Last week I met an Englishman living in south western France. Nothing unusual in that you might think, but how he got there is.
The man, who for the purposes of this reading, I will call David, was born brought up in Barnsley and was an IT specialist working in the financial district of New York. One cloudless, Tuesday morning in the early autumn of 2001 he was walking to his place of work when he looked up and saw a Boeing 767 airliner plough into the north tower of the World Trade Centre. Witnessing this one terrible scene changed his life irrevocably.
The falling masonry and debris of the two 110 storey towers collapsing also destroyed three other nearby lower level, World Trade Centre buildings. Fortunately, all the occupants were evacuated successfully before the structures plunged to the ground. David’s office was within this complex and as a consequence he lost his job. So traumatic was the experience that he and his New Zealand born wife, decided to have a complete change of life. And when I say a change, I mean a complete change.
David had always held a residual fascination for wine and its production. So the two of them, then aged in their early thirties, and who had held successful well-paid positions in America, decided that owning a vineyard and producing exceptional wines was going to be their future. They travelled to New Zealand where David went to university to study viticulture and then he worked in a vineyard to gain hands-on experience of the art of grape growing and the production of wine.
Eventually they both returned to Europe to search for a vineyard to purchase and hopefully take the first few steps in attempting to build a new life and a profitable business. By now they had two young children. David and his wife concentrated their search in south western France in the Languedoc and Roussillon areas. These regions of France, not renowned for producing high quality wines, but whatever their output lacks in quality it makes up for in quantity. In fact, much to my surprise, I learned it was where one third of all French wine is produced in just these two regions. The infamous European wine lake of a number of years ago, remember that? This is where massive overproduction created great surpluses of wine that in turn drove down prices and growers out of business.
The consequence of this was that many vines were grubbed out and production switched to growing more profitable crops like vegetables and salads and even orchards as cherries, peaches and apples are grown extensively in this region, the very hot and dry climate suiting their propagation. It also meant that there was a choice of ailing or redundant vineyards and at much lower cost compared with the more famous regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Rhone and the Loire.
David eventually found a suitable Domaine to purchase of around ten hectares, that’s about twenty five acres in old money. The vineyard is not in one single plot of land but dotted about in four different sites within a couple of kilometres of one another. Being close to the Pyrenees the weather can sometimes be very local and one of the dangers can be hailstorms that damage vines if an untimely storm occurs. The variety of locations helps to mitigate the chances of his whole production being damaged by these freak meteorological events. Some of David’s vines he has grown from scratch but this is a long process and takes six years before they will produce grapes suitable for wine production. Others are over ninety years of age. His approach has not been as a volume producer but rather to create high quality wines in small batches. To persuade reluctant wine merchants and retailers to stock his products is a hard task but after twelve years his reputation is growing and he sells his annual output of around thirty five thousand bottles into Germany, the US, UK and New Zealand – his smallest market is France, although this was now growing as he has become recognised as a serious producer of top quality wines.
What is fascinating about this life-change is how a man who originally grew up in Barnsley with a New Zealand wife, who were both business high-flyers in New York, should be living in an ancient and tumble-down old building attached to his winery and reached by a rickety, outside staircase. On my visit the place was undergoing a transformation with new wine fermentation vats being installed to replace enormous, one hundred year old, wooden barrels – barrels that are taller than houses. This outwardly chaotic appearance belies the fact that his vineyard has been rated best wine producer in the Roussillon by leading English critics and has won a number of coveted awards in the Revue de Vin de France. So it would seem he’s been accepted as one of their own.
Located in a small Roussillon district village, surrounded by vineyards, it was as far away from the life of commerce and IT in one of the world’s great cities as one could imagine. But David was not just doing this as some rich man’s hobby, from day one it was a business, and one that needed to make a profit to survive. His dedication to hard work was self-evident. He had two casual workers to help with the annual back-breaking task of pruning the vines, of which he undertakes a third himself, commencing in January and completed by the end of March. David does not use insecticides on the vines or weed-killers between the vine rows and attempts to keep the growing process as natural as possible. He says he’s become gradually accepted by the other local growers but there can be squabbles between vineyard owners about land and their individual rights but he has managed to steer clear of any spats and appears happy with his lot.
We dare to hope that most of us we will never experience such a shattering event as seeing an aircraft deliberately flying into a tower block and killing thousands of people. God forbid. But people everywhere decide to make life-changes. It can be triggered by a health scare when one realises that one’s own mortality is suddenly threatened. Others do it because their working life has become intolerable or perhaps a relationship has broken down irrevocably. The common theme is that they simply want to throw everything up in the air and strike out do something entirely different.
With the availability of world-travel at our fingertips and the end of ‘jobs-for-life’ employment prospects, we live in an environment where having a portfolio career is seen as quite normal. Lots of young people are adventure-seekers, others simply like the laid-back lifestyle of a lower cost of living environment available in places like southern Asia. I remember being astonished when talking to a London cabbie a few years ago, he told me he spent six months of the year with his Thai-bride out east and the other six months being a London taxi driver. What his Thai wife did when he was back in Blighty I have no idea. To him it was as normal as having a week at Clacton. And when you consider how many thousands of Brits who have upped sticks and gone to live permanently in Spain or have set up bars and cafés in that country, we see around us an exodus of change.
In comparison with only thirty years ago, our lives have become more frenetic, pressurised and uncertain and so this desire for change, I believe, is set to continue. Whether we can make such a successful transformation as David the IT specialist turned acknowledged wine producer, I cannot predict, but nevertheless, and he is an inspiration to anyone saying, enough is enough!