There’s nothing quite like sitting back with a glass of sparkling wine, overlooking the green hills, chalky meadows and windswept cliffs of the South Downs in Sussex, England. I recently enjoyed this view at the Rathfinny Wine Estate, one of England’s newest and largest wineries, while admiring the beauty of the Sussex landscape. Minutes from London, this sustainable winery is quickly becoming a major hub for English wine tourism.
In addition to learning about the winery’s sustainable practices for improving the land and the wine, I spoke with its founders, Mark and Sarah Driver, and the company’s vineyard manager, Cameron Roucher, about their projects for the company and how they encourage community involvement. As a business, Rathfinny values collaboration, creativity and diversity, and is committed to developing a skilled local workforce while supporting the English wine industry.
Founded in 2010 and spanning 600 acres of land, Rathfinny cultivates its vines in chalky soil geologically linked to France’s Champagne region, the world famous sparkling wine producing region. This, plus a temperate climate and unique location, had a huge impact on the rich flavors of their vintage sparkling wines. In the 10 years since purchasing this farmland, the drivers have been recognized for the quality of their product and have made their estate more than just a farm. It became a restaurant, a manufacturing company and a popular tourist destination. As they expand, the Chauffeurs have emphasized to me that they will always be careful about how they build their business, whether that be in how they cultivate their vines or how they treat their employees.
“We’ve always been very conscious as an employer,” says Sarah. “We wanted to bring people with us and work collaboratively with our staff. Our mantra is that our people are the most important asset we have. We really want to take people with us on this journey.
Rathfinny sees itself as a people-centric company that puts its community first. By investing in the local workforce and getting involved in the community through various tourism-focused programs and initiatives, Rathfinny aims to create a tight-knit group of people working towards the same goal: to help develop the local economy and creating career opportunities along the way.
Building a local workforce
At the heart of the Rathfinny Wine Estate is the importance of sustainable practices and their impact on the world as well as the community. One of the main ways drivers stay connected to their community is to hire local residents whenever possible. As a company due to receive its B Corp certification next month, it is legally required to consider its impact on workers, but drivers have always been inspired to stand out in their hiring practices. Rathfinny currently employs about 40 “core” people and hires about 200 additional seasonal employees.
Rathfinny works with a local recruitment company to find people looking for a flexible work schedule. Three to four weeks a year, the vines must be pruned or picked. People taking advantage of this opportunity come from all walks of life – from needing extra cash in and around their college classes to looking for a hobby outside of retirement. “They are our employees and they are considered part of the family,” says Sarah. “They range in age, which I love, from literally 18 to men in their 60s. I’m immensely proud of that, even though it cost us dearly.
Although drivers are passionate about their hiring practices, it would be misleading not to mention that hiring this way slows productivity. On average, pruning 500 vines per day is the benchmark for a high-performance vineyard. Using local workers, Rathfinny now produces an average of around 150 to 200 vines per day. “You can bring in experienced teams and we’ve sometimes used them whenever we were limited in time to get something done quickly,” says Sarah. “The local workforce may be slow, but it will get faster as the pool of experience grows. Also, some still need to be trained, and we need to use our best people to train them. »
Despite the challenges, drivers take pride in what they do and are already seeing the results of their time investment. They have developed a group of local and loyal workers that they call the “core casuals”. They are the people they turn to first when a job opportunity arises. This loyalty is an important part of the workplace that drivers had always hoped to build.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie,” Sarah says. “People like to come here because they really like what they do, even if it’s in the beauty of the vineyard. I sincerely believe that everyone feels invested in what they do. They really care and go the extra mile.
Community initiatives aim to support local tourism
Another way Rathfinny has chosen to give back to his community is to invest in the future of English wines. The Drivers sponsored a new research lab in Plumpton, Sussex in 2014 at Plumpton College. The Rathfinny Research Winery was the first research center dedicated to viticulture and oenology in England.
Critics sometimes question England’s place in the wine industry, but the truth is that sparkling wines from Sussex regularly beat champagnes in international awards. Developing a strong research institution aims to support England as a credible and innovative wine region, and to train the next generation of English winemakers and winemakers.
While making its mark in a fledgling industry, the Drivers are also working to establish Sussex, England as a major hub for wine tourism. Sussex is already well known for its vast landscape and as such created the South Downs National Park in 2010. The South Downs, also known as the ‘Gateway to England’, are stretch for over 600 miles and feature dramatic chalk cliffs towering over the English. Chanel. Known as the Seven Sisters, the cliffs attract legions of Asian tourists as the number 7 is considered lucky in China and many Chinese and Korean stars have been photographed there. Rathfinnny’s wine label includes a glimpse of the cliffs.
Additionally, artists and winemakers have always been drawn to Sussex thanks to its inspiring and vine-friendly countryside. “We calculated that in fact what attracted artists to this area was the landscape – the South Downs. And what attracted winemakers to this area were the unique geological features of the South Downs,” explains Mark. “So we thought, ‘What a great synergy there is between art, wine and landscape.'”
Rathfinny has partnered with other Sussex vineyards and wineries, as well as arts institutions in the region and the South Downs National Park, to create the Sussex Modern initiative. This collaboration brings together 36 destinations that all define the modern and independent spirit of the country. From other wineries in this booming wine region to well-known art exhibits including Bloomsbury Group’s Charleston House, Ditchling Museum and Towner Gallery, Sussex Modern helps curate a variety of experiences for tourists who all log on along from southern England into Sussex. On their websiteyou can plan your visit to the South Downs – enjoy a wine tour, have lunch, see an art exhibition and go hiking.
Located just an hour from London, Rathfinny hopes community efforts such as these will help make Sussex a global destination for tourists. Rathfinny already receives 40,000 visitors a year, and for the whole region the total is probably several times that. Wine tourism has an economic value: national tourists who visit a wine region spend on average 40% more than an average tourist; foreign tourists visiting a wine region spend 80% more.
Beyond the economic benefits, the Drivers hope to share the region’s natural beauty and opportunities with visitors.
“We want them here,” Mark says. “We want them to share this beautiful landscape. We want to impress them. We want to show them what else they can do here.
“People will often write in and say how proud they are that this is in their community,” Sarah says. “They love visiting our vineyards. We have many regular visitors.