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
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.
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.
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