The great wine migration

Many people decide to buy a vineyard in retirement. What happens next?

Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash
Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

“They come… and they go…”

For a moment, as we walked through my friend’s Languedoc vineyards, I thought he was talking about the migratory birds that arrive like clockwork every year. But I realised that he was looking over the fence at a plot of vines that had just been put up for sale. The story was a sad one, he said, but all too common. A nice middle-aged couple from the Netherlands had sold up everything to move down to this idyllic part of France and to make wine. Three years later, they had loaded their possessions into a truck and headed back north. Their viticultural sojourn, my friend explained, was quite typical. “When I see new arrivals like them,” he said, “I generally estimate that if they get to their fifth harvest, they’ll probably survive. But far too many don’t last that long.”

Sadly, the one thing many of these temporary wine producers get right is what they came to do. The wine they produce often tastes delicious, either because they’ve taken the trouble to learn the basics or employed a good consultant, or because they’ve been lucky enough to pick a spot with such great soil and climate that it almost makes itself. Unfortunately, sales is a skill few winemakers have attained.

As Adam Dakin of Wine Objectives, the Montpellier real estate specialist, has repeatedly seen, people scrape together every penny they can find in order to buy a property — then run out of cash. “If the land, buildings and stock cost €1m [$1.16m], for example,” he says, “you need to start out with at least an extra €300,000.” That’s if you don’t need to spend any money on equipment or the vineyards, and you aren’t going to hit a climatic disaster, a recession or a US president who decides to slap a 25 percent tariff on your wine. A spare half a million would be wiser.

If novices to the industry underestimate the need for cash, they commonly get two other things wrong. They price their wine according to what the neighbours charge and/or a margin on their production costs. Then of course, when hail or frost or floods halve the crop, they find themselves struggling to live on half their income. And that’s assuming they’ve managed to secure good, effective distribution for their bottles. 

As Dakin says, “They’re living the dream; that’s what people want to do.” Fortunately, he continues, “for any property there’s always a solution as to how to manage it so that it won’t lose money and might make some.” It may not involve producing wine; it might make more sense simply to sell the grapes. “People don’t always want to hear that because they have their ideas of placing a bottle of extremely good wine that they’re extremely proud of on the table.” And some, of course, achieve that ambition. But every year, far too many sadly give up and leave the region, without a nest to return to. 

Robert Joseph

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