There’s nothing like sitting with a glass of sparkling wine, overlooking the rolling green hills, calcareous grasslands and windswept cliffs of the South Downs in Sussex, England. I recently enjoyed that view of the Rathfinny Wine Estate, one of the newest and largest wineries in England, while taking in the beauty of the Sussex countryside. Just a short journey 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 to improve the land and wine, I spoke with the founders, Mark and Sarah Driver, and the company’s vineyard manager, Cameron Roucher, about their plans for the company and how they encourage community involvement. As a company, Rathfinny values collaboration, creativity and diversity, and is committed to developing a locally skilled workforce while supporting the English wine industry.
Established in 2010 and spreading over 600 hectares of land, Rathfinny grows its vines in calcareous soils geologically linked to the Champagne region of France, the world-renowned sparkling wine production region. This, plus a temperate climate and unique location, has 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 grown their estate into more than just a farm. It has become a restaurant, manufacturing company and popular tourist destination. As they continue to expand, the drivers emphasized to me that they will always think about how they build their business – whether it’s how they farm their vines or how they treat their employees.
“As an employer, we have always been very conscious,” says Sarah. “We wanted to bring people along and collaborate with our employees. Our mantra is that our staff is the most important capital we have. We really want to take people on this journey.”
Rathfinny values itself as a people-oriented company that puts its community first. By investing in the local workforce and getting involved in the community through various programs and tourism initiatives, Rathfinny aims to create a close-knit group of people who share the same goal: help expand the local economy and create 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 both the world and the community. One of the main ways the drivers stay connected to their communities is by hiring local residents whenever possible. As a company expects to receive its B Corp certification next month, they are required by law to consider their impact on employees, but the drivers have always been inspired to stand out in their recruiting practices. Rathfinny currently employs approximately 40 “core” people and is hiring approximately 200 additional seasonal employees.
Rathfinny works with a local recruitment agency to find people looking for a flexible work schedule. The vineyards have to be pruned or picked three to four weeks a year. The people who take advantage of this opportunity come from all walks of life – from needing extra cash in and around their college courses to looking for a hobby outside of retirement. “They are our employees and they are considered part of the family,” Sarah says. “They range in age, which I love, from literally 18-year-olds to men in their 70s. I’m extremely proud of that, even if it cost us.”
While the drivers are passionate about their hiring practices, it would be misleading not to mention that hiring in this way slows down productivity. Pruning an average of 500 vines per day is the benchmark for a successful vineyard. Rathfinny uses local workers and now produces an average of 150 to 200 vines per day. “There are experienced crews you can turn to, and we’ve used them occasionally when we had a time constraint to get something done quickly,” Sarah says. “The local workforce may be slow, but they will accelerate as the pool of experience grows. In addition, some still need to be trained and we need to use our best people to train them.”
Despite the challenges, the drivers are proud of what they do and are already seeing results from their time investment. They’ve developed a group of local, loyal workers they call “core casuals.” These are the people they turn to first when an employment opportunity arises. This loyalty is an important part of the workplace drivers have always hoped for.
“There’s a tremendous amount of camaraderie,” Sarah says. “People like to come here because they really love what they’re doing, even if it’s in the beauty of the vineyard. I sincerely believe that everyone feels involved in what they do. They are genuinely involved and go the extra mile.”
Community initiatives aim to support local tourism
Another way Rathfinny has chosen to give back to the community is by investing in the future of English wines. The Drivers sponsored a new research lab in Plumpton, Sussex, at Plumpton College in 2014. The Rathfinny Research Winery was the first dedicated research center for viticulture and oenology in England.
Critics sometimes question England’s place in the wine industry, but the truth is that Sussex sparkling wines regularly beat champagnes at international awards. Developing a strong research institution aims to support England as a credible and innovative wine-producing region and to educate the next generation of English winegrowers and winemakers.
While making their mark in a burgeoning industry, the Drivers also strive to make Sussex, England, a major hub for wine tourism. Sussex is already known for its wide open countryside and as such established the South Downs National Park in 2010. Also known as the ‘Gateway to England’, the South Downs stretch for over 600 miles and have dramatic chalk cliffs overlooking England’s Chanel. Known as the Seven Sisters, cliffs attract legions of Asian tourists as the number 7 is considered lucky in China and a number of Chinese and Korean stars have been photographed there. The label on Rathfinnny wines includes an outline of the cliffs.
Moreover, artists and winemakers have always been drawn to Sussex thanks to its inspiring and wine-friendly countryside. “We found that what drew artists to this region was the landscape – the South Downs. And what drew winegrowers to this region was the unique geological features of the South Downs,” says Mark. “So we thought, ‘What a great synergy exists between art, wine and landscape.'”
Rathfinny worked with other vineyards and wineries in Sussex, as well as art institutions in the area and the South Downs National Park, to create the Sussex Modern initiative. This partnership brings together 36 destinations that all define the province’s modern, independent spirit. From other wineries in this burgeoning wine region to well-known art exhibits including the Bloomsbury Group’s Charleston House, Ditchling Museum and Towner Gallery, Sussex Modern helps curate diverse experiences for tourists all interacting in Sussex in southern England . On their website you can plan your visit to the South Downs – enjoy a wine tour, lunch, take part in an art show and take a walk.
Located just an hour outside of London, Rathfinny hopes such community efforts will help Sussex become a global tourist destination. Rathfinny already receives 40,000 visitors a year and for the entire region the total is probably many times higher. There is economic value to wine tourism: Domestic tourists visiting a wine region spend on average 40% more than a typical tourist; foreign tourists who visit a wine region spend 80% more.
In addition to the economic benefits, the drivers hope to share the region’s natural beauty and opportunities with visitors.
“We want them down 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 and say how proud they are to have this in their community,” Sarah says. “They like to visit our vineyards. We have many return visitors.”