Amy Reeve 19 Jul 2018 11:32am

Rich pickings

Having taken over the reins from her parents, Tamara Roberts is dedicated to growing the family wine business at home and abroad. She tells Amy Reeve why she sees a sparkling future

Caption: Photography: Julian Anderson
When Michael Ellis MP paid a visit to a vineyard in Kent during English Wine Week in June it was, of course, raining. The parliamentary undersecretary of state for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport put up his umbrella and braved the inclement weather to meet businesses in the county, which are collaborating to help promote England’s £132m wine industry and boost wine tourism by attracting international visitors to the region.

Tamara Roberts is based in the picturesque South Downs in East Sussex rather than the garden of England. But she knows all about industry teamwork, wet weather, and diversifying to help scale a business because, as CEO (and FD, and sometime COO) of Ridgeview Wine Estate, that’s her patch too. Readers with a memory for names will recognise Roberts and Ridgeview. In April 2014 Mike Roberts MBE, who with his wife, Chris, started Ridgeview, told economia magazine how a dream of owning a vineyard had grown into a profitable business specialising in sparkling wine.

“When we started, we voted on whether we should stay small, or really go for it, and we decided on the latter,” he said. Mike sadly passed away in November that year but his daughter, Tamara and her brother Simon are chips off the old block. Working with their respective partners, their ambitions are high for the family business, which is “squeezing towards £2.5m turnover this year”.

Their parents’ enterprising spirit must have rubbed off then? “It does, you get used to a certain way of things being done,” says Roberts. “Simon and I have always lived in an environment where people are not afraid to say ‘let’s do this’. Although my father appeared to be a risk taker, every risk he took was calculated and measured. I think that’s rubbed off. Nothing’s done on a whim, it’s done with hard fact and evidence, but we’re not afraid to stick our necks out.

We’ve always been like that, pushing, wanting more and taking people with us. We’re involved with everything that’s going on in the industry.” Not in a sticky beak way, however: Roberts says the sector is especially collaborative. “Whether that’s joint marketing initiatives, lobbying Defra [the Department for Food and Rural Affairs], or sharing knowledge. How we approach export, for example, means a united front is much more effective, efficient, and cost effective.”

They’re not too proud to look at the practices of their overseas competitors for inspiration or best practice either. But it’s a two-way street, claims Roberts. She says viticulturalists from New Zealand and winemakers from France are coming to England because they’re “intrigued and interested” by what’s going on in the country. Sparkling wine, Ridgeview’s forte, is a particularly promising growth area. According to Decanter’s Andrew Jefford, English vineyards are now frequently producing “complete and assured” sparkling wines, enough to win them “classic status in the decades and centuries ahead”. In a 2016 study commissioned by retailer and merchant Laithwaite’s Wine, Professor Mark Maslin and Lucien Georgeson from University College London looked at the average temperature and rainfall conditions required for growing different grape varieties in Britain and at likely shifts in climate to map changes in British viticulture over the next 85 years. Large areas of the UK – including Essex, the east of England and even Edinburgh – could become wine producing regions by 2100, they said.

Wishful thinking, perhaps, but there’s no harm contemplating how an already vibrant industry could contribute further to the UK economy under the right circumstances. Sustainable growth demands the right choices from the outset, cautions Roberts. Winemaking is more science than art, so you’ve got to know all about climate; rainfall; geology – “the South and North Downs are these two big lumps of chalk that go underneath the Channel and pop up again in the basin of Champagne”; the soil; the aspect; frost risks; drainage; and then the plants themselves. “There’s an awful lot of choice before you get to that final decision of what you’re going to plant and where.” And it doesn’t end there. This business is not for the faint-hearted.

It requires time – “you’re investing up front by five to six years for production down the line” – fortitude, passion and a sympathetic bank manager, as financial fragility is normal: a tough harvest will raise costs and cut wine production. And yields are tight in England. “At one of our key vineyards we can achieve about nine tonnes per hectare,” says Roberts. “That’s a pretty good yield compared to average Champagne yields of between 10 to 15 tonnes per hectare. That’s why the cost of making English sparkling wine is higher than Champagne.”

The business model is completely alien to traditional thinking, believes Roberts. “If you’re talking to a bank and how they look at the balance sheet, it doesn’t work. Clydesdale Bank has taken great strides to try to understand the business and supported us to help us finance stock, which most banks would run a mile from. We had a supportive manager at NatWest prior to that, who is now my NED after leaving the bank.” Anyone thinking of entering the industry, or diversifying into it – a farmer, say – should leave whimsy at the door. “People need to be cautious, particularly if they’re looking to do their own branding,” advises Roberts.

“There are certain models that work better than others. If you just want to grow grapes, my advice is before you even plant those vines, get a contract with someone who will take them because the winemaking capacity isn’t expanding as quickly as the growing. Unless someone is going to make a big facility to take the grapes, I don’t know where some of this is going to go. Creating a brand and selling it is a whole different game. It’s very competitive,” she says. Then there’s the red tape – “anything to do with alcohol is highly regulated” – and the potential repercussions of Brexit. Keeping on top of the regulatory requirements is “time consuming and costly”, says Roberts. She understands the need, but would like to see a bit more finesse.

“Take food safety: food covers anything from us making some wine to creating a chicken pie. The regulations tend to be the same while the risk is very different to the consumer.” Still, the industry has the ear of Defra now, says Roberts, which helps with practicalities such as planning. The outcome of Brexit, on the other hand, is difficult to predict, although Roberts isn’t particularly alarmed. “I can’t see any short-term issues if we roll on with the legal framework we have. We use a lot of labour and use companies that bring labour in to work on the vineyards, so we’ve been talking to them and the NFU. At the moment nobody is flagging a major issue.” Uncertainty is a business owner’s worst nightmare.

To compensate, Roberts uses the skills she’s honed as a chartered accountant. She did a law degree but realised accountancy would give her broader scope and qualified in 1998 with PwC. She says the ACA has been invaluable for running a growing business, which currently numbers around 30 staff, although she also uses networking group The Supper Club to get broader leadership advice.

“All the training you get with a firm like PwC, every single part of it helps. Then it’s important not to be too insular, to sit down CEO-to-CEO and listen and see how others are coping with similar issues. ” S o long as the family is engaged and happy, says Roberts, they will keep pushing for growth. And scale is important in this business, as she explains: “Your yields can be very up and down across the years. In Champagne they’ll use reserves to create their non-vintage blends, so they’ll use reserves from big years to augment those smaller years, then you have a consistent supply.

There are ways of getting round the weather but you have to be a certain scale.” What sort of scale, I wonder? “You have to be a serious commercial producer. What you’re basically saying is, I’m not going to bottle something this year to save for two to three years time. You’ve got to the point where you’re comfortable with your sales and your cost to be able to do that.” If they’re not at that point yet, they are trying other things to expand the business, the most significant of which is probably export and diversification into events and accommodation on the estate. She says key markets at the moment are the US – “we’re in about 13 or 14 states” – as well as Scandinavia, Japan, Taiwan and Canada.

“Again, one of our issues is we don’t have surplus stock to grow markets at a very fast rate; we’re allocating our stock out to each and every customer, so there is control in that area that we’ll build on in the future.” They’re making the most of the Made in Britain marque, she adds. “With British products there’s an expectation that it will be high quality. We must never forget that on export. If the quality is there, which at the moment it is with English sparkling wine, we need to keep it.” Of course there are some who still scoff at the quality of English wine, but the competition results don’t lie.

“I can’t think of a year where we’ve made a wine that’s not come up to the standard we would expect,” she says. “Occasionally we don’t make as much as we’d like because yield can be affected, but the quality is always excellent. The wines are marked as good quality in the competitive environment that we’re in.”

They’re also relying on the current consumer appetite for provenance to boost excitement. If the product is good and you capture the imagination of a few people then you suddenly start to see the ball rolling, Roberts says. “Wine comes from somewhere. You can go and see and look and feel where. Wine has never not been about that, whether you’re buying a French Bordeaux or an English sparkling wine, you know where it’s come from, the sense of place.

That’s really important in terms of provenance and authenticity. It’s not something where you can just turn a tap on and make more.” Much as they might want to sometimes. And it’s perhaps in this area that Ridgeview needs some more of that collaboration. “It’s a complicated marketplace, the sparkling wine market, because at one end you have Prosecco and at the other the top end vintage Champagne, so the price points can range from some Cavas at around £5 a bottle up to thousands of pounds.

We as an industry need to invest much more in marketing what we are. That will come with time as we become more profitable and the investment becomes more structured in the industry.” In the meantime, they’ll get on with doing what they do best. “There are things going on in the background that will come to fruition in the next few years – product development, accommodation. It’s constant innovation and change and looking at which parts of the business we can improve on. Never just sitting there and saying ‘that’s a good job done’.”