A LIFE UN­CORKED

A hands-on ap­proach and abil­ity to adapt has made Jack and Mar­garet Reckitt’s wine­mak­ing ven­ture in Tarn a suc­cess. James Har­ring­ton re­veals how they swapped their City jobs for a life among the vines

Living France - - Contents - clos­ro­cailleux.com

Read one couple’s story of swap­ping city life in Lon­don for a new one mak­ing wine in Tarn

Abad back was the slightly un­ex­pected rea­son that Jack and Mar­garet Reckitt gave to ex­plain their de­ci­sion to give up their suc­cess­ful lives in the UK in favour of be­com­ing hands-on wine­mak­ers in south­west France.

For­mer in­surance un­der­writer Jack, 56, and com­mer­cial lawyer Mar­garet, 53, left their Lon­don lives be­hind in 2012 to take over a small unloved vine­yard in the lit­tle-known Gail­lac wine re­gion, not far from the UNESCO World Her­itage-listed epis­co­pal city of Albi in the south-west depart­ment of Tarn.

The planned change of life­style was wel­comed by the sur­geon who op­er­ated on Jack – he told the couple that he would have been more wor­ried if his pa­tient had re­turned to his old life as an in­surance un­der­writer in the City. “I had a re­ally bad back that stemmed from my rugby-play­ing days. It was agony,” says Jack, be­fore adding, “I had to stop work to fo­cus on get­ting my back sorted. I was also giv­ing a bit of thought to what we wanted to do to­gether go­ing for­wards. We weren’t see­ing a lot of each other as we were lead­ing fairly busy lives.”

A NEW DI­REC­TION

Although Jack and Mar­garet wanted a dif­fer­ent pace of life, they didn’t want to stop work­ing al­to­gether. “We didn’t want to re­tire,” says Jack. “I did a bit of re­search and saw this course at Plump­ton Col­lege in viti­cul­ture. I signed up for a two-year course, which then cul­mi­nated in a Bach­e­lor of Sci­ence de­gree.”

At the end of the course’s first year, Jack had an op­er­a­tion to cor­rect his back

prob­lems. It was his last chance. Be­fore the surgery, he strug­gled to walk to his car, and the Reckitts feared that – even though the op­er­a­tion was a com­plete suc­cess – the med­i­cal ad­vice would pre­vent them from start­ing over as vint­ners. “We asked the sur­geon, ‘If we did this, would that be aw­ful?’, ex­pect­ing him to tell us it would be a ter­ri­ble thing to do,” re­mem­bers Jack. “But he said, ‘No. Ac­tu­ally, I’d be more wor­ried if you went back to work and sat at a desk all day.’” Mar­garet adds: “When the op­er­a­tion worked, it was like a mir­a­cle, so we said to each other, ‘Right – what do we do with this?’ There was no point just car­ry­ing on with our old lives. You don’t know what’s round the cor­ner, so you might as well do some­thing dif­fer­ent.” Even af­ter the de­ci­sion was made, the se­cret wine­mak­ing cor­ner of France that is Gail­lac was not a fore­gone con­clu­sion for the Reckitts’ new lives. Af­ter com­plet­ing his de­gree, Jack headed to Napa Val­ley in Cal­i­for­nia for a four-month in­tern­ship. He was joined by Mar­garet, who had de­cided that the Amer­i­can part of the ad­ven­ture was the ideal time to start out on their new life as vi­gnerons-in-wait­ing.

Af­ter the in­tern­ship, the couple toured wine re­gions in South Amer­ica, New Zealand and Aus­tralia, be­fore they re­turned to Europe.

CLOSE TO HOME

“We spent a year trav­el­ling, and wine gave us a nice theme to the trip,” says Mar­garet. But, while the couple en­joyed their ad­ven­ture, Jack re­veals that the New World was never re­ally an op­tion. “Re­al­is­ti­cally, we were never re­ally go­ing to set up out­side Europe. We wanted to stay close to fam­ily. Aus­tralia and New Zealand are lovely coun­tries, but they are a long way from the UK.”

Mar­garet agrees that prox­im­ity to the UK was im­por­tant. “Both our mums were alive at the time, so we’d have been in trou­ble if we’d moved much fur­ther away!”

The Reckitts nar­rowed their search first to Italy and France, and de­cided that – although France is no­to­ri­ous for its bu­reau­cracy – it was prob­a­bly more straight­for­ward to do busi­ness there. “No one ever gets to grips with French

“There was no point car­ry­ing on with our old lives. You don’t know what’s round the cor­ner, so you might as well do some­thing dif­fer­ent”

bu­reau­cracy,” Jack jokes, but adds that they re­ceived a lot of wel­come help from lo­cal wine pro­duc­ers and as­so­ci­a­tions when they first ar­rived.

But first, there was the small mat­ter of find­ing the per­fect lo­ca­tion. “We looked in Langue­doc and in Aquitaine, but didn’t see any­thing that par­tic­u­larly struck us,” Jack says.

It was, Mar­garet says, “a com­plete fluke; a happy ac­ci­dent” that they stum­bled on Clos Ro­cailleux just out­side Andil­lac in ru­ral Tarn. She had en­joyed a hol­i­day in nearby his­toric Cordes-sur-Ciel more than 20 years pre­vi­ously, and as they were driv­ing past the area, they re­called that it was a beau­ti­ful part of the world.

So they de­cided to take a brief de­tour and spend a week in the re­gion. It was enough to con­vince them that they had fi­nally found ex­actly what they were look­ing for. Four years later, they are set­tled, and their busi­ness is go­ing from strength to strength.

Their award-win­ning wines are avail­able in the UK via red squir­rel wine. com and they run suc­cess­ful sum­mer vine­yard tours once a week be­tween June and Au­gust, fea­tur­ing tast­ings where the grapes that go into each wine are grown. “Peo­ple come, and if they like the wine, they will buy a few bot­tles,” says Mar­garet.

WINE VA­RI­ETIES

Tarn might not be as fa­mous as other wine­mak­ing re­gions, but it turned out

to be the ideal place to cre­ate the wine that the Reckitts wanted. “The thing that at­tracted us to Gail­lac was the grape va­ri­eties,” Jack says. “They’ve got grape va­ri­eties here that I’d never heard of such as Brau­col and Duras. “We saw a few places, in­clud­ing this place. We’re at about 300m, so the cli­mate’s a lit­tle cooler and the lime­stone soil is per­fect for grow­ing vines. Also, we’re deep in the coun­try­side, but we’re just an hour from Toulouse.” The lo­ca­tion is ideal for Mar­garet too. “We’re not iso­lated here. The French roads are so great; you can cover de­cent dis­tances quickly with­out it be­ing stress­ful or dif­fi­cult. You can get to Bordeaux, you can get to the coast or to the Pyrénées. It’s a great spot.” The lo­ca­tion, they dis­cov­ered, may have been just about per­fect, but the vine­yard was in need of more than a lit­tle TLC when the Reckitts first ar­rived. The sit­u­a­tion wasn’t dis­as­trous, but the work ahead would be long and ar­du­ous. They took pro­fes­sional ad­vice on the qual­ity of the vines be­fore buy­ing, and for­tu­nately the news was good, as Jack ex­plains. “The vines were in good nick and had good po­ten­tial,” he says.

HARD WORK

Get­ting the place up to stan­dard though was no easy feat, as Mar­garet ex­plains. “We bought it off a couple who had got di­vorced,” ex­plains Mar­garet. “It’s very dif­fi­cult to run the place, as he was try­ing to, on his own, and things had fallen by the way­side. There was one par­cel of land that had been com­pletely aban­doned. It took about 200 man-hours alone to get that half-hectare back into de­cent con­di­tion.

“It needed trel­lis­ing, it needed wires and all the vine­yard in­fra­struc­ture needed re­plac­ing. None of it was there. We’ve also re­placed the in­fra­struc­ture in other parcels, too,” says Mar­garet.

The couple had de­cided dur­ing their world wine tour that they wanted to be hands-on, outdoor vint­ners. It is, Mar­garet ex­plained, pos­si­ble to make wine with­out own­ing a vine by buy­ing grapes in from a sup­plier and mak­ing the wine from there. But they wanted to be in­volved in the en­tire process, from vine to bot­tle.

They em­ploy sea­sonal labour at key times of the year, but do the bulk of the work them­selves on their seven hectares. “We are tiny in vine­yard terms,” says Mar­garet. “One of the ben­e­fits of hav­ing the trip around the world was see­ing the dif­fer­ent way of mak­ing wines – and we

“We wanted to do ev­ery­thing: to grow the grapes and make the wine”

de­cided we wanted to do ev­ery­thing: grow the grapes and make the wine.

“If we had 30 hectares, for ex­am­ple, we wouldn’t do any of the phys­i­cal outdoor work our­selves – we’d be man­ag­ing the peo­ple do­ing the work.

“If you are much big­ger than 10 hectares, you need full-time help. We em­ploy peo­ple on a sea­sonal ba­sis, but we don’t have a per­ma­nent staff. We do 90% of the work our­selves,” she says be­fore adding, “It’s qui­eter dur­ing the win­ter be­cause the vines are dor­mant, but you still have to prune the vines. This year, to prune our 30,000-plus vines we started in the mid­dle of De­cem­ber and didn’t finish un­til the mid­dle of March be­cause the weather was so bad.”

The con­di­tions were so bad at the start of 2016, that in the end they had to brave the weather to en­sure that all the prun­ing was fin­ished in good time. “You still have to keep go­ing out and do­ing it be­cause oth­er­wise you’d never get any­thing done,” Mar­garet says.

The past few years have not of­fered the Reckitts time for re­flec­tion as they have been work­ing to bring their vine­yard back to life, but they would change very lit­tle.

“We’re not very re­flec­tive peo­ple, partly be­cause we’re so full-on,” Jack says. “We’ve learned so much in the past four years that it’s hard to say where we would stop and what would we tell our­selves?”

Mar­garet agrees that the ven­ture has been a learn­ing curve. “All the dis­ci­plines of mak­ing and mar­ket­ing and sell­ing wine are quite dif­fer­ent – and all re­quire fo­cus,” she says. “The way to run a vine­yard is to be a third-gen­er­a­tion vi­gneron who has in­her­ited the land from his father and who has four strap­ping sons! It’s a long-term busi­ness, ev­ery­thing takes a long time. We’ve al­ready or­dered vines for plant­ing in au­tumn 2017.”

But de­spite the hard graft, Jack says that they’ve come a long way. “The first year, we were run­ning around do­ing ev­ery­thing at the last minute be­cause we had so much to do, which is not very ef­fi­cient. We’re so much bet­ter at that sort of thing than we were. Once you’ve done things a few times and made mis­takes, you learn,” he says.

It’s clear that the couple’s hard work and en­thu­si­asm has made their new lives a suc­cess. I’ll drink to that!

This page: Jack and Mar­garet Reckitt toast their new life in Tarn

Fac­ing page: Clos Ro­cailleux; Jack ob­tained a de­gree in viti­cul­ture be­fore he bought the vine­yard; the small win­ery, sit­u­ated just out­side Andil­lac in Tarn, is sur­rounded by sprawl­ing coun­try­side

This page from top left: The Reckitts’ wine is avail­able to buy in the UK; the couple spent a year trav­el­ling be­fore mov­ing per­ma­nently to France; Jack sam­ples his lo­cal Gail­lac wine

Fac­ing page: Mar­garet and Jack do 90% of the work them­selves

From above: The couple run sum­mer vine­yard tours from June to Au­gust; Jack en­joys be­ing hands-on with all parts of the wine­mak­ing process

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