to professional management, and watch it all unfold with you course-correcting as necessary?
And what about the ‘what the world needs’ part of ikigai? After all, why does the world need another vineyard? And why your vineyard? How are you going to be different from/better than all of the other vineyards in the world?
Really importantly, how will your decision to invest affect others? Your family? Your neighbours, suppliers, customers, employees, investors, the health of land, the quality of the water, future generations?
To have the best chance of succeeding, you should establish a really inspiring vision that encapsulates what you are trying to achieve, and to articulate how it will contribute to the sum of ‘good’ in the world. If the world doesn’t benefit in some way, it is hard for anyone else to care. This vision will inform all of your other decisions.
Decisions like where and how to plant a vineyard are ones you have to live with for 30–50 years, and it is good to get these right at the beginning. And how to farm. What practices will you use? What about organics/biodynamics/regenerative farming? Whatever your vision is, every decision then needs to flow out from there, and each decision has a cost implication and a risk that needs to be managed.
How can you get paid?
This is probably the trickiest part of the puzzle. There are a lot of new English and Welsh wine producers, many of them chasing the same sector of the market.
How will you make sure that you are the one that is going to succeed? How do you find customers who will love what you do? Do you know how many of them there are, where they live, what they drink and who they buy from at the moment? What do they care about? What styles of wine are you going to make? This will dictate the varieties of vines you plant, and the clones you choose.
After we have helped you determine your ‘why’, we can work with you to produce a business plan that will help you price your wine correctly for the markets you want to sell to. And at the right point in the process, we can bring in brand experts, label designers and other skilled specialists to help you express your brand vision with a logo/label/typeface/image that resonates and communicates your values. A bottle that you will be proud to put on the table. A logo to display on your winery driveway.
We can help you understand the cashflow requirements, how to work with distributors, what kind of margins retailers, restaurants and intermediates will need.
Making wine can be a risky business. There are weather and climate risks, legislative risks, economic risks and human risks. A specialist consultant can help you develop a clear-eyed evaluation of the risks you will face, and to equip you with the confidence and skills to help you navigate these choppy waters, and to provide you with a map and a compass.
At The Hive Wine Consulting, we don’t have all the answers, but we know the right questions to ask, and we have associates who we trust who can provide more specialist knowledge in the following areas: Vineyard acquisition, vineyard establishment, contract winemaking, market research, market data, label design, brand marketing and advocacy. Getting us on board early in the project could save you time and money, and save you from some expensive mistakes.
About our author
The Hive Wine Consulting is the consulting business of Justin Howard-Sneyd MW. Justin is an industry consultant with 12 years’ experience in working with wine clients around the world, and 15 years of experience as a retail buyer, heading up the wine teams at both Waitrose and Laithwaite’s. He has been a Master of Wine since 1999 and is a trustee of the Regenerative Viticulture Foundation and a founder of The BIB Wine Company.